Newark’s Ironbound neighborhood looms large in the city’s culinary and cultural landscape, dominated by its Portuguese and Lusophone community, yet home to people from around the world.
Recently RU-N reconnected to that community when it welcomed the award-winning author, poet and filmmaker Ondjaki for the U.S. debut of his novel Transparent City.
Ondjaki, whose real name is Ndalu de Almeida, hails from Angola. He spoke to 80 people packed inside Dana Library’s Dana Room last week, showing film clips, talking about his creative process and influences, and inviting audience members to read from his new work.
Transparent City paints a colourful portrait of the inhabitants of the Angolan capital, Luanda, the world’s third most-populous Lusophone city (behind Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro), with 2.5 million people, where Portuguese mingles with the country’s dozen or so national native languages, a vestige of its Portuguese colonial past.
The novel weaves together numerous stories into a larger narrative that sees the city undergoing dramatic transformations in the wake of 40 years of colonial and civil wars. It has been described as “a captivating blend of magical realism, scathing political satire, tender comedy, and literary experimentation” and has won several prestigious awards, including the Jose Saramago Prize (2013), Prix Transfuge (2015) and Prix Littérature Monde (2016). It was first published in Portuguese in 2012 and is in its seventh edition in Portugal. It’s also been translated into several other languages and was finally published in English this year.
“My students really respond to Ondjaki’s work,” says Professor Kimberly Holton, of RU-N’s Spanish and Portuguese Studies department, who arranged the author’s appearance. “Angola was at war for four decades, with so much of country destroyed and so many people lost, and yet his literature has seeds of hope amid a very difficult landscape. The way he captures the dialog and point of view of adolescents is also striking,” she adds, “since his narrators are generally young, and that resonates with students as well. They recognize an authenticity in his voice.”
That narrative approach stems from the fact that Ondjaki’s fictional stories and characters are largely drawn from his memories as a child growing up in Luanda amid war.
“Memories don’t come alone. They come with people and scenes and emotions,” he told the Dana audience while discussing his creative process. “You return a different person once you connect with those memories and start working with them.”
Memories don’t come alone. They come with people and scenes and emotions. You return a different person once you connect with those memories and start working with them.
In his work Ondjaki also plays with language in creative ways, casting aside stylistic orthodoxies like periods and quotation marks, and melding Angolan slang, Portuguese and Spanish to create a striking pastiche. Holton calls it “an amazing quilt of linguistic styles” and says the Spanish influence arises from the large presence of Cubans in Angola during the years of civil war.
“It’s very interesting how he deals with language in his work,” says Holton. “It functions against the backdrop of challenging times, and goes hand-in-hand with scenes of neighbors helping each other day to day amid the chaos and emergencies of those decades of colonial and civil wars.”
Ondjaki was born in Luanda in 1977 and raised there. He studied sociology at the University of Lisbon and has lived in Portugal and Rio de Janiero, Brazil, with stints back in Luanda, where he says he always seems to return. He published his first book of poetry in 2000, and the next year came out with a childhood memoir, Good Morning, Comrades. His body of work includes five novels, three collections of short stories, four collections of poetry and three children's books. He has also made a documentary film, May Cherries Grow, about his native city. His books have been translated to French, Spanish, Italian, German, Serbian, English, Polish and Swedish.
In 2008 Ondjaki was awarded the Grinzane for Africa Prize in the category of Best Young Writer. Four years later The Guardian named him one of the top five African writers. He also is one of 39 writers under age 40 from sub-Saharan Africa who in April 2014 were chosen as part of the Hay Festival’s prestigious Africa39 project.
“I write about reality and draw from the people and stories around me because Angola and Luanda have so much,” Ondjaki told the RU-N audience. “It’s what I know, and there’s so many stories that can be told.”
It was Ondjaki’s second visit to RU-N, according to Holton, who said he gave a talk here 10 years ago and loved the campus and students. When she’d heard he was coming again for the annual fall Brooklyn Book Festival, she reached out to his publisher.
Holton had additional support in bringing the author to campus. The event was sponsored by the Spanish and Portuguese Studies, Camoes Institute, the Department of African-American and African Studies, RN Lives in Translation Project, the MFA Creative Writing Program, the SASN Dean’s Office and the Office of the Chancellor.