Cheryl Toman is a professor of French, African Studies, and Women’s and Gender Studies at Case Western Reserve University where she is also Chair of the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures and the Director of the Women’s and Gender Studies Program. She is the translator of Gabonese author Justine Mintsa’s Awu’s Story (Nebraska, 2018).
Americans know very little about the tiny Central African nation of Gabon and until recently, readers in the English-speaking world in general haven’t had much exposure to the country’s literature. Gabon’s published authors write almost exclusively in French and there have been few English translations available. With a population of just over two million people representing forty ethnic groups, however, Gabon is, in fact, a powerhouse of contemporary African literature that English-speaking audiences are just beginning to discover. Reading Justine Mintsa’s Awu’s Story, the English translation of the original Histoire d’Awu published by Gallimard in Paris in 2000, is an eye-opening introduction to Gabon’s literature which is dominated by female writers and has been so since the beginning.
Justine Mintsa’s character, Awu, is the gentle, but strong heroine of the novel who always manages to find a balance despite the obstacles she encounters. Awu is educated, bright, talented and dedicated to her family, and for some readers, it is difficult to imagine how she initially accepted to be Obame Afane’s second wife in a polygamous marriage. Ironically, Mintsa believed she had written her third and best-known novel about Awu’s husband, Obame Afane, and was surprised when the original French publisher pointed out to her after reading the manuscript, “But this is not about Obame Afane—this is Awu’s story!”
For those who are already familiar with African women’s writing, Awu’s Story stands out for its portrait of a modern African woman of the twenty-first century who has to deal nonetheless with ages-old traditions that contradict her contemporary lifestyle. How Awu reconciles these two worlds indeed captivates readers. Awu’s creator, Justine Mintsa, is of Fang origin, an ethnic group that represents approximately forty percent of Gabon’s total population. While admittedly Mintsa is writing about the traditions her ethnic group that she knows best, any reader can relate to Awu. Much more than a mere character in a book, Awu is both a problem-solver and a peacemaker. It is no wonder that her qualities end up overshadowing those of her husband so that it soon becomes clear to the reader that this is Awu’s story.
Having published two critical works on African woman’s writing and having read countless novels featuring strong female protagonists, I was intrigued by how much of an entrancing character Awu truly is. After all, portraits of women in polygamous marriage are readily found in African literature. What makes Awu stand out from the dozens of protagonists in a similar situation? Awu can be your next-door neighbor. You can easily picture her teaching at your children’s school. At no time is she an underdog despite the challenges that life presents to her. Her triumphs are believable—her vulnerability too. The reader is always rooting for her because what she is seeking in life are things that everyone wants—love, happiness, justice—and she, like her readers, know that it is an uphill battle no matter where one comes from.
The appeal of Awu’s Story comes from the fact that seasoned readers of African literature are mesmerized by the novel as are those to whom such a reading is completely new. And although Justine Mintsa published the original version some eighteen years ago, this is very much a contemporary novel about women who walk among us today in the twenty-first century. Awu’s Story is magical in the way that it erases cultural differences while remaining wholly authentic. Few novels have achieved such a feat and those that do are destined to become literary classics.
Awu’s Story was successfully adapted for theater in Libreville, the capital of Gabon, by Michel Ndaot who allowed Awu to take center stage for a packed house at the Centre Culturel Français in November 2006. Considering the impact that the novel and the theatrical production has had on the French-speaking world, it is certainly time, if not long overdue, that Awu’s Story be introduced to an entirely new audience of English speakers; whether read as Histoire d’Awu or Awu’s Story, readers are sure to find common ground.