About The Author
Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel was born in 1966 in Annobón, a remote island forming part of the nation of Equatorial Guinea, lying in 220 miles west of Gabon in the South Atlantic Ocean.
He made headlines in 2011 by embarking on a hunger strike, in an anti-government protest. He now lives in exile in Barcelona.
His novel, By Night The Mountain Burns, is based on his own childhood memories of Annobón. His narrator lives with his mysterious grandfather, several mothers and no fathers. The island goes through difficult times: a bush fire destroys the crops, then hundreds perish in a cholera outbreak. With superstition a dominant part of the local belief system, the islanders feel compelled to sacrifice their possessions to the enraged god of the ocean. What of their lives will remain?
In this interview, by Maria Lomunno from our Westfield Stratford City branch, Juan talks about staying true to African traditions of oral storytelling, living in a society that is still wary of the concept of money and the importance of the fight against the dictatorship running Equatorial Guinea
Foyles would like to thank Juan's translator Jethro Soutar, who translated this interview
Questions & Answers
One of the most interesting features of this novel is the narrative voice: it is allusive; in some passages it voluntarily keeps the child's ingenuousness, and it makes a very effective use of repetition. Can you tell us more about what looks like a deliberately crafted narrative technique?
This sort of deliberately crafted narrative technique will not always be to the taste of academics, or purists, and I understand that, but what I will say is this: it was the only way of giving this story its true flavour. If it had been told any other way, it would have been a different book. This is how a native African, from my region, would tell a story, or whatever he has to tell. By which I mean, native Africans, in the oral tradition, discovered deliberately crafted narrative techniques long ago.
While reading the novel I couldn't help thinking of a very contradictory female condition in Annobón: women own the field they cultivate and many of the families in the village are clearly matriarchal, but at the same time they can be accused of being a she-devil and locked in their houses. How do you explain that?
The thing is, being a she-devil, or becoming one, is a bit of an accident. She-devils aren't born she-devils, so being one implies the some kind of misfortune having befallen. In Annobón, working in the fields, a subsistence agriculture, is almost exclusively performed by women. Because Annobón is a small island, the fertile, or workable plots of land are bequeathed or inherited, but they are always looked after by women. If an elderly woman, for example, no longer has the strength to carry out agricultural tasks, she sets out her will and leaves her small plots of land to her daughters. She would only ever leave them to her sons if she had no daughters, and then those boys would pass the plots on to their future wives. Men dedicate themselves to fishing and, very occasionally, do some land-clearing work, to make the land ready for planting. But going back to the she-devils, people on the island are convinced that certain women are she-devils and that their being she-devils is dangerous for society. As I said, it's like an accident, an accident with serious consequences.
Annobón is a tiny island but its society is very well organised: from a western point of view, it's impressive how barter and the simple exchange of favours can completely replace the use of money. Are you still in touch with that reality and how has it changed?
The use of money is coming in bit by little bit, and there will come a day when most transactions and necessities are settled using money, but bartering will not disappear, not if not everyone has any money. This old way of living should be of particular interest to younger generations, for it's a way of guaranteeing your own survival, and that of your customs. My mother and one of my sisters, plus a few aunts and cousins, live in Annóbon, or at least they usually do. I don't go often, specifically because I don't agree with the way the central government manages certain matters related to the island and its geography. For example, the changes they had to make in order to build an airport and a seaport, when there was no industry to justify such infrastructure.
The English language publishing industry is traditionally quite closed to foreign language fiction. What's the process that leaded to the English translation of By Night the Mountain Burns?
I think bringing foreign-language fiction to the English publishing market is what And Other Stories is all about, they want to shine a light on what's different. They must think inspiration doesn't end with native English writers. That I happen to be the one chosen at a particular moment could simply be down to chance. Or to the curiosity of those who pushed for the book's publication. The translator knows how it all came about. It's down to his good eye and a need to look beyond the familiar.
How do you think the book will be perceived by readers with such a different cultural and linguistic background?
It will depend on their sensibility and openness to undertaking new reading adventures. It's said that tastes run through neighbourhoods, so I appreciate that some people will have objections, while others will enjoy it. What would be a shame, and have nothing to do with the writing itself, is if people were to ignore the book because of the author's origins.
How is this novel and in general all your fiction related to your political activism?
It affects it in an indirect manner. Activism against a dictator who is not very well known internationally, like the one we have in Equatorial Guinea, requires a voice that can cross borders. Because a novel can do this, even if when not making overtly political claims, the activist's voice can travel with it. I have written books that are specifically confrontational towards the dictatorship, essays too, and I have a blog in the online magazine Frontera. Some of my books are like novels of manners and have more precise portrayals of Equatorial Guinean reality than this one, but any criticism that is included tends to worry the regime less than an article does. Criticism within works of fiction is better tolerated, because those in power are secretly convinced that nobody reads, or because they can't be bothered to read the books themselves. In Equatorial Guinea, readers are more responsive to works of direct criticism than they are to criticism camouflaged in a literary work, and the regime must know this.
Your hunger strike in 2011 gave visibility to your protest against Teodoro Obiang's dictatorship in Equatorial Guinea. How is your action proceeding and do you consider the web a way to raise awareness about this issue?
The web is the only tool we Equatorial Guineans have for fighting the regime with, even if the regime tries to prevent citizens from properly using it. The web is so important because it's the only area of the media the powers that be cannot control. The fight against the dictatorship must go on, and it is very influenced by the political ambitions, and ambitions of another kind, of a few Equatorial Guinean politicians and the influence certain foreign powers exert over the dictator. And when I say influence, I mean benefits the dictatorship is afforded by certain powers in the outside world. It seems that these days the powerful of the world are only capable of supporting bad guys.
Do you think that the English translation of By Night the Mountain Burns will help in giving even more visibility to your fight for democracy?
I think so. A work often speaks much more than its author.
Are you working on a new book, and can you say more about it?
I have several that are unpublished, or more than one anyway, and as I tend to say, each one has its own 'nature', it's own vital organs and direction, that means it merits foreign attention and publication. Of what I have written most recently, I would highlight Gurugú's Oath, which deals with a group of black men awaiting the moment to jump the fence at Melilla, on the Moroccan mountain of the same name. I think it turned out half-decent and I hope to see it published one day, soon preferably, because it's a topical matter.