Light, Energy, and Gendered Oil Gluttony:Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel's Challenges to Petrocapitalism
Extraction companies and the political regime that they deal with in Equatorial Guinea rely on genderwashing narratives to justify their actions. Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel, via an aesthetic of gendered oil gluttony, disrupts genderwashing narratives by laying plain how exploitation of women is linked to petrocapitalism. But Ávila Laurel's challenges to petrocapitalism go beyond the content of his writing. Style and form borrowed from oral tradition reinforce the disruptive power of Ávila Laurel's work, as does its strategic distribution in particular countries of the Global North.
Dolores Molubela, an Equatoguinean citizen whom I interviewed during a fieldwork trip to the country in 2015, lost her adult children to disease.1 She is now responsible for looking after her surviving grandchildren. She works as a cleaner in a hotel frequented by foreign, white-collar oil workers and barely manages to keep food on the table. She makes it clear: not enough food, but almost. Dolores is part of a gendered workforce that serves the oil industry in Equatorial Guinea. Some women, like Dolores, work as cleaners, others in hospitality, and others still as street vendors of food or sex. Dolores is conscious of the inequalities that exist between her family and the men she serves: "They say that there is petrol here. Well, the petrol is just for a few people. They fill their stomachs and get fat, and leave the rest of us to starve" (qtd. in Allan, Silenced Resistance 131). Dolores nods to "the politics of the belly," a Cameroonian idiom that Jean-François Bayart uses to conceptualize the politics of sub-Saharan Africa, which, he argues, are characterized by patrimonialism, corruption, power, and resource hoarding (Bayart lxvii). The Equatoguinean cleaner brings our attention to the role of oil in this equation of [End Page 101] power. Dolores imagines petrol as bloating the bodies of the few. She sees oil through a metaphor of gluttony and condemns the greedy system that leaves her family and friends hungry. This and similar oil metaphors have recently become a fast-growing line of inquiry in the humanities. Petrocultural studies is concerned with insights into how we—not individuals like Dolores, but entire cultures and global communities—make sense of oil, the cultural representation of oil, and its ability to shape cultural production, expectations, and values.
How one can see oil is a key question in petrocultural studies. While Graeme Macdonald remarks on oil's cultural invisibility in the Global North, he likewise recognizes that "for the many extraction sites on the (semi-)periphery of the world-system—and within cultural production from those areas—oil is or has been overtly visible, even if it is subsequently made 'unseen,' either by privatization, securitization and military enforcement or by its mediated mystification" (Macdonald, "Monstruous Transformer" 293). Equatorial Guinea is arguably the site of the world's starkest wealth difference, where—not unrelatedly—oil dominates the economy. How is oil seen by Equatoguineans, and how is it made "unseen"? In this essay, I aim to contribute to the debate on gendering petroculture through a focus on the work of one of Equatorial Guinea's most prominent and celebrated writers, Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel. I argue that Ávila Laurel makes oil visible, explicitly for a Global Northern audience, by depicting gendered oil gluttony. In doing so, he challenges the mystification tools employed by oil multinationals and political elites, who attempt to obscure their crimes through public relations exercises showcasing their (hollow) support for women's empowerment and gender equality.
Several researchers have contributed to our understanding of the gendered workings of the oil economy and the gendered nature of petroculture more widely. Michael Ross has shown how oil-dominated economies entrench gender inequalities by reducing the number of women in the labor force, thereby also reducing women's political participation. Heather Turcotte, on the other hand, turns her attention to matters of conflict through her conceptualization of "petro-sexual politics" (201). She illustrates the global, colonial workings of petroviolence, which, she argues, is inextricably linked to gendered violence. Likewise, Cara Daggett has developed the concept of petromasculinity to argue that fossil fuels forge and advance authoritarian masculinities and that fossil fuel use is a violent compensation for gender anxiety and climate change trouble. From a cultural studies perspective, Cecily Devereux explores how petroculture drives the performance of femininity to the extent that [End Page 102] women living in the epoch of petroculture have become imagined as petrocultural commodities. Sheena Wilson likewise connects the dots among consumerism, Western feminism, and the female body, showing how neoliberal petrodiscourses promote specific female identities, a consumerist feminism, and "largely superficial" definitions of women's relationship to oil (244). Wilson illuminates her argument by pursuing several lines of discourse analysis; for instance, she discusses corporate and state efforts in Canada to depict the oil industry as ethical and supportive of gender equality. Helen Kapstein, whose work makes an important contribution to the growing wealth of scholarship on texts and music that depict oil politics in Nigeria, likewise focuses her attention on such self-justifying narratives of Big Oil, but she also shows how literature can resist and sabotage such narratives.
It is at this point in the scholarship—the focus on literature's transformative potential—that I hope to intervene. Building on Kapstein's exploration of literature as sabotage, and focusing on the work of Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel, I show how literature can challenge the false narratives of so-called state feminism that the Equatoguinean regime and its Big Oil partners manufacture. I do so by exploring how this state feminism plays out in Equatorial Guinea and how Ávila Laurel uses electric light and gluttony as metaphors for petrocapitalism's dazzling dream and ugly (misogynist) reality in turn. I also argue that Ávila Laurel borrows style and form from oral tradition in order to increase the disruptive power of his writing, giving way to narrative strategies that facilitate the humanization of migrant characters.
Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel is a novelist, poet, playwright, essayist, and short story writer. He is a critic of Teodoro Obiang Nguema—Equatorial Guinea's ruler for the past 40 years—and the international community's tolerance for this despot. While Ávila Laurel's works have received critical acclaim abroad, the political and cultural climate in Equatorial Guinea means they are less accessible for his comrades. In February 2012, Ávila Laurel began a hunger strike to protest the dictator's continued rule, which culminated in his house arrest and eventual search for refuge in Spain. His writing consistently engages with the inequalities, injustices, and tyranny suffered by Equatoguineans in their country, including the governing regime's sale of Equatorial Guinea to foreign oil companies. Indeed, Elisa Rizo describes the work of the current generation of Equatoguinean playwrights, writing during the epoch of Equatorial Guinea's oil boom, as "petro-teatro" (petro-theater) (76). She suggests that this is a "movimiento literario" (literary movement) that [End Page 103] aims "[al] desenmarañe éticohistórico de la situación del presente guineoecuatoriano" ([to] untangle the ethic-history of the situation of the Equatoguinean present). In this essay, I analyze two of Ávila Laurel's short stories, "Mares de ollas" ("Seas of Saucepans") and "Un esfuerzo sobrehumano" ("A Superhuman Effort"), the 2017 novel The Gurugu Pledge, and one poem, "Ecuatorial" ("Equatorial"). I have selected these examples from Ávila Laurel's substantial body of work due to their accessibility (for a foreign audience with internet access) and their preoccupation with oil and/or energy. Before analyzing these works, I provide some background on Equatorial Guinea, its oil politics, and Obiang's discourses of hollow state feminism.
Equatorial Guinea consists of a continental rectangle of mainland, along with a scattering of relatively tiny islands off the coasts of Cameroon, Gabon, and mainland Equatorial Guinea. Several ethnicities, mostly of Bantu origin, make up its population, although it is dominated (80 percent) by Fangs. Although a small part of the population work in services or industry, around two-thirds sustain themselves via subsistence farming of cassava, rice, yams, bananas, and palm oil nuts, or through hunting bushmeat and fishing. Each ethnicity has its own language, but most of the population can also speak Spanish, which is, as a legacy of the colonial era, an official language and the language of education and government. The country had already endured several centuries of European appropriation by the time it became Spanish Guinea at the 1884 Berlin Conference. For Spain, the colony represented imperial pride and a source of timber, coffee, and cocoa. But the UN, badgered by Equatoguinean independence activists, started to push for decolonization in the sixties. Equatorial Guinea gained nominal independence in 1968, but the new leader, Francisco Macías Nguema, quickly revealed a tendency for tyranny. A third of the Equatoguinean population had either died or left the country by the time Macías's nephew, current dictator Teodoro Obiang Nguema, seized power in 1979. Obiang continues to rule the country today; petroleum-funded patronage networks and security apparatuses have supported his leadership since Mobil struck oil in 1995. Hydrocarbons reportedly account for 98 percent of the Equatoguinean economy, and by 2005 the country was selling more oil per capita than Saudi Arabia (Wenar 68). However, the country has two unfortunate distinctions: first, Equatorial Guinea has the largest gap between its GDP and its place on the UN Human Development Index, and, second, it repeatedly features in the NGO Freedom House's annual worst-of-the-worst list of the world's most repressive territories, along with the Moroccan-occupied part [End Page 104] of Spain's other ex-African colony, Western Sahara. Obiang sees the country's oil fields as a family asset rather than a national one. The "world's most important bank" helped to make this obvious in 2005 (Cornwell), when Washington-based Riggs Bank was found guilty of money laundering. US oil companies paid money into personal accounts of the Obiang family held in Riggs Bank. "On at least two occasions… a Riggs employee went to the [Equatorial Guinea's Washington embassy] to pick up suitcases stuffed with up to $3m … in plastic-wrapped bundles (Cornwell). Obiang's son and Vice President of Equatorial Guinea, Teodorín, has faced legal repercussions for corruption and "plunder[ing] his country's oil wealth to buy luxuries" in Brazil, France, and Switzerland over the last two years ("Teodorin Obiang").
Public Relations and Hollow Feminism in the Equatoguinean Oil Regime
As the dominant producers of Equatorial Guinea's crude oil, US companies are Obiang's primary partners in oil extraction, although British, French, and Spanish companies have also been major players. Obiang's Equatorial Guinea is a classic client state. As a member of the US embassy put it in a leaked communication in 2009, "We (via U.S. oil companies) pay all the bills—and the EG leadership knows it" (Smith). By 2009, the US was allegedly importing a larger share of oil and gas from the Gulf of Guinea than it was from the Middle East. In 2018, the US imported $454 million worth of mineral fuels from the country (Office of the US Trade Representative). The US government has also bankrolled security infrastructure surrounding the oil fields owned by the Obiang family and Equatorial Guinea.2 US technical assistance would, in the words of the leaked memo from the US embassy, be "effective in giving EG the future we want it to have" (Smith). That is, the embassy wants an Obiang-led future that would avoid "revolution that brings sudden, uncertain change and unpredictability" and "potentially dire consequences for our interests, most notably our energy security."
Hannah Appel's ethnography of the lives of white oil executives and their wives in Equatorial Guinea backs up what the aforementioned leaks reveal. Appel has explored how enclaves for white North American oil managers act, on an infrastructural level, to "deny the web of sociopolitical relations required for hydrocarbon extraction and production, allowing the commodity (and the companies producing it) to appear as if separate from those relations" (442). [End Page 105] That is, Appel shows how American oil companies attempt to deny responsibility for the current state of affairs in Equatorial Guinea, in which the majority of the Equatoguinean population live in poverty, without access to electricity and running water, despite the country's elevated GDP.3 Simultaneously, Appel convinces the reader of oil companies' guilt through an analysis of their illegal practices and leading roles in Obiang's ostentatious but socially useless prestige projects, such as the construction of high-rise buildings that are impressive to the eye but lack plumbing or electricity. In other words, Appel picks apart American oil companies' attempts at denial and lays bare their entanglement with the Obiang regime's abuses of the Equatoguinean population.
Like the leaders of other oil-rich regimes, such as Ibrahim Babangida or Sani Abacha in Nigeria or Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in Iran, Obiang uses oil to fuel efforts to promote state feminism in Equatorial Guinea. Obiang and his Western corporate and government allies in the oil industry work together to formulate a discourse of false state feminism. The Obiang regime brands itself as a champion of gender equality to match the current international trend for supporting, at least in theory, women's empowerment in the so-called developing world.4 Such branding serves Obiang's Western partners because it helps them put a positive spin on their morally reprehensible activities. This branding exercise and its political objectives are encompassed by the term "genderwashing," which refers to claims to promote gender equality while simultaneously undermining it (Allan, Silenced Resistance 10). Obiang, who, in his government's words, "recognized women's rights for the first time in the history of [the Equatoguinean] people" (Equatorial Guinea 3) has paid a US-based reputation management company to push the story of his fruitful efforts to support gender equality. The US Agency for International Development, US embassy to Equatorial Guinea, and US oil companies have reportedly helped by sponsoring well-publicized campaigns that supposedly promote gender equality in the country. In practice, though, state and foreign embassy-funded measures that tackle sexism in Equatorial Guinea are dramatically inadequate and mostly consist of high-profile receptions and marches attended by the wives of politicians to celebrate their achievements and beauty pageants. Meanwhile, feminists subtly criticize the government for blocking efforts to implement laws and policies that would actually promote gender equality, such as a draft law to regulate aspects of customary marriage (covering issues such as dowry, consent, and inheritance) and for refusal to fund measures to support vulnerable [End Page 106] women, such as healthcare services for rural women and support services for sex workers at risk of contracting HIV/AIDS. Likewise, the role of overseas aid to Equatorial Guinea in general terms has received a damning judgment: the only systematic, independent evaluation readily available online at the time of this writing finds that aid has been used principally for the personal and political advantage of the ruling regime and has had no positive impact on the lives of the poorest Equatoguineans.5
Oil Gluttony, Gender, and Lights of Hope
In the remainder of the essay, I explore Ávila Laurel's use of gluttony as a metaphor for petrocapitalism. Alisdair Rogers, Noel Castree, and Rob Kitchin explain that the term "petrocapitalism" refers to both a globalized economy dependent on oil and gas and the current geopolitical status quo, in which access to oil is paramount. While most dictionary definitions of the word understand it as excessive eating or drinking, gluttony, in its broadest meaning, is "the overindulgence or overconsumption of anything—not just food—to the point of waste" (Dossey 3). Bayart, as I mentioned earlier, has drawn our attention to the workings of politics in many sub-Saharan African countries through the idea of "the politics of the belly" (lxviii), where eating stands in for governing, and eating involves exploiting, hoarding, attacking, or feeding one's kin and allies first. For example, Bayart describes former Equatoguinean dictator Macías Nguema, who killed or forced into exile a third of the country's population through his draconian policies, as having "a prophetic appetite" (268). But Bay-art finds that, in many cases, such politics work for better or worse. What the idea of gluttony adds to this conversation is a value judgement on these politics from an Equatoguinean perspective, and the judgement is a condemnation. In Christian doctrine (and we should perhaps bear in mind, in the context of this essay, that the majority of Equatoguineans are Catholics), gluttony is a sin when it involves depriving the needy of food. Ávila Laurel paints a picture of Bay-art's politics of the belly, but it is a hypercritical one. The aesthetic quality of Ávila Laurel's picture of oil gluttony is also important: the politics of the belly are disgusting. Greed and exploitation are grotesque. Below, I focus on Ávila Laurel's depiction of the relationship between oil gluttony and transactional sex in Equatorial Guinea. Then, I look at how the global injustices of petrocapitalism play out, often in gendered ways, beyond the borders of his country. Finally, I explore the politics of energy access in Equatorial Guinea as well [End Page 107] as Ávila Laurel's attention to audience and the subversive power of his work's distribution.
Ávila Laurel opened his address at the 2018 Edinburgh Book Festival by making light of the gendered and racist line of questioning to which UK authorities subjected him in the UK visa application: "Tengo una buena noticia para las británicas. ¡Estoy soltero!" (I've got good news for British women. I'm single!) ("In Search of Refuge"). He claims that he told the UK Border Agency, "No, my reason for travel is not to marry a British woman, but to discuss my latest novel." Ironically enough, his novel The Gurugu Pledge includes an exchange in which the Malians mock the Gambians for their relationships with "old English ladies" (81). However, the nexus of gender, race, age, class, and power through which sex tourism operates in Ávila Laurel's native Equatorial Guinea is different from that of Gambia. As I have argued in previous research, in Equatorial Guinea, it is Equatoguinean girls and young women who engage in (or are engaged in) sexual transactions with older, richer white men, and sometimes local men, too, if the latter are high enough in the ranks of the petroregime to have money to spare. Ávila Laurel draws attention to the relationship to oil that power implies and the gender, race, and class dynamics of these sexual relations in his poem "Equatorial," which is the second of a pair of poems respectively named Guinea and Equatorial, and which, as their titles suggest, together explore the (lack of) national identity of the country:
Y dicen que es el kerosín,que quema la cartillay abre los virgos de chicas sin vergüenza.Por la tarde, todos van a misay confiesan sus mentirasa mano armada.África libre,¡viva Guinea Ecuatorial,off shore de crudos consumidos (ll. 11–20)And they say that it's kerosene,that burns the walletand opens the hymens of shameless girls.In the afternoon, they all go to massand confess their liesat gunpoint.free Africalong live Equatorial Guinea!off shore eaten raw [End Page 108]
Ávila Laurel describes Equatorial Guinea itself (in the final two lines, but also implicitly in the title of the pair of poems) as an "off shore eaten raw," suggesting an image of the nation as raw meat for oil predators—a metaphor for the concept of oil gluttony. The entire nation—and, indeed, the pair of poems raises doubt as to whether or not Guinea Equatorial is a nation in the traditional sense of the word—is reduced to the consumption of oil, even the overconsumption. If "petronations" (Rutland 78) are postcolonial nations that came into being parallel to oil developments, for which oil and gas dependency is part of their national identity, Ávila Laurel gives an overarching image of Equatorial Guinea as less a petronation than a petrocolony. The neocolonial undertones of the oil/sex nexus are underlined by the Anglicism of the final line, while the phrase "free Africa" suggests the irony of a postcolonial country bankrolled by—that is, economically dependent on—the West.6 Like "eaten raw," the image of the kerosene-burnt wallet, together with the nod to Catholic mass and confession, suggests the gluttonous sins of petrocapitalism.
The neocolonial dynamic of oil-soaked sexual politics, as well as the chaotic excesses of oil gluttony, are also addressed in Ávila Laurel's short story "Mares de ollas" ("Seas of Saucepans").7 Dorothy Odartey-Wellington finds that the stories collected in Crude Stories depict the challenges faced by the Malabo-dwelling residents, including power blackouts, lack of running water, and exploitation by foreign multinationals; these challenges are a microcosm of the national situation and the country-wide discontent with the ruling government. "Seas of Saucepans" focuses on the issue of foreign exploitation. It is a dark political satire of a dictator's whim and its effect on the population. In this story, Ávila Laurel ridicules the Obiang regime and exposes the gendered outcomes of its oil gluttony. By way of its farcical orders, the regime forces the population to humiliate itself.
The story opens with the dictator's latest decree: the celebration of Christmas is forbidden due to economic crisis. All goods bought for Christmas must be returned to the point of purchase. And, as the date is 23 December, the people of Equatorial Guinea have already bought their new shoes, clothes, and Christmas dinner ingredients and have had their hair and nails done. Most have already started to cook festive stews, and are forced to return to the shops, saucepans in hand, and attempt to claim refunds for their putrid, rotting ingredients. Thus, the country becomes overrun with the excess commodities that the ruling regime considers an overindulgence (and, in the case of the saucepans' contents, gluttony) on the part of its impoverished population. The government has a special solution [End Page 109] for the thousands of young women who have had their hair braided for the Christmas parties. White employees from a North American oil company arrive in central Malabo in a truck transporting tubes. Descending from the truck, the white men carry with them a curious apparatus that resembles an electric saw—a braidcutter. They demonstrate its function on one of the girls whom regime heavies have rounded up. She sobs with shame and humiliation as the oil executive shaves her head, smiling in his suit and tie for a photograph (which thereby suggests that the scene is a PR opportunity to showcase the company's altruistic donation of the braidcutting contraption to the Equatoguinean public). Ávila Laurel lays bare the gendered nature of the extractive violence and the incredible hypocrisy of corporations that claim to be promoting women's empowerment through their activities in Equatorial Guinea.8 Furthermore, by depicting the ludicrous waste of the entire population's festive feasts, Ávila Laurel suggests the profound duplicity of the ruling Obiang family, which grows rich on the back of the world's unabated oil consumption while Equatoguineans go hungry. The selfish implications of Christian understandings of gluttony are implied here. Indeed, the poverty of the average Equatoguinean is made clear by a young woman who unsuccessfully attempts to return her new shoes to the market stall where she purchased them, as per the demands of the dictator's decree. A reimbursement is difficult since, penniless, she bought the shoes in exchange for sex.
As the mass public headshaving continues, politicians emerge from the balconies of the nearby Parliament building to watch the spectacle. They recognize girls with whom they have had "ciertas relaciones" (certain relations), girls who have not yet reached the age to "hac[er] el bachiller" (do the baccalaureate), and they are so disgusted by the bloody, oily horror of the sight below that they vomit over the rails. The braidcutter, due to its coating with "el engrase con que vendría del almacén de la petrolera" (grease that must come from the oil company's warehouse), makes an unsettling sound that gets louder and louder as more women are shaved, and, since some women have nits, the braidcutter soon drips with nit blood. The scene brings together Equatorial Guinea's ruling regime, North American oil elites, and young Equatoguinean girls, the former two humiliating the latter. Ávila Laurel exposes the genderwashing of petroculture with grotesque images of oil, blood, vomit, and nits, not to mention the putrid contents of the sea of saucepans that gives the story its name. The Equatoguinean regime, in partnership with neocolonial oil elites, exploit underage girls as well as natural resources. [End Page 110]
Ávila Laurel's The Gurugu Pledge also focuses on colonial legacies and the sexual exploitation of African women. It makes use of electricity and oil aesthetically and metaphorically to communicate the role of oil gluttony in fueling African migration to Europe. The story begins abruptly. The reader lands in the book beside gathered firewood and a sparse shared meal of fish scraps to view an evening in the life of any Gurugu mountain resident. We are in a cave, on a cold, cold night, listening to a story. This is the survival story, or stories, of the Africans waiting to cross from Morocco to a Spanish enclave in order to leave behind the violence of the borderlands and move on to the mythical better life they believe awaits them in Europe. Survival here means ensuring the infinite continuation of the energy cycle, which trudges around and around the novel, like a hamster on a wheel. The Gurugers make and spend this energy. They are the migrants from all over Africa who hide from Moroccan police—known to raze the ramshackle camps of sub-Saharans—in the forests of Mount Gurugu. The mountain gazes over the border between Morocco and the Spanish enclave of Melilla. The Gurugers take turns hustling for food, which gives them the energy to play football. They play football in order to keep warm. And, as they struggle to keep warm in the evening, they tell stories—their own backstories of "what their lives had been before coming to the residence" (The Gurugu Pledge 10). The narrator doesn't give us a reason why they are telling stories at first. But we do know one reason why Ávila Laurel wishes to tell these stories. In his words, the novel is at least in part about "humanizing the lives of people that no one talks about" ("In Search of Refuge").
The pledge of the title refers to the Gurugers' mutual promise to enact justice for the women sexually exploited by the mountain's two shadiest residents, Omar Salanga and Aliko Dangote. The Gurugers' do so, in the midst of an attempt to cross the border fence, by impaling the two guilty parties on the fence, thereby contesting Europe's border regime at the same time that they punish those who have exploited the vulnerable women among them. That is to say, Ávila Laurel foregrounds the Gurugers' agency and moral compass. However, we could not describe the pursuit of this pledge as a plot. Ávila Laurel consciously wrote a novel without a central plot because, he says, "there is no plot in the lives of the people whose story I tell. If I gave the book a plot, I would be silencing those people yet again" ("In Search of Refuge"). Rather, the structure of the novel reflects the oral traditions of the Gurugers' home communities. We are immersed in communal storytelling and, fittingly, Ávila Laurel makes abundant [End Page 111] use of an oral storyteller's traditional repertoire. Repetition, parallelism, the direct address, digression, imagery, hyperbole, allusion, and symbolism characterize the novel.9 Digression, in particular, is a central disruptive tool for Ávila Laurel. The teller-of-tales (the novel's main narrator) is frequently interrupted with interjections in the form of requests for clarifications, rumors linked to the characters he talks about, and other comments and opinions from his audience of fellow Gurugers. Consider, for example, how he interrupts Alex Babangida, whose story was, in turn, a digression from the main narrative:
"Why don't we actually just let Alex tell his story?" "Yes, do go on, Alex," said the man who'd spoken of a wedding."But feel free to use any of my suggestions. You could say you were thenephew of the old woman the tatata girl turned into, for example." "Go on, brother Alex Babangida, tell us your story," the manin hysterics said with a splutter. "Thank you, I will, although with all these interruptions, I'vealmost forgotten it."(31)
Such interjections lend a sense of immediacy to the novel, yet also allow ample opportunity for comedy. Observing the banter between the Gurugers—their sometimes light, sometimes disparaging, sometimes gallows humor—humanizes them and prevents the reader from viewing the migrants as objects of pity or horror. (Indeed, as I mentioned above, Ávila Laurel emphasizes their agency and collective sense of justice.) This directly undermines the narratives of European mainstream media and populist politicians with regard to so-called illegal immigrants, which paint the latter as pitiable, or hateful, pariahs stalking Europe's borders and threatening to invade.
The digressions are also frequently lengthened. They thereby give way to substories narrated by various Gurugers sitting around the fire. Each substory offers a moral lesson, as is often the case in storytelling traditions. And each lesson and substory reveals why the Gurugers have come to be on Mount Gurugu. As Robin Celikates points out, irregularized migration is often interpreted in Europe in terms of self-interest (migrants seek to exploit welfare systems) or occasionally of humanitarian motivations (fleeing persecution and violence when legal routes have shut down). Such migrants are regularly stigmatized in mainstream media, which depict African migrants in dehumanizing ways and as threats to Europeans. News outlets talk of waves of immigrants and of illegal immigrants, as if people themselves could be illegal. In this context, the backstories of Ávila Laurel's characters, delivered structurally as substories or interjections within [End Page 112] the main story told by the central narrator, play a key epistemic role in revealing for a Western reader (and, as I argue later, Ávila Laurel's envisaged audience is a Western one, not an Equatoguinean one) the complex motivations, which always intersect with petrocapitalism's global injustices, that lie behind sub-Saharan migrants' decision to head toward Europe. Coming to know individual characters—their histories, motivations, and aspirations—serves to humanize communities that are normally homogenized into an image of threatening African invaders. Perhaps most importantly, the substories show the various historic and ongoing roles of the West in producing these injustices: the Western reader is implicated.
Nigerian Alex's narrative is one example of such a substory. His tale features the daily trip that he used to make, while living at home, to a nearby grocery store to pick up his staples of kerosene and food. The shopkeeper was foreign, fat, gluttonous, greedy, smelly, and grotesque, and—Alex thinks—he literally ate other people's money. This foreigner was, so Alex heard, high up in Idi Amin's regime in Uganda, and perpetrated numerous atrocities there. Now, he was making a fortune from organizing illegal safari hunting trips for whites. "A tremendous glutton" (38), he would also eat the safari animals and exploit fellow Africans to clean the hides, which he would then sell. The literal and metaphorical oil on the shopkeeper's palms is described in detail over several pages.10 Alex describes "the dirty pig" (33) as he "handl[es] everyone else's money, licking his fingers and then eating" when Alex buys a plastic bottle of kerosene. And in tandem we are told how the shopkeeper managed to "greas[e] the palms of those in power" in whichever country he found himself (38). Much like Dolores Molubela, the cleaner with whom I opened this essay, Ávila Laurel represents the colonial legacy of oil, authoritarianism, and neocolonial exploitation through crude images of gluttony. The juxtaposition of this tale of a gluttonous, corrupt shopkeeper driven by the oil industry with the stories of the morally superior Gurugers who struggle every day to find enough food to stay alive (that is, the apparently needy victims of the Christian sin of gluttony) makes Ávila Laurel's point even clearer.
Energy, including but going beyond the chemical energy produced when oil is burned, is a key theme in the novel. Ávila Laurel uses energy converted into electric light as a screen onto which the Gurugers project their desires. But what electricity means socially and politically for Gurugers changes as the story progresses. As I mentioned earlier, Gurugers are trapped in an infinite energy cycle, in which they must exercise to keep warm and seek food in order to [End Page 113] have the energy to exercise. Ávila Laurel reflects this relentless cycle in vocabulary, semantics, and form: ideas and words are repeated throughout the novel, and secondary characters make successive appearances. Electric lights initially represent the end of the struggle to maintain this energy cycle of basic survival. The sight of electric lights means warmth without having to expend one's energy, as well as power, prosperity, comfort, but also—we learn as the story progresses—the ability to oppress.11 From the summit of the mountain at night, the narrator says that "you could see the lights in the villages below, and although those villages were not in Europe, they had lights, meaning prosperous lives clustered together" (83). But the light of Omar Salanga's phone (a charged phone is a complete anomaly and an unthinkable luxury on the mountain, where there is no source of electricity), used to guide men to the women he sexually exploits in the cave, stands in for an uglier role that electrical energy can play. Electric light begins as a metaphor for the prosperity that the Gurugers seek, but it later comes to stand in for the interlinked abuses of power, corruption, and poverty that forces them to seek such dreams far from home in the first place. In other words, Ávila Laurel uses electric light to reveal the dazzling dream and ugly reality of petrocapitalism, and, once again, he takes care to underline the gendered vulnerabilities brought about by this global system. Equatoguineans are among those who pursue a destiny outside of Africa. Benita Sampedro Vizcaya notes that "Guinea no se queda al margen del desplazamiento provocado por el traifico de refugiados, tanto politicos como economicos, que a paso acelerado huyen del tercer mundo fascinados por el suenio capitalista y urbano de la prosperidad de occidente" (Guinea does not stay on the sidelines of the displacement provoked by the traffic of political and economic refugees, that escape from the third world at a fast pace fascinated by the capitalist and urban dream of western prosperity) (310–11). Ávila Laurel brings the Africa-wide injustices exposed in The Gurugu Pledge back home to Equatorial Guinea in his short story "Un esfuerzo sobrehumano" ("A Superhuman Effort"). Another of the Crude Stories, the tale mocks the state of electrical infrastructure in Equatorial Guinea. It is a brief paragraph of a story, an example of flash fiction. Ávila Laurel makes full use of the brevity of this genre; the story's power lies in what is suggested but not explicitly stated. On 2 January, the employees of Equatorial Guinea's only electrical company arrive home exhausted, demanding multiple portions of food and energy drinks from their wives, because "desde la tarde del 31 hasta el mediodía del 2 no había habido ningún apagón en el [End Page 114] sector 3 del distrito urbano número 6" (from the afternoon of the 31st until midday of the 2nd there were no blackouts in sector 3 of urban district number 6). Meanwhile, all other sectors and districts of the Equatoguinean capital city celebrate New Year's Day by candle light. Ávila Laurel leads the reader to make several assumptions about Equatorial Guinea: that sector three of district six is the most affluent of suburbs where the country's ruling circle reside, that the country's electrical infrastructure is so desperately poor that a team of electricians must work without rest to ensure that energy is provided to one sector of a district for just 48 hours, and that corruption ensures that only the ruling elites have access to electrical energy. The story ridicules the Equatoguinean government, exposing the unfair incongruence of a country that has estimated reserves of 1.1 billion oil barrels but cannot or will not supply the majority of the population with functioning electrical infrastructure ("Equatorial Guinea"). Again, the story suggests an underlying message of oil gluttony, both by the disparity in Equatoguineans' ability to (over)consume energy and by the electricians' lack of food or drink for two days.
Form's interaction with circulation is also significant when it comes to the disruptive power of Ávila Laurel's work. Kapstein's observations on this matter with regard to Nigerian literature ring true, at least partially, for Ávila Laurel's Crude Stories. Kapstein argues that the content of new Nigerian short stories is a form of sabotage because it undoes Big Oil's narrative of saboteurs-as-criminals by "refram[ing] the actions of impoverished Nigerian citizens as tactical maneuvers by people wielding the only weapons they have—using the tools of exploitation against their exploiters" ("Crude Fictions" 2). Yet Kapstein goes further in arguing that the stories themselves, in their form and circulation, are weapons of sabotage. That is, the stories' short form and online availability mean that they can be easily disseminated and consumed among Nigerians. The brevity of the tales in Ávila Laurel's Crude Stories and their free accessibility online mirror Kapstein's Nigerian example. However, the crucial difference in the Nigerian context is that Ávila Laurel's principle audience cannot be dominated by his compatriots. There is only one bookshop in Equatorial Guinea, and digital publications by writers considered a threat to the regime, such as Ávila Laurel, are not readily accessible.
Equatoguinean writers know they write for a foreign audience. This knowledge has implications for how their work can disrupt the narratives of—and indeed resist—Big Oil. When it comes to the dynamics of nonviolent action for overcoming an oppressive force, international indignation can, as Gene Sharp argues, be translated [End Page 115] into concrete actions such as economic and diplomatic sanctions. However, Sharp also points out that international public opinion alone will have little effect if the opponent is not sensitive to it. In the case of Equatorial Guinea, as mentioned above, genderwashing public relations campaigns reveal the importance of public opinion back home for US corporations. To target English- and Spanishspeaking audiences, then, seems a worthwhile resistance strategy to complement Ávila Laurel's wider political activism.12 If Ávila Laurel's intention is to take on Big Oil and its Equatoguinean government partners by nonviolent means, then his ability to sway public opinion in the home countries of the corporations active in Equatorial Guinea—mainly the US and Spain, and to a lesser extent the UK and France—is key.
Ávila Laurel's work challenges extractivism by exposing the false feminism and hypocrisy of corporates and the Equatoguinean ruling regime. He helps us see oil, as well as structural inequalities in which it is enmeshed and which it causes, through a picture of gendered oil gluttony. Ávila Laurel's depictions of those who sell oil—whether they be the Equatoguinean ruling elite or the ex-henchman of Idi Amin turned shopkeeper who flogs kerosene and animal hides—reek of overindulgence in (exploitative) sex with underage girls, food and/or corruption. The shopkeeper guzzles food and other people's money simultaneously, pawing the bottles of kerosene he sells with grotesque, sticky fingers. When white oil executives lead the public humiliation of Equatoguinean girl-children by shaving their heads, they stage this act amid a scene of extravagant, government-ordered waste, with pots and pots of rotting meals, cabinet members spewing out their food, and oil from the braidcutter mingling with vomit and nit blood. The oil system disgusts as it exploits. The concept of energy, on the other hand, is explored in a more nuanced fashion. The Gurugers' basic, daily struggle to obtain enough energy to survive accentuates the gluttony of petrocapitalism. At the same time, electric light stands in for petrocapitalism, both the dazzling dream it presents and the exploitative and violent reality it constitutes.
But, like the works of Nigerian writers, that of Ávila Laurel has a disruptive power that resides not only in the works' content, but also in its dissemination. Many of his poems and short stories are available freely online in their original Spanish, while two of his novels are available in English. Indeed, the latest of these has been published only in English. These books are not on sale at all in Equatorial Guinea. His audience is a Western one, principally US, UK, and Spanish readerships. In the same way that the extracted oil does [End Page 116] not primarily benefit the Equatoguinean people, but is rather consumed by peoples elsewhere, Ávila Laurel produces works intended for and consumed by foreign rather than domestic audiences. His work disrupts genderwashing narratives by laying bare how exploitation of and violence against women is linked to petrocapitalism. By exporting his writing, Ávila Laurel undermines extraction companies' legitimacy in those companies' countries of origin, a tactic typical of nonviolent strategy. How effective is his strategy? This is harder to measure. But his literary achievements—that is, his appearance on the shortlists of international literary prizes and his invitations to speak at renowned literary festivals around the world—tell of his ability to raise awareness of petrodespotism in Equatorial Guinea for an audience that may otherwise know very little about the country. Expanding his literary audience has also enabled him to create an international platform ready to report on his political activism and offer solidarity when needed. As Pavarti Nair, writing in the Guardian on the occasion of Ávila Laurel's 2011 hunger strike explained, "A writer's hunger strike can change Equatorial Guinea." Since Ávila Laurel is "much loved, read and admired for his brilliance," Nair continues, he has a certain ability to help the anti-regime cause in overcoming what Nair highlights as its principal problem: its lack of "visibility and recognition." His close relationship with the Washington-based NGO EG Justice, which fights for respect for human rights in Equatorial Guinea by lobbying the US government primarily for greater transparency about its oil transactions and exploitation, helps to amplify further the impact of his work.13 Perhaps the greatest indicator of Ávila Laurel's power, though, is the reaction he provokes in the regime itself. While a government spokesperson shrugs off the writer as being "barely known" and as having "no followers" or "any type of relevance" (Osa Osa Ecoro), the regime's insistence on ensuring that the Equatoguinean population cannot read his works, its arrest of the writer, and its actions in eventually forcing him to seek exile in Spain indicate the depth of fear that Ávila Laurel, his works, and his international platform invoke in the decadent regime.
JOANNA ALLAN <firstname.lastname@example.org> is Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at Northumbria University's Centre for International Development. Before this, she taught Hispanic Studies at the University of Durham. Her book Silenced Resistance: Women, Dictatorships and Genderwashing in Western Sahara and Equatorial Guinea is out now with Wisconsin University Press.
. I would like to thank the Leverhulme Trust for the Early Career Fellowship that made this research possible. I am grateful to my colleagues at the Centre for International Development, Northumbria University, for their support. I would also like to thank Alok Amatya, Ashley Dawson, John Duvall, Robert Marzec, and the two anonymous peer reviewers for their insightful and helpful comments. Thanks to Daniel Froid and Alejandra Ortega for the editorial work that substantially improved the essay.
1. Dolores's name is a pseudonym.
3. For more on the private enclaves that appear in tandem with Western investments in natural resource exploitation throughout Africa, creating transnational networks that are nevertheless disconnected from the national societies in which the enclaves are located, see Ferguson.
4. It is important to recognize that African women have played a large role in pressuring international organizations to put women's rights at the forefront of development agendas. For more on African women's political activism, see Badri and Tripp.
6. Ávila Laurel is aware of colonialism's linguistic legacy. When describing how the Gurugers live according to language group and struggle together to find something to eat each day, he clarifies, "Eat or manger, according to whichever history the whites chose for you" (The Gurugu Pledge 65).
8. For more on the condition of women in Equatoguinean society and in the diaspora, see the work of Obono Ntutumu, for example "Acerca De La Mujer Guineana" which gives a brief overview of the gender-based challenges faced by Equatoguinean women, and work by Sipi Mayo, for example, her book Inmigración y género: El caso de Guinea Ecuatorial explores Equatoguinean gender roles as they are played out in the Spanish diaspora.
10. For instance, Alex describes him as a "fat man handling money and licking his fingers" (33).
11. One is reminded of The Great Gatsby, in which distant electric light represents Gatsby's dreams and desires but, simultaneously, their unattainability.