Book of the month: Trifonia Melibea Obono

August is Women in Translation month. This is an excellent initiative started in 2014 by blogger Meytal Radzinski to highlight the fact that less than a third of the books translated into English each year are written by women. As I realised when I totted up my numbers a couple of years ago, my quest broadly reflected the gender imbalance in publishing in 2012 – only 27 per cent of the books I read that year were by female authors.

As a result, I welcome the continued efforts of bloggers like Radzinski to bring translated work by women to wider audiences and am pleased to see a new reading women writers worldwide project by journalist Sophie Baggott getting off to a flying start. For my own small contribution to the cause, I read only work by women in August.

This year has seen some great additions to the anglophone global bookshelf, including several fascinating reads from underrepresented countries and languages. Examples include Soviet Milk by Nora Ikstena, translated from the Latvian by Margita Gailitis, and Celestial Bodies by Omani author Jokha Alharthi, translated from the Arabic by Marilyn Booth.

My pick for this month, however, comes not only from a little represented country, but from a minority perspective in that nation. La Bastarda by Trifonia Melibea Obono, translated from the Spanish by Lawrence Schimel, is not only the first novel by a woman from Equatorial Guinea to be translated into the world’s most published language, but it is also one of the few LGBTQ African novels to have come onto my radar.

The story follows the coming of age of Okomo, a motherless girl who sets out to try to find her father, and in the process discovers some challenging truths about herself and her traditional Fang culture. As she becomes aware of her desires and of the way that people like her and her Uncle Marcelo – a ‘fan e mina’ or ‘man-woman’ – stand outside society’s norms, the protagonist is pushed towards a deeper understanding of the impulses that drive her and the forces that have shaped the world in which she must find a place.

The novel provides fascinating insights into a way of life that feels far removed from Western urban culture. With its glimpses of Fang traditions – including the belief that women can prove their femininity by handling hot pots without cloths and the expectations surrounding polygamous marriages – it will offer rich material for readers hungry for details of places they might never visit in person. The presentation of the LGBTQ elements of the story is also striking. (‘There isn’t a word for it. It’s like you don’t exist,’ explains Uncle Marcelo to Okomo, although translator Schimel does opt to include the English term ‘lesbian’ later in the book.)*

Yet some of the narrative’s most memorable and often funny moments have a ring of universality to them too. Okomo’s grandfather’s misogynistic ramblings about the suitable behaviour of young girls, for example, and her grandmother’s attempts to manipulate her younger relatives feel instantly recognisable. Okomo also displays a deadpan humour that would be authentic in the mouth of a teenager anywhere.

At times, the book almost feels like a fable or fairy tale. Recalling some of the fantastic elements of By Night the Mountain Burns, as well as the Nigerian classic The Palm-Wine Drinkard, the narrative takes flight when Okomo ventures into the forest, a place where restrictive rules fall away and she is free to be herself. As Abosede George writes in her thoughtful Afterword, this use of the setting confronts common claims that LGBTQ issues are ‘unAfrican’ by rooting these characters and their relationships in the soil.

There is no hiding the fact that this book requires work from anglophone readers. Its perspective and cultural references will inevitably have a distancing effect for many. In addition, the differences in approaches to pacing, repetition and taboos may mean a lot of Western readers find the narrative leaping forward when they expect more build up and circling back when they are impatient to press ahead. Characters may also appear coy and blunt by turns as their mores clash with anglophone norms.

Most of these issues, however, have more to do with many English-language readers’ limitations – reinforced by the prevailing trends in publishing – than with La Bastarda itself. It is a significant book. The more such stories we read, the better we will learn to understand them.

La Bastarda by Trifonia Melibea Obono, translated from the Spanish by Lawrence Schimel (Feminist Press, 2018)

Picture: ‘Bioko_2010_1891‘ by NathanaelStanek on flickr.com

*After I wrote this review, translator Lawrence Schimel explained to me that the Spanish word ‘lesbiana’ is present in two places in the book, hence his inclusion of the English term. There is no word for lesbian in the Fang language. Apparently, the way to approach this was a source of considerable discussion during the editing process.

Book of the month: Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel

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Since finishing my year of reading the world, I’ve been delighted to find that booklovers around the planet have kept in contact and still send me recommendations of good reads. It’s always a pleasure to hear of tempting books, but I’m particularly delighted when I come across a new translation from a country that I know to have very little literature available in English. Consequently, when I heard that innovative independent publisher And Other Stories was bringing out By Night the Mountain Burns by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel from Equatorial Guinea, I was thrilled.

As far as I have been able to discover, this book is the second commercially available translation of literature from the country (the first being Donato Ndongo’s Shadows of Your Black Memory, which I read for my project). The reasons for this lack are various (and in some ways the situation is quite typical of French-, Portuguese- and, in this case, Spanish-speaking African nations, most of which have very little literature in translation), however the fraught political situation in Equatorial Guinea made bringing this book to the Anglophone market particularly difficult, as translator Jethro Soutar explained in an article for the Guardian earlier this year. So when my copy arrived, looking striking with its elegant cover design, I couldn’t wait to get stuck in.

Set on the remote island of Annobón off the coast of Equatorial Guinea, the novel explores the childhood memories of its nameless narrator. It charts his recollections of growing up in his eccentric grandfather’s house and in a society fuelled by the competing imperatives of superstition and the need to secure goods and favours from passing ships. Punctuated by a series of catastrophic events that shape the community and the narrator’s own way of thinking, the narrative examines storytelling, memory and the way we reconcile ourselves with the events, beliefs and customs that made us who we are.

In many ways, this book is an ideal candidate for translation. Because its narrator grew up in a bilingual society, moving between the vernacular and the formal Spanish-language world of school, and because he now lives away from the island, he is a natural-born go-between. Whether he is unpicking the practicalities of cutting the dates from palm trees, explaining the relative significance of Christian terminology in his mother tongue and learned language, or unravelling the beliefs behind the ostracization of she-devils (known by their penchant for nighttime sea bathing), Ávila Laurel gives him a knack for making the unfamiliar plain.

Constantly questioning, evaluating, musing and challenging, the narrator draws the reader in with a compelling hybrid style that (as he reveals towards the end of the book) blends his own recollections with the island’s oral tradition. At times, he asks our opinion on the events of the story; at others he deflates those he portrays with dry wit. When the narrative takes a turn for the shocking, his tone is disconcertingly direct, with some passages recalling the monologues of an analysand on the therapist’s couch as he returns again and again to past traumas, searching for the key to unlock their meaning.

There are fantastical descriptions that might tempt the reader to reach for the term ‘magical realism’. And there are even occasions when the narrator assumes a schoolmasterly tone: ‘Does anyone know how you get the half-formed canoe to the shore from the bush it lies in?’ he asks at one point, so that for an instant we seem to be children sitting in a circle round him, agog as he spins his tale.

In the same way, the narrative plays with print conventions, eschewing chapter markers for occasional breaks in the storytelling and, at one point, even recording the number of victims to die in the island’s cholera epidemic with a series of crosses printed in the middle of a paragraph.

As a result, the book makes for a challenging read in the best sense of the word. Leaping between registers, tenses and episodes, with long digressions and whimsical catastrophisations and speculations interrupting proceedings, this novel (if that is the right term for it) divests readers of their preconceptions. Those looking for a conventional, three-act plot with a protagonist, an inciting incident and everything tied up neatly at the end will not find it here.

Instead, what you get is a lyrical evocation of quite another world, with plenty to chuckle at and be troubled by along the way. Thronged with suspected sorceresses and a sense of the supernatural, this book weaves a kind of magic. Abandon any assumptions you might have about what a story is at the title page and dive right in.

By Night the Mountain Burns (Arde el monte de noche) by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel, translated from the Spanish by Jethro Soutar (And Other Stories, 2014).

Equatorial Guinea: public service announcement

We interrupt this blog to bring you a public service announcement: libraries are in trouble and I’m beginning to realise why. In the first five months of A Year of Reading the World, I’ve noticed a worrying trend. Many of the second-hand books I’ve ordered for this project have turned out to be copies that have been withdrawn from libraries around the UK. Sometimes that’s because the library itself is closing, but more often than not it’s clear from the smattering of date stamps on the fly-leaf that it’s because these largely excellent translations from remote corners of the globe are rarely borrowed and read.

All the same, nothing could have prepared me for what happened when I opened Donato Ndongo’s Shadows of Your Black Memory to find a sticker as blank and pristine as the day the book first appeared on the shelves at Grangetown Library. This novel, written in a small African nation that has yet to build its first bookshop, painstakingly translated by Michael Ugarte because of his admiration for it, and picked out by some unknown visionary person in Cardiff Council Library Service to be made freely available to the people of Wales, had not been borrowed once. [Since publishing this post I have had confirmation from Cardiff Council that they no longer stamp library books, however the pristine condition of the book made it clear that it had been read very little if at all.]

Set during the last year of Spanish rule in Equatorial Guinea, the novel reveals the thoughts of a young African as he traces the story of his attraction to and eventual rejection of the priesthood and the Roman Catholic Church. Held up as the great white hope of his community and his Spanish missionary mentors alike, the protagonist is forced to confront the damaging influence that colonialism and religion developed in an alien cultural framework have had on him and his nation. This, he discovers, is the only way he can ever hope to find some kind of lasting independence and peace.

Ndongo’s presentation of his hero’s internalisation of the political struggles that grip his country is extraordinary. Raw, vivid and shocking, his frank portrayal of the tortured emotional, sexual and intellectual development of the young man speaks eloquently, particularly when it comes to the self-loathing engendered in him as he tries to espouse the creeds and value systems of his country’s colonial rulers:

‘I identified with the martyrs’ early sufferings, a little like mine but infinitely more sublime, and I so yearned to have their faith, integrity, constancy, because more than anything, I wanted to be like them; yet I couldn’t, I would never be. In the soul of a little black boy like me, an animal in the wild, the vices of my primitive race were locked in, just as Father Amadeo had told me in confession’.

Ndongo further dramatises his hero’s wrestles with ‘the inexorable and inextricable absurdity of successive centuries’ in his use of language. The narrative roves restlessly back and forth between the first and second person reflecting the protagonist’s fractured sense of self, while the commencement of the book at ‘Chapter Zero’, in which he announces his intention to give up training for the priesthood, underlines the process of psychological unmaking and remaking he must go through simply to emerge as ‘a man among others’. Similarly, the way correspondence and speech are woven into the prose without the usual markers and separations emphasises the extent to which the protagonist internalises the expectations of those around him. By the end, I was left in no doubt that this was one of the most linguistically subtle, inventive and complex books I’ve read so far this year.

But back to that blank sticker. Fear not: this is not a lecture about using your local library. For one thing, I’m hardly in a position to talk – I haven’t taken a book out in more than two years. On an idealistic level, I believe that books should be available to everybody in libraries whether we take them out or not.

Sadly, though, we live in an era of cuts and quotas, where books that don’t get borrowed enough get banished and where libraries that don’t get used enough are closed. It’s the age-old law of supply and demand and it’s hard to argue against when you’ve got cancer care units in need of funds and schools teaching pupils in Portakabins.

I’m not sure what we do about it. Still, I can’t help being saddened at the thought of all these great books that have travelled through so many hands and minds to get to us sitting pristine and untouched in public buildings up and down the land. And I can’t help worrying that that bold person in the Cardiff Council Library Service will go for something a little closer to home when it’s time to choose the next round of titles. Or, worse, that he or she will decide not to bother getting more books at all.

Shadows of Your Black Memory by Donato Ndongo, translated from the Spanish by Michael Ugarte (Swan Isle Press, 2007)