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Filomena Embaló: Tiara

This is apparently the first full-length novel written by a woman from Guinea-Bissau. It tells the story of the eponymous Tiara, a young(at the beginning of the book) Guinea-Bissau woman. It is set in the fictitious country of Porto Belo (Beautiful Port), whose capital is Boa Vila (Good Town), clearly based on Guinea-Bissau. The novel starts with the family (father, mother, Tiara, her two younger sisters, her two younger brothers, her grandmother) fleeing the country because of a civil war. (Note that there was a civil war taking place in Guinea-Bissau when Embaló was writing this book.) They fly to the fictitious country of Terra Branca (White Land). This may be based on Portugal but Tiara more than once comments that the sun never shines there which, at least from the Northern European perspective, it very much does but maybe not from the Guinea-Bissau perspective. As they seem to speak the same language as Porto Belo, we can assume that it is, at least in part, Portugal.

The family soon settle in, with the father managing to get a job, the children going to school and they even manage to get a nice house. However, Embaló is alternating chapters between the present time in Terra Branca and their time in Porto Belo before the Civil War.

The key event in the earlier part is Tiara’s relationship with her mathematics teacher, Jô. Jô is studying at university and is twenty-one but is earning money by teaching. The two gradually fall for each other and start a relationship. Tiara tells her mother, who is, not surprisingly, concerned. However, it is called off when we learn that Jô’s ex is pregnant and Tiara feels that he must marry her.

In Terra Branca, Tiara also starts a relationship. She becomes friendly with Gino, who is from the fictitious country of Muriti. I am not sure what it is based on. It is still fighting for its independence and has a 99% illiteracy rate, as the native population was not allowed access to schools. No country in the world has this level of illiteracy though Niger and South Sudan both have very high rates. We later learn that it is the other side of Africa from Porto Belo. Tiara learns Muritian and when Kenum, a friend of Gino arrives, is able to converse with him in his language. Tiara and Kenum start an affairs, though Kenum has to return to continue the ongoing struggle in his country.

We have previously learned that one of the reasons for their departure from Poto Belo is that because they were mixed race. The mixed race people were seemingly privileged in Porto Belo and the president was starting a demonisation campaign against them. Tiara’s father had been advised to leave because he was likely to be targeted. The situation in Muriti is different. Nearly everyone is black or white. There are very few mixed-race people.

Kenum returns to Muriti and Gino warns Tiara that Kenum will spend a lot of time in the struggle for independence. Moreover, in Muriti, when you marry, it is not just as a couple but you marry into a family, which will have a lot of influence on the relationship. Indeed, when Kenum returns home, he finds that his parents have already selected a future wife for him and are furious, particularly his mother, when they learn he wishes to marry a foreigner, from a country they have never heard of.

The couple marry, with the blessing of Tiara’s parents and we follow their life together. They return to Muriti and Tiara becomes involved in the struggle, in particular running a literacy course for the local women. Things go wrong when she becomes pregnant and not only loses the baby during an air raid but has an operation, which means that she can no longer have a child.

The war eventually ends and they go to Rani, the capital of Muriti. To no-one’s surprise she is rejected by her parents-in-law. She gets involved in the local life, teaching history, studying law and helping with illiteracy. It is not all smooth. She fights against female genital mutilation and corruption and is condemned for opposing local customs but she stands her ground, even with Kenum.

Like, presumably, the author, she gets so used to her adopted country that, when she returns to Porto Belo for a holiday, she does not recognise the country and has no desire to stay.

Things do not always go right and her mother-in-law is definitely the fly in the ointment. The ending is somewhat unpredictable but an interesting idea.

Embaló tells an excellent story and, for a first novel, it is most interesting. I suspect part of it is autobiographical but whether it is or it is not, it does give a picture of an Africa most of us will be unaware of. Sadly, the book has not been translated into any other language and is quite difficult to obtain.

Publishing history

First published in 1999 by Instituto Camões
No English translation