Exile, Migration, Displacement, Spain, Africa, Equatorial Guinea, Spanish Literature, Peninsular Studies, Donato Ndongo-Bidyogo, Afro-Spanish Studies, Bartolome De Las Casas, Law
The United Nations has called the twentieth century the century of displacement; and it’s hard indeed to think of any region on earth that, over the past 100 years, has not been affected by massive movements of people forced to leave their homes in response to natural, political, or economic crises and disasters. “Exile,” Michael Ugarte writes in Africans in Europe, “is more and more blatantly a human condition” (29). Social scientists have long studied migration and refugee patterns as topics in their own right, of course. But for some reason humanists still tend to treat displacement as a nagging anomaly, beholden as we are to the legacy of philology and its investment in a Romantic ideology of organicity. Many of our disciplinary structures—including the way we organize academic fields, specializations, and core curricula—continue to rely on the default assumption of the writer or artist who produces her work in her home environment and her home language. As a result, exiles, immigrants, and refugees never cease posing bureaucratic and institutional problems: Should U.S. Latino literature be part of American or Latin American Studies? Who gets to teach Jorge Semprún, the Spanish or the French professor? Does or doesn’t Cristina Peri Rossi belong in a survey course on twentieth-century Peninsular literature?
This is why opening up institutional space for the study of displaced cultures—and cultures of displacement—is one of the most urgent and effective ways to rethink the way we organize our teaching and research. Michael Ugarte did this for Peninsular Studies twenty years ago; his Shifting Ground (1989) spear-headed a theoretically astute approach to Spanish Republican exile literature, showing that, more than being a mere appendix to Spanish cultural history, intellectual exile destabilizes the very foundations of traditional literary studies. His new book, Africans in Europe: The Culture of Exile and Emigration from Equatorial Guinea to Spain, is just as ground-breaking. Once more, Ugarte manages to pry open the field in order to make room for a group of writers who tend to be written out of Spanish cultural history altogether: émigrés and exiles from Equatorial Guinea, Spain’s only colony in Central Africa. And once again, Ugarte invites us to question some of the most basic assumptions informing our academic practice.
Equatorial Guinea, which is roughly the size of Massachusetts and has a population [End Page 250] of less than 700,000, is a country of paradoxes. Largely thanks to its immense oil reserves, it now boasts both the highest per capita income in Africa (globally, it is in the top 30). But it also has one of the continent’s worst human-rights records. Its history is one of endless transitions and displacements. Its independence from Spain in 1968 was preceded by centuries of exploitative colonial rule at the hands of different imperial powers, which considered the area as both a source and a destination for slaves and former slaves. The hard-fought independence from dictatorial Spain was ironically followed by two bloody dictatorships (the regimes of Francisco Macías Nguema, 1970–79, and his nephew Teodoro Obiang, 1979-present), which have left thousands of victims and made life for artists and writers exceedingly difficult. Many have ended up seeking refuge in Spain—a Spain that is as ignorant of their country as it is uninterested in it.
Ugarte’s first chapter deals with theoretical and conceptual matters, while a short second chapter provides a general outline of the political and cultural history of Equatorial Guinea. The remainder of the book presents close readings of a dozen core texts. Beginning with writings from the colonial period—which Ugarte shows to be more ambivalent about Spain than the exalted Hispanist rhetoric would seem to suggest—they include three major works by Donato Ndongo-Bidyogo, including his recent novel El metro (2007); literary responses to the Mac...