Published last year without a lot of publicity, Inongo vi Makomè’s Natives is one of the very few African novels that have been translated into English from Spanish. It’s an entertaining and very explicit story about an African gigolo and a pair of under-sexed bourgeois ladies; it’s about refugees in Europe, Barcelona, and what it means to be African in the West. There are also some passages that made me uncomfortable and I’ll get to that in a moment.
But first we need to pause and reflect on the fact that it was written in Spanish, and how that could happen. After all, there isn’t that much African literature in Spanish. Equatorial Guinea is the only country on the African continent with a sizable Spanish-speaking population—with the exception of Morocco, whose writers are much more likely to use Arabic, French, or even English—and it’s not a big country, about the size of Massachusetts (with a tenth the population). But the real problem is political. Along with the linguistic barriers imposed by its quirk of colonial history, decades of dictatorial (mis)government—both before and after oil was discovered in 1990—have tended to cut the artists and writers of Equatorial Guinea off from the rest of the continent, and even from each other. As for the rest of the world, well… so long as the oil keeps flowing, the rest of the world is content to forget that Equatorial Guinea exists.
In the last few years, a few translators and publishers have managed to bring a handful of Equatoguinean works into English, but you quickly start seeing the same names over and over again. Before Michael Ugarte translated Natives, his 2008 translation of Donato Ndongo’s Shadows of Your Black Memory had been the first Equatoguinean novel in English, followed by Justo Bolekia Bolekå’s book of poetry, Löbëla, and by Jethro Soutar’s 2014 translation of Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel’s By Night The Mountain Burns. They’re remarkable books, but after that, our pickings become extremely thin: World Literature Today put together a mini-section on Equatorial Guinea, including an excerpt from a play by Recaredo Silebo Boturu (who was also anthologized in Africa39); You can find a short story called “Government Property” by Trifonia Melibea Obono Ntutumu, also translated by Souter, and there’s a graphic novel by Ramón Esono Ebolé, called Obi’s Nightmare, which was translated by David Shook and should come out sometime in 2016.
You can get a sense for what it’s like to be a writer in Shook’s marvelous mini-documentary about going to Equatorial Guinea to find the poet Marcelo Ensema Nsang:
There is a lot that we are missing, of course. The first Equatoguinean novel was published in 1953—five years before the “father of African literature” published his first novel, Things Fall Apart—but Leoncio Evita Enoy’s Cuando los combes luchaban has not been translated, and I can’t imagine how you’d find a copy. The same is true for the next Equatoguinean novel—Una lanza por el Boabí (1962), by Daniel Jones Mathama—and most of the others that follow. If you’re interested, the Wikipedia entry for Equatoguinean literature in Spanish is actually very nicely put together (most of it’s cribbed from an essay by Mbaré Ngom, called “La literatura africana de expresión castellana: La creación literaria en Guinea Ecuatorial”) but it’s a depressing testament to the ordeal of the Equatoguinean writer that the literature can be so easily enumerated and summarized.
The other depressing thing about Equatoguinean literature is that so much of what writing there is was written from exile, or is focused on the diasporic experience. This is not because Equatorial Guineans are “Afropolitans”; it is because so many Equatoguineans do not or cannot live in Equatorial Guinea. In the first decades of independence, state repression was so brutal that by the time the first dictator was overthrown by his nephew—who would become the second of two presidents-for-life—nearly a third of the country’s population had fled the country. Conditions briefly improved after the 1979 coup, but though some of the writers from this lost generation—like Donato Ndongo and the poet Juan Balboa Boneke—returned from exile, the “boom” in Equatoguinean literature didn’t last. Few of even those writers stayed: Boneke passed away last year after many years in Spain and Ndongo has been a voice of dissent from abroad for nearly a decade. María Nsué Angüe was the first Equatoguinean woman to write a novel—Ekomo (1985)—but, today, she lives in Spain. Of the younger generation, virtually all of them live north of the Mediterranean: Guillermina Mekuy has spent most of her life in Spain; Victoria Evita (the daughter of Leoncio Evita, Equatorial Guinea’s first novelist) lives in Madrid. Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel fled to Spain until his request for asylum was denied; now, though he has returned to Equatorial Guinea, he lives in hiding.
Inongo vi Makomè’s Natives is “African Immigrant Literature,” if we must classify it; it’s probably the sort of thing that Okayafrica columnist Siyanda Mohutsiwa declared, on Monday, that she was “done with.” Inongo vi Makomè was partially educated in Equatorial Guinea—he was born just across the border in Cameroon—but today, like the characters in his novel, he lives in Barcelona. Like so many of the Equatoguinean literary diaspora, he lives in Spain, and writes about it. And diaspora has a tendency to blur details of origin: in Barcelona, Africa is Africa and an African is an African.
The story begins when two upper-class, middle-aged career women decide they want to purchase an African to service them sexually. Because of what they are—and what they think Africans are—the plan makes a lot of sense to them. They are busy women, either too busy to find love or too successful to attract any Spanish men (they suspect that the men in Barcelona are all “blind or impotent or gay”). And so, a practical solution presents itself in the person of a hired African lover. They will pay him well and keep it a secret, but there is nothing illegal about the arrangement. They have money, which he will need; he has a penis, which they want. It makes good sense to them: money for sex is the sort of thing, they reason, that an African in Spain would be glad to exchange.
One of the surprising thing about Natives is that they seem to be correct. A blurb on the back cover describes the book as a “scathing satire [that] takes the objectification of the poor immigrant to shocking extremes, laying bare the dehumanizing effects of immigration today.” But I’m not sure. Can it be a satire when Bambara Keita—a young immigrant without papers, sleeping rough in a park—finds the arrangement to be a godsend, and a practical solution to his very real problems? He has a few reservations, of course; sex with middle-aged white ladies might not be precisely what he came to Europe for. But given the practical realities of his life, he is up for it, without hesitation. Sex work is a good deal better than no work and, as he rationalizes, a man with two wives is not so unusual where he comes from.
Sex-work cannot dehumanize him, in other words; as an immigrant without papers, he is already dehumanized.
It would also be hard to call this novel “scathing.” However cold and mercenary the arrangement may seem in the abstract, it works in practice because of the characters’ very human needs, and because their lives really do fit together nicely. The two women have everything—except for the one gaping hole in their lives—and the one thing he has, basically the only thing he has, completes them quite nicely. It works. And work is constructive, after all, the labor that brings the world into existence, weaving human relationships and even community out of what begins as rough economics and need. At its best, then, the novel is curiously warm and awkward and complicated. Characters that began as clichés and fantasy caricatures—after all, the adventures of these wealthy but sex-starved Europeans and their hot-blooded and virile African gigolo seem straight out of a romance novel—evolves into a story about human beings living in a world where an arrangement like this one is anything but unrealistic.
In fact, “satire” might be exactly what this novel isn’t. Satire tends to be unstable, volatile, and unrealistic; too much realism will kill the joke, so satire is usually hit-and-run. Take Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal: there are actually excellent reasons why Irish babies couldn’t be used as meat-cattle; your average 18th-century English gentleman would be horrified at the prospect of “giving ten shillings for the carcass of a good fat child [for] four dishes of excellent nutritive meat.” This is the joke: Swift mocks the utilitarian rationality that reduces human beings to economics, by suggesting that, if the rich metaphorically eat the babies of the poor, why shouldn’t they literally turn them into dishes of excellent nutritive meat? It’s funny because this could never literally happen: it’s easy to make money from child labor—or to maintain London’s commercial supremacy by immiserating Ireland or India—because economics obscures the dismal connection between exploiter and exploited. But you can’t enjoy the meat if you know how the sausage is made. And in showing how the sausage is made, Natives describes an arrangement that’s too viable, practical, and satisfactory to become anything but realistic.
Of course, there are some startlingly lengthy passages of lurid sexual detail, and since our hero turns out to be endowed with a startlingly lengthy narrative device, he wreaks orgasm after orgasm on the bodies of his employers, living up to all their fantasies about African virility. This dip into stereotypes might have been worrying if the sex weren’t also described with such a casual frankness that becomes almost ordinary, even workmanlike. The multiple-page sex scenes are explicit, but they’re not quite pornographic: for every “heights of ecstasy” that our protagonists reach—and there are a few very purple and veiny passages—we get a correspondingly wide range of bodily messiness, from bad breath to awkward silences to blood on the condom. Even the (relatively) happy ending is messy and awkward; as with sex, climaxes need to be cleaned up.
It’s hard to imagine this book having a happy ending if its hero wasn’t male. Bambara Keita’s work is physically taxing, but the dangers and demands of the job are very different than for a woman in the same position. When his employers require him to be sexually aggressive, he obediently (but carefully) “savages” their welcoming bodies; in return, they nurture him with a kind of care and attention that verges on racist, infantilizing condescension, but which is also very maternal (and not dissimilar to what the young Bambara Keita seems to imagine a “normal” polygamous relationship to be). He enjoys a very patriarchal marriage arrangement, in fact: at night, he works for their play; during the day, he plays while they work.
The contrast between Natives and a novel like Chika Unigwe’s On Black Sisters Street (2009) couldn’t be sharper. Sex work is not illegal in Barcelona, but there’s a reason why female sex-workers are lobbying for official government regulation: without protection, the work is very dangerous. Men are dangerous, as is a capitalized but unregulated sex industry for which women are simply bodies to be sold. If patriarchy puts Bambara Keita in a sustainable position, humanizing him from a position of undocumented official non-existence, Unigwe’s novel tells a very different story about African immigrant sex-workers in Europe: in her book, the central character ends up dead. Piling gendered violence on top of global economic inequality is a much less sustainable situation for the sex-workers in question. Purchasing immigrant bodies is an industry when they’re female; Natives shows us something more like artisanal sex-work, sustainably produced and free-trade.
In the end, the best thing about Natives is that it never becomes predictable. It would have been easy to write a romance novel about a hunky immigrant and his harem of rich ladies, or to satirize these ugly old hags and their dumb African stud. But perhaps because these kinds of arrangements are neither titillating fantasy nor scandalous hyperbole—because these sorts of arrangements exist—Natives eventually becomes a story of people in a world that’s as messy and as weighed down by the awkwardness of bodily needs—to eat, to be warm, and to be comforted—as sex itself. And if you’re looking for work, it helps to be a man with a good tool.