Face to Face with Ondjaki, May 3rd
“Angola has only a thousand readers, and all of them are my friends,” Ondjaki, the pen name of Ndalu de Almeida, likes to joke. It is no wonder then Angolan literature conjures up a blank, unlike, say, South Africa. What we do know about Angola is that it is dreadfully governed: despite vast oil resources, it remains a desperately poor country, with life expectancies among the shortest in the world.
But Ondjaki, who proved to be a real find for Blue Met, brings Angola alive. It is the country where a Rastafarian has birds holding up his dreads and where there live characters named 3.14 (for pi) or Granma Nineteen (after she loses a digit in surgery). Ondjaki says this magical realism isn’t imaginary, it’s how Angolans really think. “Fiction doesn’t happen to me. Fiction happens to Angola.” When you tell a story, “no one will say ‘what a powerful imagination!’ You’ll get, ‘what neighbourhood did it happen in?’ ”
Ondjaki definitely has credentials as literary ambassador for Angola. His parents met as guerilla fighters alongside Che Guevara during Angola’s struggle for independence from Portugal with the Cuban-backed People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola. After independence, they served in Angola’s new socialist government.
He offers charming portraits of his unusual family, who encourage him to read Sartre at age 13 and who constantly tell and retell stories in the middle of the night. Educated in Portugal and currently living in Brazil, he has been called one of Africa’s top five writers by The Guardian.
Coincidence made him a published writer. While he was studying in Portugal, his family sent an Angolan publisher to deliver a letter to him. At lunch, the publisher discovers that he writes and asks him what he is working on because they are producing a short story collection on Angolan independence. Ondjaki bullshits the publisher, saying he has a novel in the works on that very subject, and it will be ready in two months. He abandons school to undertake the writing. When the book is published, he suspects the publisher has not even read it.
His perspective on Angola’s situation is intriguing: no chairs in the schools, no working bathrooms, but a commitment to education. “It was all normal, like the lack of electricity and the lack of water. We didn’t have windows, we didn’t have chairs, but we were all in school, and we had excellent teachers. It wasn’t communist or socialist, it was normal.”
Only after arriving in Portugal did he realize it wasn’t. “I went to see the bathrooms. Water was running, and there was toilet paper. I counted. Six bathrooms working. I couldn’t believe it. I called my mother, who believed I had gone to one of the best schools in Portugal.”
It was thrilling to see this important author showcased by Blue Met, but I was a bit disappointed by the standard Canadian evasion of all things political. His work seems to evoke Angola’s history and politics, but questions from the audience focused on his family, or how he stays positive, for example.
Ondjaki was asked, however, if Angola has truly become democratic. “I don’t know what democracy means. I don’t know what American democracy means, but I hope that they do. I don’t want to choose a side in Angolan politics. I am waiting for a new party, a third voice.”
Ondjaki has 18 books published in Portuguese. Granma Nineteen has been issued in English by Biblioasis.
The Blue Metropolis Festival ended May 4th.
Sujata Dey is Rover‘s Print Editor.