Some works of literature transform the way we view the world and move us to act in ways we didn’t anticipate. I like to think of these type of works as literary interventions—acts of resistance by means of representation—that can produce change.
The second writer I’m covering in this series (read the first post here) is Guinean writer María Nsué Angüé and her masterpiece, Ekomo.
Historias y Cuentos
Located in Central Africa between Gabon and Cameroon in the Gulf of Guinea, Equatorial Guinea was a distant outpost that served primarily to assert Spain’s former imperial power after losing its American colonies in 1898, and for the extraction of human and natural resources. The country gained independence from Spain in 1968, thanks partially to UN pressure on the Franco regime, and to strong local support. However, as a result of Spain’s extractive colonialism, the new nation had little or no infrastructure, and once the elation of independence passed and elections were held, newly elected president Macías Nguema (1969–1979) instituted a military dictatorship that imposed Fang authority, the national paradigm still in force today.
The literature of Equatorial Guinea was born in the crucible of two great traditions: the Afro-Bantu oral traditions and the written forms of Hispanic traditions. The birth of Guinean literature, different from the colonial perspective of Africanismo literario, can be traced back to the missionary newspaper La Guinea Española. In 1947 the newspaper opened a section to black Guineans entitled “Historias y Cuentos.” This section published the works of the native literati, who were invariably male students and teachers of the missions and seminaries, and opened a space for reflection about the place Guinean culture occupied within the Spanish and Latin American cultural and linguistic spectrum. It was here that the first transcriptions of Guinean oral traditions from the different ethnic groups (Fang, Ndowe, Bubi, Bissio) began to undergo a process of reinterpretation and synthesis.
María Nsué Angüé
Journalist, poet, and writer María Nsué Angüé (1945-2017) was born in 1945 in Ebebeyín, Río Muni. When she was a child her family immigrated to Spain, where she studied literature. Her novel Ekomo (1985) is the first written by a woman in Equatorial Guinea. Her other important works are the poems from Deliriums, the short story Adugu, and Stories of the Old Noa (1999). In Deliriums the writer ponders about the uncertain future of Equatorial Guinea and asks for justice, a theme that also emerges in her novel.
In an interview with literary critic Mbare Ngom Faye, Nsué explains that living in Spain as a Guinean woman gave her an African and a Spanish perspective, but when it came time to write she was always completely herself. Reflecting on the fact that poetry, and not narrative, predominated in Guinean literature written in Spanish, Nsué states: “We are Bantu, our elders express themselves in the oral tradition, a tradition that is abundant with poetry, imagery and onomatopoeia. It is logical that when it comes time to write we identify ourselves as Bantu.”
Published in 1985, Ekomo is part of what writer and literary critic Donato Ndongo calls “Hispano-African Literature,” a term intended to emphasize the African provenance of this literary tradition, which while written in Spanish is different from Afro-Hispanic American Literature. Nsué’s novel is written from the perspective of Nnanga, the main female protagonist, after the death of her husband, Ekomo. Ekomo means harmony, and refers to a time when life for the protagonist was better, before misfortune arrived. The novel tells Nnanga’s story as she moves from village to city and beyond in search of a cure for her husband’s illness. Flashbacks in the narration give us insight into her former life and into the exquisite myths and beliefs that form the basis of Bantu society that are now under attack:
Beneath the sacred ceiba tree of my village, the bones of the ancestors are buried…Under the sacred ceiba tree of my village the root of the tribe sleeps…The sacred ceiba tree of my village keeps the totem of the tribe, because in its roots are buried the adventures and misfortunes, the epidemics, the hunger and the abundance of the tribe. (29-30)
Through this return to the past she examines her life and begins to discern women’s place in society. With her husband’s passing Nnanga, a childless widow, finds herself an outcast. As marriage and motherhood are fundamental to women’s position in her society, she is seen as lacking identity or purpose in life. The narrator confirms this fact at the beginning of the novel, “I call Ekomo from the door of my soul…since without him I am nothing and nothing I can be” (24). The narration is interspersed with interior monologues that convey her pain: “I am only a profile cut out against the environment that surrounds me… My presence, little noticed, is nothing but a presence-absence whose importance has nothing to do with the normal process of events. I live and breathe with the awareness of my own impotence” (23-4). However, it’s from this liminal place of crisis—the critical moment of consciousness of her place in society—that Nnanga gathers the courage to express the cry of rebellion with which the novel ends.
The theme of the liminality of being extends to Guinean society; presented in the novel in a moment of deep crisis. Guinea is suspended between a legendary past and an uncertain future that gnaws society from within in mysterious ways, like Ekomo’s sickness. We see the conflict play out when Ekomo does not respond to the traditional treatment offered by the best man of herbs; as a result, they move to the city and then close to the French border in search of treatment at a Protestant mission, where Ekomo dies. Nnanga wants to bury him there to fulfill his last wish, but as she cannot pay for the funeral, she’s forced to break the taboo of her culture and touch the body of her husband and bury him herself. By breaking this rule Nnanga incurs the wrath of the community: her hair is shaved, food is withdrawn, and she must live in the ashes.
The problem as expressed by Nsué’s masterpiece is that neither tradition nor modernity offer liberation for Nnanga. Although she is at the heart of the cultural and biological reproduction of her society, she lacks power. Despite the much touted promise of freedom and equality, in the modern world remnants of colonial structures prevent her from accessing basic resources. This double awareness triggers her cry of rebellion.
May the cries be heard in all the ends of the earth and may people know that today is the day of your cry open to life. Let all women cry together…Why should they not cry if their lives are nothing but deaths? Who will give the first cry of this rebellion? (247)
The reader is left with the impression that Nnanga’s battles for agency and self-affirmation have only just begun.