Equatorial Guinea’s ‘American Dirt’

A novel and Netflix film about Spanish colonialism in Equatorial Guinea raises questions about appropriation and storytelling.

Still from Palmeiras en la Nieve.

Readers of Africa Is a Country might be familiar with the controversy stirred by the publication of Jeanine Cummins’ novel American Dirt and Oprah Winfrey’s enthusiastic endorsement, a proverbial thumbs-up that Ms. Cummins took straight to the bank. The story is about the travails of a middle-class Mexican woman forced into an epic journey with her ten-year old son from her native Acapulco to the mythological “Norte”—the Mexico-Texas border.

While Cummins’ novel at first received a positive reception due particularly to Oprah’s imprimatur, a group of writers, intellectuals, immigration activists, and readers with direct knowledge of migration experiences did not see American Dirt’s rendering of complex immigration problems as enlightening. Some charged Cummins with stereotypical character portrayals, an implicit adherence to Trump-like projections of a Hispanic invasion of the US.

The polemic surged (and still surges) with reviews that appeared in popular journals and on-line media. One review in particular by  a recognized latinx writer, Myriam Gurba, added to the assessments of the contents of the novel with an equally severe evaluation of Cummins’ writing. The title (in Spanglish) of her review gives an idea of why she is annoyed, “Pendeja, You Ain’t Steinbeck: Mi Bronca With Fake-ass Social Justice Literature”: a series of invectives about implausible if not unbelievable situations and circumstances, an ingenuous exaltation of a North American xenophobic and simplistic vision of Hispanic immigrants, to say nothing of the embarrassingly poor word usage and sentence structure. As a response Oprah called on some of the critics to discuss the novel with the author on her show.

As someone with a long-time interest in immigration-emigration issues as they relate to the border between Africa and Spain, I’m not surprised by the controversy. In fact, there is a similar case in Spain, although it has not received nearly as much attention as it deserves. A novel by Luz Gabás, Palmeras en la Nieve (Palm Trees in the Snow) was adapted into a Netflix film about Spanish colonialism in Equatorial Guinea, a country often described as the only area south of the Sahara whose language of colonization is Spanish. Like American Dirt, Gabás’ novel has had a great deal of commercial success even though it’s critical reception among historians of Spanish colonization efforts in Africa has been less than positive.

Palm Trees (novel and film) is about a love relationship between a Spanish colonialist from a family of plantation owners and a “native” (Gabás’ designation for a colonial subject, i.e. a black woman) who like virtually all the “natives” in the area work on the plantation. The novel is set both in Africa and Spain in the 1950s: “Fernando Poo,” the colonial name for what today is Bioko (Equatorial Guinea), and the hometown of the plantation owners, Pasobolino in Aragon (Spain) from the 1950s to independence in 1968 and post-independence. The black-white contrast is a fundamental theme of the novel within the conventions of a historical romance: an impossible love affair between a powerful (albeit sensitive) man and a beautiful “native”: lots of drama, violence stemming from colonialism and racism, tragic separation, ending in the pathetic reality that after all the years of yearning, the dream of integration and/or reconciliation is impossible even in a present historical moment in which Equatorial Guinea is free of Spanish rule. This indeed is a pathetic fallacy in the midst of Spanish colonialism in Africa.

The success of both cultural productions has much to do with reader and viewer expectations, those of a predominantly white audience in both cases eager to learn about the pressing issue of race relations in areas with which they are not directly familiar. Historical accuracy is less an artistic concern than keeping the pages moving. A Spanish historian, Gonzalo Álvarez Chillida, a longtime researcher on Equatorial Guinea, published a lengthy academic review of the novel stating that Gabás’ text is filled with historical inaccuracies, some more egregious than others, and gives readers a jaded view of the complexity of Spain’s colonial role in African history. However, to Gabás’ credit, her book includes a postscript in an “Author’s Note” in which she assures her readers that the novel is “pure fiction,” a statement that sounds disingenuous considering that she also tells us how much research she has done for her novel, so much so that she includes a bibliography. Can we imagine Tolstoy including a list of “Works Cited” for his War and Peace? Also important in her claims of authority is her background: she is the daughter of plantation owners who lived for a time in Equatorial Guinea as exploiters of a coffee plantation. The subject position could not be more clear.

So what are we to do—academics, intellectuals in the know, other fiction writers who explore themes surrounding colonialism and postcolonialism? What do we or should we make of these popular texts? Should we care? In the case of American Dirt, there was and remains an answer to those questions. After the indignation settled down critics of the novel got in touch with Oprah, pressured her and the communications networks into a discussion of the issue, and the result, I hope, is that many members of Cummins’ audience were made aware of another reality. The most positive result was that the author of American Dirt unwittingly created a movement called “Dignidad Literaria” (Literary Dignity, spearheaded by some of the authors of the negative reviews; the stated purpose of the organization appears on their web page:

Dignidad Literaria is a network of committed Latinx authors formed to combat the invisibility of Latinx authors, editors and executives in the U.S. publishing industry and the dearth of Latinx literature on the shelves of America’s bookstores and libraries. #DignidadLiteraria believes in the social and political power of wholly authentic Latinx voices and that it is the duty of the publishing industry and literati to use their full power and privilege to elevate these voices.

The case of the controversy over Spanish cultural production related to the former empire’s history in Africa is, unfortunately, less in the popular limelight, although the success of Gabás’ novel and the Netflix adaptation has given rise to a similar indignation among a lively group of Equatorial Guinean writers and activists. Perhaps in the long run  Palmeras en la nieve has awakened interest in an area of the globe of which few Spaniards are even conscious. A member of Spanish civil society is more likely to be aware of areas of Africa not colonized by Spaniards than the Spanish Africa they have in front of them. What is most unfortunate (for me) is that there is a vast corpus of cultural production out of Spanish Africa that the communications industries (the targets of Dignidad Literaria’s major objections) choose to ignore. Instead they promote Equatorial Guinean Palm Trees growing metaphorically in the snowy mountains of Aragon from a former colonialist’s perspective. I’m still waiting for famed Equatorial Guinean writer Donato Ndongo’s novels to be adapted by Netflix, one in particular about African emigration to Spain (El metro), an epic novel beginning in Senegal and ending on a Madrid metro. The publishing industries in collaboration with major film makers might also be interested in the novels of Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel, María Nsue, and Trifonia Melibea Obono, whose novel La bastarda is the first African-Spanish narrative dealing with the issue of homosexuality from the perspective of an African lesbian.

The most important issue raised by the controversies surrounding American Dirt and Palm Trees in the Snow has everything to do with the voice of the colonial other, or as Gayatri Spivak would say, the speech of the “subaltern.” That voice has sounded, and regardless of the murky issue of its authenticity, it’s up to us viewers, readers and listeners, like those of Dignidad Literaria, to demand a forum where they can be heard.

Further Reading

The Emperor’s Son

The decision by Spain’s national football team to go play a football friendly in its former colony, Equatorial Guinea, has spotlighted how the latter country is run.