This novel by Trifonia Melibea Obono (a most beautiful name for a writer, or anyone) is from Equatorial Guinea, and is apparently the first from that country to be translated into English. Lawrence Schimel, a prolific Spanish-English translator and author, has done an impeccable job of effacing his translator’s presence by presenting the story’s complex emotions faithfully. La Bastarda rings as true as a bell, and is a memorable and many-layered read.
Okomo is sixteen, and an orphan. She lives in her grandfather’s house, under the care of her grandmother, and longs to know who her father is. Her mother died in childbirth and was not married, so Okomo is la bastarda, the daughter of an unmarried Fang woman, whose father has disappeared because he is a scoundrel. Everything Okomo knows is mediated through her grandfather’s boastful bile, her grandmother’s distraction with desperate strategems to receive again her husband’s favours, the indifference of her grandfather’s second wife, and the sarcastic aggression of her cousins and aunts. Her grandfather Osa’s version of their Fang tribal culture is based on sexual propriety and sexual performance, the getting of sons and the obedience of women who know their place and do not deviate from the customs which lie on their lives like an iron weight. It is the early 2000s.
Okomo likes girls, but does not realise this until one day, on an errand into the forest, she meets Dina, Linda and Pilar, the most popular girls in the school. They encourage her to go with them, and Okomo is initiated into the enjoyment of love on banana leaf mats on the forest floor. She has never thought that sex could bring love, since in her grandfather’s house sex is a vicious competition between rival wives, a bargaining tool to keep the peace, a manly standard to live up to, a woman’s shame to be upbraided about, or a threat hanging over a young girl’s head when she knows that she will be married to whoever her grandfather approves of.
The errand Okomo was sent on was to take a message to her uncle Marcelo, also a good-for-nothing, because he is a man-woman, and refuses to impregnate his sister-in-law and give his father Osa a new grandson. Marcelo will not cooperate, even though his brother is sterile and there is no other way to ensure the family line will continue with sons. Okomo is startled that such a tradition exists. She asks ‘The women agree to this?’ but this is unanswered, because of course they don’t, but they have to. Marcelo doesn’t have to, and won’t.
Okomo courts danger by cutting off her braids, by washing off the hideous cosmetics that her grandmother makes her wear: these will make men think she is disobedient and then no-one will marry her. Her grandfather casually mentions that he has rejected an offer from her older sister to pay for Okomo to go to college, because a woman’s place is under his feet. She even has to cut his toenails.
If the stakes weren’t so grim, this would be a funny novel of excess and ridiculous extremes. Osa is a nightmare, a monstrous head of the family without affection for anyone, whose whole concern is to maintain his standing in the tribe. He would sell Okomo to the highest bidder if the opportunity presented itself. When the four girls’ secret is betrayed, Dina, Linda and Pilar are swiftly sold into marriage, and Okomo is sent to an unfriendly aunt in a grim shanty town, where women may only earn money by cleaning or prostitution. But the ending is joyful, and Marcelo is a steadfast benevolent uncle with a boyfriend called Jesusin.
The Guinean scholar Abosede George ends the book with a highly useful Afterword, discussing the African perspective on homosexuality, sexual inequality and ways of reading sexual relationships that depart from colonial legacy. The women are ground down and subjugated by a patriarchal system that is cracking under the strain of existing in two worlds. White people are present as a distant third person, the mitangan, who supply employment, drink, drugs and customers to women in need of money. Their influence is breaking tribal society into disunity and misery, but there are ways of wriggling through the cracks to escape. La Bastarda feels close to Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart in its overpowering sense of things not being right, a system failing, a world changing, but its focus is women’s lives, which is new, and strong.
Trifonia Melibea Obono, La Bastarda (Feminist Press, 2018), ISBN 9781936932238, $15.95.