La Bastarda: A Banned Story of Lesbian Love

La Bastarda is unlike any book you have ever read. That’s no exaggeration. While there’s a lot of good lesbian fiction to be read this summerLa Bastarda is in a league of its own.

Trifonia Melibea Obono’s debut novel, it’s the first ever book to be written by a woman from Equatorial Guinea to be translated from Spanish to English. And it’s significant that the first Equatorial Guinean book available in English is lesbian fiction, because lesbians are rarely made representative of a whole community. La Bastarda is also a banned book. The lush scenes of women loving on women – and the sexual politics of lesbian relationships – are likely why it has been banned in Equatorial Guinea.

La Bastarda is narrated by Okomo, a bastard child who was orphaned at birth and struggles to find her place in Fang community. Okomo’s past is a mystery that her family refuses to solve. Her grandmother only speaks of the scandal as a cautionary tale, reminding Okomo of how important it is for a woman to marry a man. She’s of the opinion that “women should always be beautiful. And never ask questions.” Okomo’s overbearing grandfather, Barefoot Osá, pits his wives against each other and expects to be waited on hand and foot by the females in the family – quite figuratively, for Okomo has the unfortunate task of cutting his toenails. When Osá isn’t giving her orders, he tells Okomo tales of his Fang forefathers to fill her with reverence for the achievements of men.

Her family push Okomo towards men and marriage now that she’s sixteen and her period has started. The rituals of female beauty are a trap closing in on either side. But Okomo has no interest in makeup or elaborate hairstyles. She has even less interest in the men they’re meant to attract. And so her future in Fang community is as much of a mystery to Okomo as her past. She dreams of a life beyond the restrictions that tradition imposes upon women. And she longs for Dina, the ringleader of an “indecent and mysterious” group of girls who make love in the forest.

Okomo’s story is under a hundred pages long, and gripping from start to finish. As a reader, you cannot help but feel claustrophobic as she describes the pressure to be feminine and marry. Yet the strength of Okomo’s rebel spirit prevents La Bastarda from ever feeling hopeless. The joy of her passion for Dina, and the delight of exploring lesbian sexuality, keeps the plot enticing. There is also something beautiful about the kinship between lesbian and gay misfits, a band of outsiders guided by Okomo’s uncle and only ally, Marcelo.

Through the character of Marcelo, Trifonia Melibea Obono highlights some important truths about the relationship between gender roles and homophobia. Because he is gay, Marcelo is an outcast known as “the man-woman.” Since childhood, Marcelo was viewed with suspicion by the Fang community because he enjoys domestic chores like cooking and cleaning. As an adult he doesn’t want to sleep with women, dominate women, or have children with women, and so Marcelo isn’t considered a “real man” – despite being male. As Okomo is told, “A real man sleeps with women and fathers children!”

Marcelo is the only male character in La Bastarda to show any woman gentleness or care without the expectation of sex in return. And yet he is the outcast, while men who are cruel or violent to women have a secure place in society because they are “real men.” Only when ‘man’ and ‘woman’ stop being defined by the performance of gender roles is freedom possible, as Okomo and her uncle show.

What makes La Bastarda special is that this book voices a subtle challenge to a classic bit of homophobia: the idea that being gay is un-African. Okomo and her fellow misfits don’t dream of freedom in a foreign country, or even better lives in a big city. Instead, they look for ways to stay and build a pocket of community where same-sex love flourishes and gender roles are left behind.

Okomo’s story and the raw honesty of her voice will stay with you long after you turn the last page of La Bastarda. This novel is a triumphant read for lesbians everywhere.