Trying to find English translations of books from every country in the world has presented a few challenges. For Comoros, for example, no book was available, but I was able to obtain a file containing an informal translation of a novel from someone who had met the book’s author. More often, though, the problem is that there is only one author from a particular country who has had a book translated into English.
I assumed that, like everyone else who’s doing a similar project, I would be reading Shadows of Your Black Memory, by Donato Ndongo, for Equatorial Guinea. No disrespect to Mr. Ndongo, but I didn’t want to just read the same book everyone else was reading. Also, I’m making a conscious effort to read more books by women. You can imagine my delight, then, when I heard last April that Lawrence Schimel’s translation of Trifonia Melibea Obono’s La Bastarda had been published. Not only was it a new option for Equatorial Guinea, but it featured gay and lesbian characters, which have not been represented in any of the other books I’ve read for this blog.
La Bastarda is the story of Okomo, a sixteen-year-old girl living in a small village in Equatorial Guinea. Her mother died giving birth to her, and she doesn’t know her father, who never paid the bride price for her mother, which would have legitimized their relationship. Therefore, Okomo is a bastarda – bastard daughter – completely dependent on her maternal grandparents. Her grandmother is eager to marry her off, preferable to a rich man who can help out with the family finances, so she makes her put makeup on, braid her hair, and wear revealing clothes. Okomo isn’t comfortable with any of that.
Okomo is very close to her Uncle Marcelo, and doesn’t understand why her grandparents and the rest of the villagers hold him in such disdain, calling him a man-woman. She develops friendships with three teenage girls who her grandmother considers “indecent and mysterious.” These girls are also very close to Okomo’s uncle, and during the course of events, Okomo comes to understand that her uncle is gay and the girls are lesbians. She develops an intimate relationship with one of the girls, Dina, and resists the efforts of her grandmother to fix her up with a man.
While being gay isn’t a crime in Equatorial Guinea, Okomo’s uncle gets blamed for every bad thing that happens in their village – the local people think he’s a curse. At one point, he barely escapes with his life when they burn down his house, and he flees into the forest. Okomo and Dina visit him there one day, and they meet his lover, Jesusin. The four of them talk about how a gay man may be ridiculed as being a man-woman, but gay women don’t have a name at all. “If you don’t have a name, you’re invisible, and if you’re invisible, you can’t claim any rights,” explains Jesusin.
The book’s afterword, by history professor Abosede George, delves a little deeper into the issues confronting members of the LGBTI community in Africa. She says that conventional wisdom has always held that “…being properly African, and thus in conformity with community norms, was to be reproductive.” To be gay is often thought to be Un-African.
Writing La Bastarda was an act of bravery on the part of the author. Equatorial Guinea responded by banning the book.
When Okomo and Dina go visit Marcelo and Jesusin, they are given something to eat. “They served us vegetables. They lived in the middle of the forest, surrounded by animals, but refused to hunt them.” Professor George elaborates on this in her afterword, suggesting that their vegetarianism is a critique of heterosexual excess.
“In Marcelo’s home, taking up a new life in the forest entails becoming vegetarian.
Surrounded by forest creatures, they refuse to eat meat. In this last commentary on
death, life, sustainability, and consumption, the story contrasts the cycles of life in
the forest with the cycles of violence in the village. Marcelo, Okomo, and their free
tribe of the forest will consume in new ways, finding their nourishment without the
need to kill others.”
When I searched Google for recipes for this blog post, I found a website called “National Foods of the World,” which listed the national dish of Equatorial Guinea as succotash. With Okomo’s words, “they served us vegetables,” still in my mind, succotash seemed like the perfect dish to make. The recipe at nationalfoods.org calls for bacon, which I omitted, and butter, for which I substituted Earth Balance spread. This isn’t quite your grandma’s succotash, since it contains cherry tomatoes, red wine vinegar, and various herbs, but it will probably taste familiar.
There were no projects listed for Equatorial Guinea at GlobalGiving.org, so I had to look elsewhere for a place to send my donation. It wasn’t easy to find a nonprofit organization offering services in Equatorial Guinea, but I finally found the Global Campaign for Education, a U.S.-based organization that promotes education as a basic human right. This is a coalition-member organization, consisting of more than eighty nonprofit groups. One such organization, Simply Equal Education, was started by two young women who spent a semester abroad studying in Equatorial Guinea. During that time, they volunteered in a primary school and learned a great deal about barriers to education. The Global Campaign for Education serves countries all over the world, but I designated my donation for use in Equatorial Guinea. More information about the Global Campaign for Education is available at http://campaignforeducationusa.org/.
NEXT STOP: ERITREA