“An act of inspiration”: Review of La Bastarda by Trifonia Melibea Obono

AiW Guest: Karina M. Szczurek 

Trifonia Melibea Obono’s La Bastarda was first published two years ago in its original Spanish by Feminist Press and has now become the first novel by an Equatorial Guinean woman writer to be translated into English. The book was banned in the author’s home country. More a novella than a novel, in seven short chapters, it tells the story of Okomo, the “motherless orphan”. Okomo’s mother died giving birth to her and she “was declared a bastarda – a bastard daughter.” Her father is absent for reasons no one is willing to explain to the teenage girl. Okomo is desperate to find her only remaining parent, but the Fang community she is part of closes ranks and is unwilling to lift the veil on the mystery of her father’s disappearance from her life.

Okomo grows up in the polygamous family of her late mother. Hers is a life ruled and restricted by rampant patriarchy and women’s inadvertent complicity in its tyrannical structures. Okomo has just turned sixteen at the beginning of the book and is finally considered an asset to her people as she can be exchanged for a bride price. Her grandparents, grandmother Adà and her husband Barefoot Osá, are hoping to be rid of her as soon as an eligible husband comes along. Adà also has one other pressing worry, the younger second wife Barefoot Osá insists on sharing a bed with. She will do anything to get rid of her rival and enlists Okomo’s help in her disastrous scheming against the other wife.

The society around Okomo venerates male ancestors. According to their beliefs, women “should always be beautiful. And never ask questions.” Their sole purpose in society is to procreate. Men, on the other hand, are considered useless if they cannot impregnate their wives. Not many – whether men or women – have the courage to defy their assigned lot in life. But as an outsider from birth, Okomo feels drawn to the people in her community who are different and dare to live the kind of lives they find meaningful for themselves in spite of what is prescribed by tradition. The family member who cares about Okomo the most is her Uncle Marcelo, “the man-woman”, as he is disparagingly referred to, because he prefers the company of other men instead of women and does not want to comply with his family’s questionable demands. Eventually, he is forced to live in the forest, hidden away from the community which refuses to accept him.

The forest is also the place where Okomo encounters Dina and her two friends, Pilar and Linda. Against the wishes of Okomo’s grandmother, the young women introduce her to their secret world and she realises that she is more of an outcast than she ever thought possible. There doesn’t even seem to be a word for what she is. Conforming to what is expected of her becomes unbearable. But, in the forest you can be “free”, she is told, and embarks on a dangerous path of discovery that will allow her to seek out her missing father and lead her to her true self.

Amongst the superstition and patriarchal violence that Okomo’s community is steeped in, she is able to carve out an existence for herself and others that points to new possibilities. However, it comes at a high price, not only for her, but all the people important to her.

The novel’s dedication gestures to its thematic interests. Image: Supplied

Don’t start reading La Bastarda just before falling asleep; it will all seem like a strange, dark vision when you wake up. Trifonia Melibea Obono tells a deeply troubling tale, but her heroine’s resilience offers glimpses of hope. Obono’s writing itself is an act of inspiration and should be celebrated as such. Her narrator tells the story in a fresh, mesmerising voice. Its haunting quality adds to the irresistibility of this slim book and its considerable impact. It might have been even stronger if it wasn’t for a few niggling loose ends and inconsistencies in La Bastarda’s plot, but these do not distract from its powerful narrative thrust.

Obono’s academic interests include women and gender studies. In her private life, she knows what it means to resist societal norms. In an interview for the South African Sunday Times, she recently told Tiah Beautement: “I feel alone as a woman who writes about a marginalised group. I feel alone for not being heteronormative. I feel alone because I have lightish skin and don’t fit into the racial categories of my country: black, white, mulatta.” Yet, she is a pathbreaker who through her work is able to communicate the tragic tensions involved in nonconformity. Obono is the author of two other novels in Spanish and shows enormous promise as a storyteller and activist who is only at the beginning of her literary career.

Translated by Lawrence Schimel, La Bastarda was first published in English by the Feminist Press in New York. The American edition includes a succinct afterword by Abosede George. It gives a brief socio-historical context for the book and shows how La Bastarda challenges the concept of “Un-Africanness” and offers a space for the exploration of “dissident sexualities”. An English edition of the book is also available in a few African countries from the South Africa publisher, Modjaji Books. One can only wish that the book finds the wide audiences it deserves.

Born in Jelenia Góra, Poland, Karina M. Szczurek lived in Austria, the United States and Wales, before finding a home in South Africa when she met and married the author André Brink. Her doctoral thesis was published as Truer than Fiction: Nadine Gordimer Writing Post-Apartheid South Africa (2008). She is the editor of Touch: Stories of Contact (2009), Encounters with André Brink (2010), Contrary: Critical Responses to the Novels of André Brink (with Willie Burger, 2013), Water: New Short Fiction from Africa (with Nick Mulgrew, 2015) and Misplaced & Other Stories: New Short Fiction from African Kids (with Catherine Shepherd, 2017). Her play for young adults, A Change of Mind, won the MML Literature Award in the Category English Drama in 2012. She also writes short stories, essays and book reviews. In 2018, she received the Thomas Pringle Award for a portfolio of ad hoc reviews from the English Academy of Southern Africa. Her debut novel, Invisible Others (2014), was longlisted for the 2015 Sunday Times Barry Ronge Fiction Prize. Her memoir The Fifth Mrs Brink was published in 2017 and You Make Me Possible: The Love Letters of Karina M. Szczurek and André Brink in 2018. She is a board member of Short Story Day Africa and PEN SA and lives in Cape Town with her cat family.

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