Jose Eduardo Agualusa: "We are not only writers, but interpreters as well"

January 2009 -

He likes Amsterdam, but almost never goes outside. Much too cold! Jose Eduardo Agualusa is sitting on a couch in the residency of the Dutch Literature Fund, sipping a glass of blackberry juice. He moved to the spacious apartment on the Spui in Amsterdam a few weeks ago, and will be staying here until the end of February 2009. At a long table in the corner he is finishing his new novel. This week, the Angolan author will be going outside. At Winternachten in The Hague he will be reading from his latest work, My Father's Wives, recently translated into Dutch.


It is the story of Laurentina Manso, a woman in Lisbon who learns she was adopted and starts a search for her biological father, now deceased. During her journey through various African countries, she meets her father's seven widows and seventeen brothers and sisters. Although the story starts as a search for the deceased father, his widow's end up playing the lead. With the colourful and loving descriptions of these characters, the book is first and foremost a tribute to African women.

The women, says Agualusa, are what keeps Africa going. Even though they receive little in return. "I am amazed by what is being done to women in Angola. This is partially because so many men were lost in the civil war, but it is also related to the country’s macho culture. Men do as they please; women should not complain. That is what I wanted to discuss in this book."

Another central theme of the story is identity. Most of the characters are trying to discover who they are to one extent or another: African or Portuguese? White or black? According to Agualusa, identity is always the central theme of modern literature in young countries like Angola. "We need to discover who we are and what our relationship is with the rest of the world."

It is strange, he says, that as an African author you really never write for your 'own' audience. "If you are really lucky, you can sell five thousand books in Angola. We know that there is a larger audience outside of Africa, but that audience needs to be told about the culture in which the story is embedded. Thus we are not only writers, but interpreters as well."