La Bastarda by Trifonia Melibea Obono

La Bastarda: A Novel by Trifonia Melibea Obono front cover

La Bastarda: A Novel by Trifonia Melibea Obono

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

La Bastarda first came across my radar when I was researching translated young adult literature. I have been wanting to read more of this, not only as a reaction of the increasingly narrow political spheres we seem to be so wrongly moving towards, but also because it felt right. I want to discover new voices doing exciting things, and I want to celebrate the independent ones. The oddities. The books that are raw and wild and something else; something that may not necessarily slide into the cover of the broadsheet reviews on a Saturday but that still demanded, utterly, to be heard. My search for these books bought me to the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative (GLLI) Translated YA Book Prize 2019 and to La Bastarda.

La Bastarda is the first novel by an Equatorial Guinean woman – Trifonia Melibea Obono – to be translated into English. That is not a sentence you read everyday and La Bastarda stuck with me ever since I did. This was a book I remembered, for weeks, and so I bought it because I had no other choice. I do not know much about Equatorial Guinea, but I am a reader and this felt like story before I’d even opened a single page.

So, to the book itself. It is not what I expected; anything labelled as YA seems to slide towards a specific blueprint for me, a text full of rebellion and identity and somebody, something, someone figuring out who they want to be in the world. It is not an accurate blueprint, nor indeed a wholly comprehensive one, but I’d suspect anybody who hears the phrase ‘Young Adult’ to think of something very specific. And I do not think La Bastarda is specific. I do not think it is specific at all. It is the story of Okomo, an orphaned teen, a girl who falls in love with somebody she ought not to and in the process and comes to rebel against much of her culture. It is simply written, sometimes stiffly written and unevenly weighted, and yet there’s something here. Something buried, something brittle, something new-formed and not yet flesh.

La Bastarda intrigues me. I do not think it is Young Adult, even though in many ways it is. It reads more as a fable, an allegory, a fairy-tale that slides through themes and metaphor and imagery like a knife through butter. It is not a perfect book, nor is it one that I wholly understand yet. I wanted more, I wanted less, I wanted to split it open and find the story underneath the one that was given me. Because I do think that there’s something there, something that is hinted at throughout this story and never quite fully realised.

Would I reccommend it? Undoubtedly yes; it is an achievement and Obono is a deft, assured writer. Her language is tight, restrained and that restraint sometimes delivers moments of great emotional clarity. There’s something poetic here, also, and though I can’t comment on the accuracy of the translation, I think that Lawrence Schimel does an excellent job. It feels like a restrained, careful, respectful translation, and there’s still that palpable sense of the original underneath the translated text.

I think, in a way, I am still trying to figure out La Bastarda. I am intrigued by it and I am beguiled by it, but I do not wholly understand it. I think some of that speaks of my ignorance of the culture and of the setting and I think that some of it also speaks of the great precision of this book. It is not perfect, I think (but then, what is?). Sometimes, however, it says something very perfectly crafted and very much of itself. It tells its story. It shall not be silenced.

It shall be heard.

And that, I think, more than anything, is why I shall come back to this book.

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