Having recently translated By Night The Mountain Burns, by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel, I am acutely aware of what a forgotten place Equatorial Guinea is. Whenever I talk about what I’ve been working on, I’m met with blank looks: most people have never heard of Equatorial Guinea, let alone know that it’s Africa’s only Spanish-speaking country. In the UK, mention of the failed 2004 coup, led by the British former SAS officer Simon Mann and involving Sir Mark Thatcher, brings a few nods of recognition. But even in Spain, Equatorial Guinea’s colonial ruler for two centuries, knowledge and interest is scant.
Equatorial Guinea won independence from Spain in 1968, with brutal dictatorships in charge ever since. The discovery of oil in the 1990s only made matters worse: the international community turns a blind eye to the regime’s persecutions and atrocities, so as not to upset the powers that be and lose out on lucrative exploitation contracts; the dictatorship amasses huge wealth and uses it to strengthen its grip on power, while ordinary citizens are impoverished and oppressed.
This is not an environment where the arts will flourish, but Equatorial Guineans are hardy, determined people and a number of writers have emerged, refusing to be silenced and cowed. In the 1970s, countless artists and intellectuals were forced into exile and a number of poets reflected on their homeland from abroad. Stand-out names include Marcelo Ensema Nsang (whom David Shook went in search of in 2011, making the documentary Kilometer Zero along the way), Raquel Llonbé, and Juan Balboa Boneke.
In 1985, Donato Ndongo returned to Equatorial Guinea to run the Spanish-Guinean Cultural Centre, a post he held until 1992, when he was once again forced to flee the country. His novel Las tinieblas de tu memoria was published in 1987, and translated into English twenty years later as Shadows of Your Black Memory (Swan Isle Press); before the forthcoming publication of By Night the Mountain Burns from And Other Stories, this was the only Equatorial Guinean novel available in English.
By Night The Mountain Burns is set on Annobón, a remote island that has historically been treated with disdain by the government in Malabo, alternately abandoned, ostracized and plundered for men of working age. The extract published here touches on the material shortages such engineered isolation produces, while the novel as a whole examines wider implications in terms of knowledge and beliefs.
Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel currently lives in exile in Barcelona. He has made periodic returns to Equatorial Guinea in recent years, with mixed results: his last trip home provoked threats of government detention, which I have written about for PEN and the Guardian. Ramón Esono Ebolé, a graphic novelist known as Jamón y Queso, left Equatorial Guinea for Paraguay in 2011. His work deals with Equatorial Guinea’s numerous social and political ills, chief amongst them corruption, torture, censorship, alcoholism, violence against women and prostitution. These are all issues tackled by Trifonia Melibea Obono Ntutumu in her piece, “Government Property.” A writer and journalist, she lives in Equatorial Guinea, endeavouring to raise awareness about sexism, inequality, and violence against women.
The three pieces featured here are merely a taste of the range and richness of creativity to be found in Equatorial Guinea and its diaspora. As readers, we’d do well to seek out more, and as global citizens we’d do well to show more interest in such a blighted and yet beautiful part of the world.