The Spanish Riveter: Spanish Writers of Colour by Layla Benitez-James

Lucía Asué Mbomío Rubio was born and raised in the heart of Spain and attended university in Madrid. Still, a few years ago she needed help in Fnac, a large retail chain, finding a book she had written because it had been shelved in ‘narrativa extranjera’ – foreign fiction. Over the past year, I’ve worked to co-translate her first novel, Hija del camino into English with writer and translator Lawrence Schimel, with support from a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in the United States. Hija del camino is poised to be the first novel by an Afro-Spanish woman published in English translation.

I don’t want to equate being ‘born and raised’ in a country with citizenship, because not all countries practice jus soli, meaning you acquire citizenship where you are born. Spain does not. In Spain, automatic citizenship only comes to those born in Spain with at least one Spanish parent – jus sanguinis. While foreign parents can apply for citizenship once a child has lived in Spain for a year, there is a persistent disconnect between common, mainstream ideas of Spanishness when it comes to racialised people. In my native Texas, I hated being asked where I was really from. Despite Texas having one of the largest African American populations in the US, people often felt, as Desirée Bela-Lobedde (Barcelona) writes in Ser mujer negra en España, ‘the need to dig down into my family tree’. Living in Spain these past eight years has afforded me the privilege of feeling foreign on my own terms, and I moved here in 2014 with the comfortable, naive notion that I might trail the likes of Langston Hughes, James Baldwin and Audre Lorde across Europe.

Who gets to be a Spanish writer? As a writer living in Spain, I also know that citizenship and nationality and cultural affinity are fluid categories, and many people are not afforded legal status despite being born or naturalised or choosing to live in a country. It’s helpful for me to notice writers who were born in Spain sharing the frustration I felt back home at not aligning with a narrow idea of Spain and its national literature. In engaging with Spain’s literary landscape, writers who occupy multiple identities are consistently denied recognition as Spanish. Yet Spain’s geographic proximity to the African continent (visible on a clear day from various points on Spain’s mainland) and colonial legacy means its multiplicity extends back hundreds and hundreds of years. Cervantes compared Seville to a chess board because of its racial diversity, and Spain’s connection to Equatorial Guinea (which became independent in 1968) is often ignored. Bela-Lobedde elaborates: ‘even my grandparents were Spanish. And my great grandparents. And if we go all the way back to 1778 in my family’s lineage, all my ancestors were Spanish. This is what happens when a family is from Equatorial Guinea.’

In 2015, I began actively searching for more diversity in Spain’s literary scene. I first encountered the afro-centric bookshop United Minds as a booth at the Eat My Soul festival in Alicante, dedicated to ‘música afroamericana’. At the time, I didn’t know it was the first shop of its kind in Spain, but I spoke to co-founder Ken Province the next time I encountered them at the Afroconciencia festival in Madrid in 2016. I told him I was a translator looking for Black Spanish poets and writers. For that festival, they didn’t have poetry, but he recommended I start with España y los negros africanos by Inongo-vi-Makomè. I then read Visión del mundo de un africano desde ¿El Edén? where Makomè remembers his Madrid university requesting a translation of his academic records from Equatorial Guinea, despite the fact that they were already in Spanish. When asked about why I had so much trouble finding translations into English and books by Black Spanish writers, he noted that ‘Spain and Africa almost kissed, and yet…’ 

At the United Minds bookstore in Valencia, co-founder Deborah Ekoka spoke about the huge influence of English-language writing in translation here. In general, readers in Spain have greater access to writers like Ijeoma Oluo, Hanif Abdurraqib and Ta-Nehisi Coates. Especially for writers of colour, racialised writers from the US were often their first non-white points of reference. When Mbomío Rubio was in school, she says there was nobody, absolutely no one who looked like her, represented in Spanish literature classes. Nearly fifteen years later, Paloma Chen (Alicante), winner of the Premio Nacional de Poesía Viva, experienced the same lack of representation in her school in Valencia. When I spoke to Chen, she said although she initially recognised her story in writers from the US like Ocean Vuong, finding the graphic novel Gazpacho agridulce by Quan Zhou (Algeciras) was a huge turning point, and that the internet has made it possible for writers of colour in Spain to gain readership leading to more mainstream publication. While I’ve found more books published in the last five years, recent internet searches have shown it’s nearly impossible to find books in translation; when compiling recommendation lists for BookRiot, Leah Rachel von Essen wrote: ‘I should note that I attempted to make my list inclusive of authors of colour but struggled to find translated non-white authors writing in Spain.’ And: ‘I found it difficult to find translated, available works by authors of colour’ in 2020 and 2021.

Here I should clarify some terminology between Spanish and English(es) as there are a range of preferences and fluid cultural contexts. Because of my own background as a mixed-race person with African heritage, I was initially interested in learning more about Black writers.

I’ve since become interested in writers who identify as personas racializadas, who might be called writers of colo(u)r, BIPOC in the USA, and BAME in the UK. In Spain there are several young writers from the Chinese diaspora, many whose parents moved to Spain in the eighties and nineties. Chen produced a series of video interviews called Crecer en ‘un Chino’ in conversation with many creatives whose parents ran restaurants and shops, like Chenta Tsai Tseng, who wrote the memoir Arroz tres delicias: sexo, raza y género. Tseng developed his musical career under the stage name Putochinomaricón, taken from racist and homophobic slurs he endured growing up around Madrid.

I’ve struggled to articulate and understand the changes I’ve seen. Part of my timidity stems from arriving the very same year as places like United Minds and publishing house Ediciones Wanafrica (founded in Barcelona and specialising in African literature and African diaspora in Spain) came into existence. Granta en Español editor Valerie Miles spoke of demographic shifts in Granta’s new Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists issue between the first list in 2010 and the new one in 2022, which moved from representing eight countries to thirteen countries and included representation from Africa for the first time (Estanislao Medina Huesca from Equatorial Guinea). Since my move, there’s been the festival Black Barcelona, stared in 2015, Afroconciencia in Madrid in 2016, and the inaugural Festival de Poesía Decolonial, which took place the first week of December 2022 in Bilbao. Chen organised the first Encuentro de la Diáspora China en España in 2019 and has since been asked to visit schools across the country. While it can often be reductive to speak in terms of literary booms, there is a brightness in the air that sparks of revival. 

Layla Benitez-James

Read The Spanish Riveter here or order your paper copy from here.

Buy books from The Spanish Riveter through the European Literature Network’s The Spanish Riveter page.

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