© 1999 by CNN
"Guatemalan author defends life story--but hints critics may be right"
MEXICO CITY (CNN)--Guatemalan Indian activist Rigoberta Menchu denounced those who have questioned the life story that helped her win a Nobel Peace Prize, but hinted Wednesday that the book could be--as they suggest--a historical composite rather than an autobiography. "I still haven't written my autobiography," she said at a Mexico City news conference. "What you have is a testimonial. I never found anything (in the book by anthropologist David Stoll) that denies my kin are dead, and that is my truth," she told journalists.
Menchu said Wednesday she had to rely on verbal accounts of what happened to her family because the whereabouts of her parents' and brothers' bodies was not known. The Times article said a reporter had interviewed Menchu's brother Nicolas, although she had written he was dead. Menchu said she had had two brothers named Nicolas, since Indian parents often gave the same name to several siblings. "If it is an expert that speaks, he should know by now that in our families, we have a Nicolas I, Nicolas II," she said. Menchu also denied reports that she had enrolled in a private boarding school, saying she worked as a maid at the school. In her book, Menchu said she had received no formal education. She said she omitted mentioning the nuns who gave her literacy classes to avoid making them targets of retribution during the war.
"I was a survivor, alone in the world, who had to convince the world to look at the atrocities committed in my homeland," Rigoberta Menchu said. She asked her New York audience to instead focus attention on the need to investigate and prosecute the massacres, kidnappings and widespread torture during Guatemala's 36-year civil war. "The book that is being questioned is a testimonial that mixes my personal testimony and the testimony of what happened in Guatemala," she said. "The book that is being questioned is not my biography."
But Menchu suggested exactly what Stoll claimed--that her story represented a composite of the lives of Indians who suffered through Guatemala's 36-year civil war. She spoke of "collective memory" and said her book presented an accurate view of life in wartime Guatemala. "I have a right to a historical memory, a right to my memory as a woman and as a Guatemalan," she said. "My mother is dead. ... If she wasn't eaten by animals, let's investigate and maybe the mother who was eaten by animals is another Indian mother," Menchu said.
Stoll, in a telephone interview from Middlebury College in Vermont, said he had no quarrel with Menchu's response. "I never called her a liar," he said. "The book expresses 500 years of Native American experience in the eyes of a woman born in 1959. ... It can't be a literal truth." Francis Sejersted, chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, has said his group was aware of the criticisms of Menchu's autobiography and that they would have no effect on her prize.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.