Juan Tomas Ávila Laurel on How the Plight of African Migrants Inspired His New Novel

Juan Tomas Ávila Laural, courtesy of & Other Stories
Juan Tomas Ávila Laural, courtesy of & Other Stories

Books and Digest Editor

The Equatorial Guinean writer included in our Global Anthology was joined by his translator to discuss the development and sentiment behind The Gurugu Pledge.

The former Spanish colony of Equatorial Guinea is a country of peculiars. As a former Spanish colony, it is one of two African regions where Spanish is the official language (the other being Western Sahara’s disputed Sawrahi Republic). It’s capital Malabo is located on an island territory far north of its mainland counterpart, where an indigenous tribe known as the Bubi are seeking an independence of their own. Despite being one of the smallest nations on the African continent (roughly equivalent to the tri-state area of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island), the nation is among the wealthiest countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, due in large part to its booming oil industry. Equatorial Guinea’s impoverished infrastructure, however, isn’t that uncommon, nor is the fact that it has been ruled by despotic president, in this case Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, for nearly 40 years. Unsurprisingly, “Obiang” as he is referred to, is consistently ranked as one of Africa’s richest heads of state, a wealth that most would argue belongs to the populace.

Among Obiang’s most outspoken critics is the lauded Equatorial Guinean writer and activist Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel, who has been arrested several times for protesting the Obiang government. After his most defiant act, a week-long hunger strike in the capital, he went into self-imposed exile in Spain. In numerous works, Laurel examines the country’s quick turn from independence to dictatorship, the plight of his fellow countrymen, the flight of Africans seeking a better life. Due to the efforts of his translator Jethro Soutar and his publisher & Other Stories, Laurel has not only become the first major contemporary writer to emerge from Equatorial Guinea, he is also among Africa’s most fiery. His newest novel in translation, The Gurugu Pledge, centers on a group of migrants encamped on a mountain overlooking the Spanish enclave of Melilla on the tip of Morocco who swap reveries and suspicions and plans to cross the Mediterranean. The first chapter has been excerpted as the Equatorial Guinean selection for our Global Anthology.

Laurel and Soutar were kind enough to answer questions about the book, the sentiment behind its writing and translation, and the very real plight of migrant Africans.

Cover courtesy of & Other Stories

Your new novel, The Gurugu Pledge, regards a group of migrants encamped on a Moroccan mountain who swap stories of their past, play football, and hope to make their way into Europe while doing their best to live civilly together. Your publisher states that this book was inspired by first-hand accounts, and I’m wondering if you could talk a bit about how you came to write this particular novel?

Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel: There was a time when stories about massive assaults on the fence appeared almost daily. I was personally moved by a documentary in which those in Melilla, who had already jumped and had spent time in the reception centers, showed their support for those who wanted to come over as well. Being close to the fence, they watched them try to evade the blows of the policemen and enter Spanish soil, and filling up with emotion they would shout bossa, bossa, bossa!, as if to say that their brothers had made it through, at last. But the truth is that while I was interested in the stories of these migrants, I had already started the novel, and only went online to obtain geographical details of Mount Gurugu. I did not want, for example, to talk about wildcats if there really were no such animals living there. That is, I wrote the novel because I felt for the fate of those who had lost their way and lived in hardship camped in this wooded mountain.

Although African roads are full of people who could offer their own testimonies to this ongoing saga, in fact any writer is able to write about this lives of people like those living on Mount Gurugu. This past June, at a cultural event in Barcelona, ​​I met a Cameroonian writer named Roland Fosso who had stayed on the mountain for several months, and who had written a book about his pilgrimage. At one point, he spoke about an odd incident of how he and his companions had discovered pregnant women living in the Gurugu caves. I had read the book because our talk was going to be about the refugee crisis and, in addition, we were to watch a play entitled The King of Gurugu. What was strange was that even though I had drafted my book before I spoke to this Cameroonian, I had actually written about similar cave occupants, most notably of a woman who bore a child while residing there, and whose story the book is in many ways named after. Moreover, in my story, there are even Cameroonians, which is odd because I actually thought the chance of Cameroonians being on the mountain was unlikely, as Cameroon is halfway down the continent. What I’m saying is that I spoke to people who may well have experienced the story first hand, or somehow internalized it.

Gurugu is based on the actual mountain Gourougou, which can be clearly seen from the Spanish enclave of Melilia. Could you speak a little about this peculiar border between Morocco and Spain?

JTÁL: Mount Gurugu would not be news if it weren’t for the fact that it is skirted by Melilla. The mountain is in Moroccan territory, surrounded by villages and towns, and at its bottom is Melilla, bathed by the Mediterranean Sea. There really is no geographical reason to speak of borders, given that this autonomous city constitutes what is known as an enclave, aside from the fact that its northern part stops at the sea. Logically it would be impossible to deny locals their natural right of accessing the shore, but ever since the issue of Sub-Saharan emigrants became the hot topic, the enclave took measures to make it very difficult to enter Spanish territory, and all that this implies. So to hinder entry by Moroccans and Sub-Saharans, they fortified the place as much as they could, but as the old Spanish saying goes, you can’t fence a mountain.

Melilla with Mount Gurugu in the background, courtesy of Google Maps

How fraught are these boundaries?

JTÁL: They ought not to be fraught given that there is no geographical need for them, but obviously Europe is going everything possible to contain Sub-Saharans, so the city of Melilla has not hesitated to raise barbed wire fences.

What about migrants who do make it past the fences? Are they met with any kind of hospitality?

JTÁL: I don’t think so. The sheer number of migrants requiring hospitality in these enclaves makes welcoming them a near impossible task. Moroccans themselves migrate to Spain in search of better opportunities, so not only are these enclaves not welcoming, they don’t even have that aim.

Many of the stories these migrants tell tie humor together with sadness (or visa-versa). As you were researching for this book, how involved you were in people’s lives and is active in helping these types of migratory communities.

JTÁL: I initially wrote this book with the idea that any profit generated by its sales would go toward the aid of these Africans. I wrote to José Palazón, the director of the NGO Prodein, which is dedicated to raising awareness and aiding African refugees. Palázon is also a well-known photojournalist, who was recently awarded for shooting a photograph of a golf course backgrounded by a large fence on which a handful of migrants are perched. I also wrote to a well-known television personality, Jordi Évole, who I allude to in the novel. He’s a Spanish television news anchor and he has visted the forest on Gurugu. I posted these messages on Facebook, where they caught Palazón’s attention. We had a brief dialogue, but it wasn’t as fruitful as I had hoped and in the end I stopped pursuing it.

What happens to the majority of the migrants in the Gurugu mountain? How many make it to Europe? How many have to turn back?
JTÁL: In Spain, there is a long tradition of deportation that many people are not aware of. Some of those who make face being deported right back, and as we know many migrants do not carry any documentation. It’s plausible that these migrants were shipped off by boat to some no man’s land, like the desert. Now deportations are done by plane. As for the Africans who do jump the fence, they are held at a centro de internamiento de extranjeros [foreigner internment center], which is like a prison. If the center of Melilla is full, as it usually is, these detainees are then transferred to one several provinces that house similar centers on the mainland. Few of these migrants make it into a refugee shelter, which are much different than the CIES. I have been to one of these centers, where the agenda is to the welfare and integration of these migrants. Many Africans simply remain unaccounted for, living on the streets, collecting scrap metal to sell, or working in crop fields under harsh conditions. But until they reach these eventual destinations, they would have come in contact with a network of human traffickers that moves them in rafts from one shore, and hopefully to the other, as long as the boat does not distress and drown everyone. The good news is that there are more migrants wanting to cross than the authorities can keep track of.

Migrants entering a Melilla Golf Course

As a politically active writer, you famously made headlines in Equatorial Guinea when you went on a hunger strike against the government. After this you permanently left the country to reside in Spain. Since you’ve expatriated, how have the concerns of your writing changed?
JTÁL: I have taken up other issues since my strike, issues that have had nothing to do with the situation in Equatorial Guinea. But that is where my writing most often gravitates, because I believe that the dictatorship we Equatorial Guineans endure is what most shapes my life. In other words, I’ve never stopped thinking and worrying about it.

Jethro, how did you come to discover and translate Laurel’s work?

Jethro Soutar: When you start out as a translator you have to seek opportunities where others haven’t already established themselves. I found out which Spanish-speaking countries Words Without Borders had never featured and made it my business to try and fill in some gaps. Equatorial Guinea was one of them and after a bit of research I came across Juan Tomás’ blog. I liked his writing and I liked his attitude, so I got in touch and he sent me his novel, By Night The Mountain Burns, which I then pitched at an And Other Stories reading group.

What are some of the nuances of Equatorial Guinean Spanish or Juan’s writing that present particular challenges of translation?

JS: To speak of The Gurugu Pledge specifically, the characters are not from Equatorial Guinea, indeed they’re not supposed to be from anywhere: they hide their nationalities to make it harder to be deported home. But everyone on the mountain tends to know where everyone else is from anyway, due to accents, customs etc… The story revolves around an English-speaking group, which is of no great consequence linguistically in the original, but as soon as you change their voices into English they have to sound authentically like Africans speaking English, and they have to have voices that are distinct enough to suggest they are from an array of different countries.

And do you see that translating his work, like The Gurugu Pledge, is a political act?

JS: Yes. To go back to how I first came across Juan Tomás’ work, and indeed how I have become somewhat focused on African translations (from Portuguese as well as Spanish), it was initially opportunism, looking for work where others weren’t. But it turned into enthusiasm, because what I ended up reading was so much fresher and more interesting, and then it became a sort of activism, because it takes a good deal of effort to get publishers interested in unknown authors from unfashionable places. I should add, although it perhaps goes without saying, that having literature from different cultures available to read in English is of benefit to all concerned.

What are you both working on now?

JTÁL: I’m always busy with creative projects, because although I have quite a few books published, I also have several unpublished manuscripts, and so there’s always work to be done trying to improve them.

JS: I’ve just finished editing a narrative non-fiction collection called Refugees Worldwide, but I am otherwise “between projects,” i.e. waiting and hoping for publishers to bite.

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