Equatorial Guinean Literature: The Struggle Against State-Promoted Amnesia: The challenge for Equatorial Guinean writers and artists goes far beyond articulating their African-Hispanic identity: their works must also render the implications of a past, a present. and a future defined by local and global intersections.
Little known by many, the only Spanish-speaking sub-Saharan nation, Equatorial Guinea, is a symbolically charged space in world history. Between the fifteenth and the twentieth centuries, the territory was seized by the Portuguese, occupied by the British, and colonized by the Spaniards, even as the local cultures continually negotiated their survival. As the capitalist world-system developed, this area was a crossroads of political and economic interests associated with such "commodities" as enslaved Africans, cacao, and wood thus linking the history of this region to the socioeconomic systems of the Americas and Europe. Independent from Spain since 1968 and ruled by two brutal dictatorships in its postcolonial era, oil-rich Equatorial Guinea is still an important juncture in the world's economy.
Thanks in part to the discovery of oil in the 1990s, Teodoro Obiang, president since 1979, has maintained a powerful totalitarian regime that has done little toward improving the population's living standards, let alone building an infrastructure for the development of the arts. Human rights groups have documented that Equatorial Guinea is managed like a business owned by a small elite close to the president. As a result of this, while American and European oil companies drill off shore and deposit large sums in the private accounts of the president's clique, two-thirds of the population lives in poverty.
As is often the case with totalitarian regimes, Obiang's efforts to foster national pride manifest themselves through the maintenance of a personality cult--in this case woven into a postcolonial narrative that is superficial and historically hollow. The core of this discourse, put broadly, is this: with a coup d'etat in 1979, young Colonel Obiang heroically liberated the country from the ruthless dictatorship of his uncle, Francisco Macias Nguema (in power from 1968 to 1979). According to this storyline, Obiang and his party are to be commended for bringing wealth, democracy, freedom, and justice to the country. In addition--and this is very important--they are to be applauded for protecting the Equatorial Guinean people from corrupt "foreign" ideas.
The triumphant official state narrative, with its narrow view of the past and present reality of the country, is mirrored in the government's actions. The massive construction projects recently undertaken by the Obiang administration seem to indicate a desire to erase the past and rearticulate the meaning of what Equatorial Guinea is. Malabo and Bata, the largest cities of the country, have been transformed by projects that only serve to emphasize the regime's disconnection from the needs of the people. For instance, in preparation for the African Union Summit, celebrated in Malabo in dune 2011, a whole new subdivision of the city was built, featuring fifty-two mansions to host each of the visiting presidents. Similarly, in preparation for the celebration of the Cup of African Nations earlier this year, a brand-new stadium was built in the city of Bata. Meanwhile, the vast majority of the country's citizens lack access to the most basic services.
Other sites equally significant to the regime's maintenance of power bely the grandeur of the state's discourse. The colonial-era structure of the Black Beach prison, which was governed by Obiang during his uncle's tenure, stands as an active reminder of the president's "almighty fury" against the opposition, and of the colonial-like mind-set of the regime. There are other silent, nonphysical places built during Obiang's rule in which the population dwells: extreme poverty, fear, silence. All these things, in combination with the acquiescence of the international community, remain present in the minds of Equatorial Guineans.
There is a different version of the postcolonial history of Equatorial Guinea that is found, not in architectural ventures, but in literature produced from the 1970s to the present. Despite Obiang's 1985 "call to intellectuals" asking them to devote their work and lives to support his government, many writers and artists (in exile and within the national territory) have produced works that deconstruct the president's personality cult through historical, social, and cultural reflection. This alternative narrative reclaims a different meaning for the space that Obiang's regime has intended to rebrand. The following brief, panoramic view of Equatorial Guinean literature shows that many writers revisit key places and spaces of the past and present (material and nonmaterial) to give sense to the fragmented collective memory of Equatorial Guineans. Literature, in this context, has provided a site where society can engage in a self-reflective process that might ultimately promote civic action.
During the regime of Francisco Macias (1968-79), intellectuals and artists were repressed and silenced, and many were forced into exile. As a result, there was virtually no literary or artistic activity within the national territory during that eleven-year period. As M'bare N'gom has noted in his 2008 Afro Europa article, during the 1970s, Equatorial Guinean literary creation was mostly limited to poetry written in exile by writers who quickly formed a discourse of resistance to the dictatorship. For instance, poet and Catholic priest Marcelo Ensema Nsang (b. 1947) employs nature, time, and biblical references in an attempt to relocate memories of the immediate colonial past. Rather than expressing a desire to return to the colonial era, his poetry attempts a reorganization of time that seeks a new beginning. On the other hand, Raquel Ilonbe (1939-92), born of a Guinean mother and a Spanish father, speaks about a distinctive type of exodus. At an early age, her father took her to Spain, where she grew up away from her mother and motherland. Her poetry collection Ceiba (1978) is filled with nostalgia, a feeling of emptiness, and an intimate search for identity in a poetic space drawn from images of nature. Both Ensema and Ilonbe treat flora and fauna as a source of images that, in conjunction, form a code for access and belonging to the ancestral land, mostly from a spiritual perspective.
The exile-themed poetry continued into the 1980s. A good illustration of the political spirit of this era is the poetry of Juan Balboa Boneke (b. 1938). His "Paloma Ecuatoguinena: paloma extraviada" (Equatorial Guinean Dove: Lost Dove) articulates the desire for reconciliation and regeneration of the national community:
--Where do you come from, lost dove, where do you come from, and to where do you go? --I come from a tragic decade, from a ten-century long-silence . . . . . . . . I look for the reason of all these troubles that have constricted my house I look for you, my brother, so we can rebuild our beginning. (Literatura de Guinea Ecuatorial )
Most Equatorial Guineans shared the wish for a new start during the 1980s. The opening of the Spanish-Guinean Cultural Center, which was jointly sponsored by the governments of Equatorial Guinea and Spain, (1) indicated to many a positive step toward dialogue through the arts. Importantly, historian, writer, and journalist Donato Ndongo (b. 1950) decided to return from exile in 1985 to serve as director of the center, which he did unti11992 when, due to political pressures, he was forced to leave the country again. Nonetheless, during his tenure, Ndongo published the first anthology of Equatorial Guinean literature (1984). This volume brought together poetry, narrative, and theater from colonial times to the present, showing, for the first time, the breath of literary creation stirring among the country's writers. (2) Almost as important as that anthology was the contemporary publication of two novels. Ekomo (1985; Harmony), by Maria Nsue Angue (b. 1945), through the perspective of a rebellious female character, poetically represents the transformation of tradition in the face of Western thought. Published two years later, Las tinieblas de tu memoria negra (1987; Eng. Shadows of Your Black Memory, 2004), by Donato Ndongo, looks at a similar transformation. However, while the heroine of Ekomo feels alienated from the community in the end, the protagonist of Shadows westernizes (not without internal conflict) and departs to Spain. The storyline of Ndongo's novel is continued in a trilogy soon to be completed. (3)
There is a vein within Equatorial Guinean literature that attempts to salvage specific ethnic oral repertoires either by writing folk stories or by rearticulating local knowledge within Western contexts and aesthetics. Cases in point are Raquel Ilonbe and Remei Sipi (b. 1952), who published collections of traditional folktales in the 1980s and 2000s, respectively. Poet, essayist, and narrator Justo Bolekia Boleka (b. 1954) merits a special remark. Many of his works of fiction revolve around his own ethnic background, Bubi, to produce a set of images and musicality that work in tandem with Western poetics.
Significantly, the literature of the 1990s and 2000s created within the national territory focuses on urban spaces. These texts introduce the literary representation of the city as an inhospitable, "unhomely" place, as Homi Bhabha would put it. In narrative, theater, and, to a lesser extent, the poetry of this era, we find images of displacement within one's own homeland. By representing the difficulty of everyday life practices, this literature conveys a sense of frustration in characters that are conscious of being second-class citizens in a country where cultures, languages, and interests of foreign powers intersect. These more recent works offer introspection on society at the local level but also seek to dissect the history that has kept Equatorial Guinea in the margins of the global scene. Within this vein, there is a strong tendency toward realistic narrations, perhaps in recognition that the memories of the common people will not be salvaged otherwise. Works by Juan Tomas Avila Laurel (b. 1966), Maximiliano Nkogo (b. 1972), and Recaredo Silebo Boturu (b. 1979) are representative of these trends.
On the other hand, poet and narrator Cesar Mba (b. 1979) approaches the urban theme as a means to search for a universal aesthetic and to promote literary dialogue with world writers by using local images as a departure point. Another young voice is the controversial government official Guillermina Mekuy (b. 1982), who is developing a corpus of erotic literature that has found a market in Spain.
More broadly, whether written in exile or in the national territory, Equatorial Guinean literature in the last ten years addresses issues that affect all Africans. To different degrees, Equatorial Guinean literary works show an interest in establishing a dialogue with other literary traditions, Hispanic and not. From this group, we find well-established writers living in exile, like Donato Ndongo, Francisco Zamora, and Justo Bolekia Boleka, tackling issues such as migration, ethnic reformulation, and racism (themes that had also appeared in some of their earlier works). In the same vein, essayist Remei Sipi writes about the experience of African immigrant women in Europe. Taking a different route, some novels and short stories by Jose Fernando Siale and duan Tomas Avila offer a poetical and neohistorical approach to the colonial era and the present.
As mentioned before, dramatic writing has also served as a vehicle for writers to deliver their reflections on society and, while doing that, to convey a critical perspective on the past and present situation of Equatorial Guinea. Poet, narrator, and dramatist Recaredo Silebo Boturu treats an array of themes that range from the revival of traditional folk stories to urban, political, and gender violence issues. His plays bring attention to local problems but also to the world's inaction regarding Africa's challenges, which to him are no longer national or local but global. Boturu's work is a sign of a growing interest in theater by a younger generation, an interest that makes sense in a nation that has just two public libraries, besides those of the Spanish Cultural Center and the Cultural Institute of French Expression. Once practically nonexistent, theater has a small but vibrant body of dramatic texts written mostly since the 1990s.
Once again, poet, narrator, essayist, and playwright Juan Tomas Avila Laurel deserves mention here for being one of the most prolific authors in this genre. His works examine the psychology of the emergent urban society and also inform the population about the historical dynamics that have kept Equatorial Guineans poor and displaced within their own country. Importantly, his 2004 play, El fracaso de las sombras (The failure of the shadows), opens with a poem that introduces the reader to a critique of the globalized Western economy which is developed in the play. This poem highlights the thought-provoking nature of the project behind theater and most of the recent literary production of Equatorial Guinea:
Because after twenty centuries, after all the wars, after all the fires, after all the genocides, we continue in silence in fear of being pointed at; and applauding the assassins. Forced to accept the thesis of those who accuse us. Forced to ask for forgiveness. *
Outside the literary realm, the long tradition of the visual arts is continued by young talents living abroad or ar home, such as Machyta Oko Giebels, Desiderio Manresa Bodipo "Mene," Arturo Bibang, Luis Royo del Pozo, and Afran. Among them, graphic artist Ramon Esono, a.k.a. Jamon y Queso (Ham and Cheese), has emerged as an active political commentator and critic. While not a writer, Esono's comics echo the spirit of recent literary creations as they posit moral questions regarding the social maladies of society: alcoholism, gender violence, prostitution, corruption, torture, censorship. Viewed together, his works propose a narrative based on shocking images that reflect the sense of hopelessness and abandonment among Equatorial Guineans under Obiang's rule.
Most of the contemporary literature and art of Equatorial Guinea shows, from different angles, a pattern that questions the narrative of the state. Such an opposition also reveals a determination to establish connections between local and global networks. The future of the writers and artists of Equatorial Guinea is uncertain, but most of them share with us an urge to understand the crossroads in which the lives of Equatorial Guineans develop. Today, they are inviting us not to forget their story.
Iowa State University
For Further Reading
Marvin A. Lewis An Introduction to the Literature of Equatorial Guinea: Between Colonialism and Dictatorship (University of Missouri Press, 2007).
M'bare N'gom "African Literature in Spanish." In The Cambridge History of African and Caribbean Literature , ed. F. Abiola Irele & Simon Gikandi (Cambridge University Press, 2003), 584-602.
Michael Ugarte Africans in Europe: The Culture of Exile and Emigration from Equatorial Guinea to Spain (University of Illinois Press, 2010).
Editorial note: To read a play excerpt by Recaredo Silebo Botutu and view a gallery of Equatorial Guinean visual art, visit the WLT website.
(1) The center closed in 2001 due to political tensions, and the Agency of Spanish Cooperation established the Centro Cultural Espanol (Spanish Cultural Center), still active today.
(2) A second anthology was coedited by Ndongo and M'bare N'gom in 2000; a new and expanded edition has been coedited by N'gom and Gloria Nistal (Sial, 2012).
(3) The second part is Los poderes de la tempestad (The powers of the tempest). Recently, Mexico's UNAM published the first chapter of the last part of the trilogy, Los hijos de la tribu (The children of the tribe), in an anthology titled Caminos y Veredas: Narrativas de Guinea Ecuatorial (2011).
Translations from the Spanish
By Elisa Rizo
Elisa Rizo is Assistant Professor of Hispanic Studies at Iowa State University. She is the author of several articles on contemporary drama and narrative from Equatorial Guinea and has edited two literary anthologies, Caminos y Veredas: Narrativas de Guinea Ecuatorial (2011) and Letras Transversales: Obras Escogidas de Juan Tomas Avila Laurel (forthcoming later this year). Presently, she is preparing a special issue of Revista Iberoamericana on the literature of Equatorial Guinea (co-edited with Dolores Aponte).
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|Publication:||World Literature Today|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2012|
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