In the first English-translated novel written by an Equatorial Guinean woman, journalist and political scientist Trifonia Melibea Obono tells the captivating story of Okomo, an orphan in search of her father—and herself.
I hope readers find resonance in this coming of age story, and also that it helps create awareness for the culture and history of Spanish-speaking Africa.“I was shocked that this is the first novel by a woman writer from Equatorial Guinea to be published in English,” Lawrence Schimel—award-winning author, anthologist, and translator of Obono’s La Bastarda—told CASSIUS. “Naively, I had hoped we might be beyond the era where ‘firsts’ of such a kind were still happening or possible. But there is still, alas, so much work to be done.”
The novel, which drops via the Feminist Press on April 17, is already being called “an invaluable contribution to lesbian and gay literary culture.”
For this week’s installment of Book Ends, we briefly spoke to Schimel about his experience making La Bastarda accessible to an English-speaking audience, preserving the Black voice, as well as the story’s significance within the Trump era.
CASSIUS: How did the opportunity to translate La Bastarda come about?
Lawrence Schimel: As I mentioned recently on a panel about “Translating Blackness,” of the nearly 100 books I’ve translated so far, I’ve never been commissioned to translate a work by a Black author. Those have always been projects I’ve had to push for to find homes for them. But I think that one of the responsibilities I have is precisely to use whatever agency I have to advocate for and amplify those voices which otherwise aren’t being heard. This is work I do with my own writing—especially my children’s books—in my work as a translator, and in my work as a publisher.
I run a small press, A Midsummer Night’s Press, which in 2014 started an imprint, Periscope, devoted to publishing poetry by women writers in translation into English. The two previous years, everything translated into English in the US, from all languages, in all genres (fiction, poetry, non-fiction), only 26% were by women writers. And the percentage of those few women writers who did make it into translation who were women of color is even smaller, alas. The press has also published The Collected Works of Pat Parker and Cheryl Clarke’s Living As a Lesbian as part of the Sapphic Classics series we co-publish with the magazine Sinister Wisdom. We’ve just published our first non-poetry title, Sister Love: The Letters of Audre Lorde and Pat Parker, edited by Julie R. Enszer.
On the more practical level, I know the publisher of the Spanish publishing house that published La Bastarda (there is no publishing in Equatorial Guinea; everything must be published abroad) and asked if I could try and find a home for the book in English. I translated a chapter into English for the online magazine Words Without Borders and then used that as the sample to interest publishers in the book. Lauren Hook, my editor at the Feminist Press, is able to read Spanish, so I gave her a copy of the book when we met in Frankfurt, and she loved it and used the sample to convince her team to get on board behind the project.
C.: Was it challenging to translate this story while preserving Trifonia Melibea Obono’s voice?
L.S.: It was indeed a challenge, for a number of reasons. Given the colonial history of Equatorial Guinea, Spanish as spoken there often sounds like outdated Iberian Spanish, slightly old-fashioned. So we didn’t want the narrator’s voice to be too modernized in English, full of contractions and “likes” or other verbal tics that would make her sound American.
I was also very aware of being a white American male, even if a gay man, translating a Black, African woman writer, and the layers of power dynamics involved in that.
C.: What did you learn while translating La Bastarda, either from the novel or the experience of translating the book itself?
L.S.: The novel is a j’accuse of Equatorial Guinean society and the way it treats women, and often men as well, as different characters challenge the patriarchal, polygamous Fang culture. I learned a lot of details of Equatorial Guinean society from the book, which is of course a novel and not reportage. I’ve also researched to discover a lot of details about Equatorial Guinea as a result of translating or having translated the book, like the fact that there are neither bookshops nor publishing houses in the country—a direct result of the dictatorship. Or even how complicated it can be for Melibea to get access to internet in order to answer emails or WhatsApp messages.
C.: Can you briefly talk about the significance of this story being translated into English during the Trump era, and why it’s important this story is accessible to English-speaking readers?
L.S.: I think that some of the struggles presented by characters in Margaret Atwood’s dystopian The Handmaid’s Tale are perhaps not that distant from the reality faced by the characters in La Bastarda, which looks at the present instead of an imagined future. In both, women are subjected to male ownership and control and other women are complicit in maintaining this unjust system.
I hope readers find resonance in this coming of age story, and also that it helps create awareness for the culture and history of Spanish-speaking Africa. In the US, we tend to have access to the francophone and lusophone stories of Africa, and of course those written in English—and almost none from the non-colonial African languages—with many people unaware that there is even a Spanish-speaking country in Africa. How does this literature fit in the cannon of Iberoamerican literature? Of African literature? I was shocked that this is the first novel by a woman writer from Equatorial Guinea to be published in English. Naively, I had hoped we might be beyond the era where “firsts” of such a kind were still happening or possible. But there is still, alas, so much work to be done.
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