Interview: “Why I’m interested in Nigerian literature”

[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.] Bunmi Fatoye-Matory (Premium Times) interviews Afro-Colombian scholar Nohora Fernández about growing up in Colombia, the Afro-Colombian experience, and her interest in Nigerian literature. She says, “The Afro-Colombian experience is not widely known, and it is quite diverse.” Here are excerpts:

PT:  Where were you born?

NAF: I was born in Cartagena, Colombia. Cartagena was one of the most important Spanish harbors for the slave trade in the Spanish Caribbean. A huge number of enslaved people arrived in Cartagena and were then sold to Ecuador, Venezuela, Peru and other South America countries. Today, it is considered a black city, probably about 80 per cent of the population is black. I grew up in that city.

PT: Who is an Afro-Colombian?

NAF: The Afro-Colombian experience is not widely known, and it is quite diverse. We have black people in the Pacific and Caribbean coasts. The black experience is different in each of the coasts. The black people in the Caribbean Islands of San Andrés and Providencia are Protestants and they speak Spanish, English, and Creole. We have maroon communities in the Palenques in San Basilio, close to my city. They speak a language that is called palenquero. I would say that the cultural production of Afro-Colombian is very diverse because it comes from these very different experiences. In Cartagena, which is in the Caribbean coast, we had a dialogue with Africa in the 1970’s. I am not an expert in this history but people would say that African sailors used to come to the harbor and they exchanged music, tobacco, and rum with Afro-Colombians. We received Fela Kuti from Nigeria, and Soukous from Congo. From these exchanges was born a music called Champeta. Artists like Charles King, Anne Swing, or El Afinaito, from Cartagena and San Basilio de Palenque produced this music. I grew up with it and also with African singers such as the Congolese artist, Mbilia Bel. She was very famous in Cartagena. I remember that once I was in a party in Bogota where Mbilia Bel’s music was played. There was another black girl, dark-skinned, and the two of us started singing together. She asked me where I was from, and I told her Cartagena. She was from the Congo. She translated the lyrics for me. She could not believe I knew the music of Mbilia Bel.

People don’t imagine Colombia as a black country because of structural racism and how Colombia imagines itself. We have the fourth biggest black population in the Americas, behind the U.S., Brazil, and Haiti. There is a strike that has been going on in Colombia for over a month, with its epicenter in Cali, one of the biggest Black cities in Latin America. It’s a protest against inequalities and lack of opportunities in the country, but it is also a protest against racism and oppression. An important black leader, Junior Jein, was murdered recently, probably by the paramilitary. He was a musician and social activist. [. . .]

PT: Like most places in the Americas, is colorism a part of the Afro-Colombian experience?

NAF: I would say that, as in all racist societies, there is internalized racism. Your mother or grandmother wants you to be white-looking, to marry a white man, “to make the race whiter”. When I was growing up, some of my teachers asked me to pinch my nose so that it would be European-looking. At age fourteen or fifteen, my mother wanted to straighten my hair with hot comb. I had a big Afro, but I resisted. We had a big argument. At sixteen, my Afro was so big that my brother was embarrassed walking with me because people on the streets shouted nonsense about my hair. But things are changing now. Social movements in Cartagena are responsible for this. The internet allowed discussions to disseminate. Those situations are common in Brazil and the Caribbean nations as well. It’s structural racism, the way society sees its blackness, what it means to be black. In history classes, they tell us people arrived as slaves, but they didn’t tell us how they fought for freedom. They didn’t tell us about Haiti, which overthrew France, the most powerful military nation in the world then, and freed its people from slavery. While I was studying English on the Martin Luther King grant in Bogota, I met many young black women from Bogota and other cities. There, we started having real conversations about the racism we experienced as children and teenagers. [. . .]

PT: What are the connections to Africa like now?

NAF: I haven’t lived in Cartagena in fourteen years. I don’t really know about the daily exchange on the streets, but for music, the connections are always there. I listened to a Gambian artist today, and the music reminds me of music from my country. Contemporary dances in Colombia cities are influenced by Africa. Colombia professors were trained in Europe by African professors there. I work with Brazilian and Colombian visual artists. You could see that their esthetics are influenced by Africa. There is a dialogue going on. Because of social media, black women writers know about African American and some African writers. Chimamanda Adichie is popular. The internet has made it easy. We need to be more conscious about these connections.

PT: You said you were interested in Nigeria…

NAF: I am interested in Nigerian Literature because it tells a lot of stories different from the trauma that it is so foundational for black people in the Americas. I want to learn more about literary traditions in Nigeria and create a dialogue as a Latin American scholar and writer. One of the reasons I think of Nigeria is because I discussed the sugar plantation in Brazil in my dissertation, and I want to know if Nigerian descendants of the people that came back from Brazil after being slaves have written about this. I’m open to what the Nigerian experience can offer me. [. . .] For full interview, see

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