Welcome to Bookmarked, a weekly newsletter following my journey as I read one book from every country. If you’re enjoying my project, I’d love it if you shared Bookmarked with a friend.
Trifonia Melibea Obono’s La Bastarda is the first book by an Equatoguinean woman to be translated into English and is banned in Equatorial Guinea. The 88-page story follows Okomo, an orphaned teenager who befriends a group of “mysterious” girls and ultimately falls in love with their leader, challenging the traditional roles of gender and sexuality in Fang culture. Rich with symbolism, it is a powerful coming-of-age story, which explores what it’s like to be a ‘bastard’, a woman, and a lesbian, in a society that values none.
My mother got pregnant when she was nineteen and died while giving birth, her death brought about by witchcraft. From that moment I was declared a bastarda—a bastard daughter. I had been born before my father paid the dowry in exchange for my mother. That’s why society looked at me with contempt and people called me ‘the daughter of an unmarried Fang woman’ or ‘the daughter of no man’.
In Fang culture, girls are expected to reproduce as soon as they start to menstruate and men are considered useless if they do not impregnate their wives. These beliefs are enforced by a council of elders, including Okomo’s grandfather Barefoot Osá, who blame women for infertility and gay men for everything else, even a bad harvest. Following the death of her mother, Okomo is raised by her maternal grandparents, whose marriage is polygamous and plagued by jealousy. Okomo’s relationship with Barefoot Osá, and the gender hierarchy of their family, is explored through the particularly disgusting metaphor of Okomo being forced to cut his toenails, something she describes as having “hardened into [her] own personal burden.”
Okomo, somewhat of an outsider on account of not knowing her father, feels drawn to the people in her community who manage to rebel against its suffocating norms. She is especially close to her uncle Marcelo, a gay man who provokes outrage from his family when he refuses to conform to Fang expectation by having sex with his sister-in-law to ensure the continuation of his family’s lineage. His refusal to comply with his family’s wishes cause him to become estranged from them and go into hiding in the forest.
It is in this same forest that Okomo meets Dina, Pilar, and Linda, three girls who also reject the patriarchal expectations of the Fang people. Together these girls are known as “the Indecency Club” and they engage in joyful, consensual sex with one another. As Okomo secretly explores the possibilities of her own sexuality, experiencing freedom and acceptance for the first time, she confronts the linguistic issue that underpins the entire novel, asking her uncle: “If a man who is with another man is called a man-woman, what are women called who do the same?”
“There isn’t a word for it,” he replies. “It’s like you don’t exist.”
This conversation raises an interesting point about Fang language: while male homosexuality is understood through a pejorative term and gay men in La Bastarda are vilified; female homosexuality isn’t recognised and lesbians, at least initially, go unnoticed. At first Okomo and the Indecency Club make the most of this invisibility, exploring their sexuality without arousing much suspicion from their elders. But ultimately they cannot escape the effect that growing up in a violently homophobic society has on the way they perceive the world.
La Bastarda is a brief and extremely powerful exploration of gender and the right to your own sexuality. The book’s afterword, which is written by historian Abosede George, explores the linguistic diversity of Equatorial Guinea, and is especially enlightening. It’s a quick and hugely worthwhile read, which I can’t recommend highly enough.
La Bastarda by Trifonia Melibea Obono, tr. Lawrence Schimel (Feminist Press, 2018 / Flores Raras, 2016)
More books by Equatoguinean authors
Here’s a list of the other recommendations I received this week:
By Night the Mountains Burn by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel, tr. Jethro Soutar
The Gurugu Pledge by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel, tr. Jethro Soutar
Shadows of Your Black Memory by Donato Ndongo, tr Michael Ugarte
What have you read recently?
If you’ve read a brilliant book in translation or want to pass on a recommendation, I’d love to hear about it! For this project, I’m focussing on contemporary fiction and short stories, with a preference for female authors—but I won’t be too dogmatic about it so do share recommendations that don’t quite fit the bill, too.
You can get in touch by replying to this email or leaving a comment. I’ll be featuring your recommendations in upcoming newsletters, and I’ll keep a growing list here.
Bookmarked is written by Tabatha Leggett. Thanks to Lawrence Schimel for this issue’s recommendations. If you know someone who would enjoy this newsletter, please forward it to them!