Creating What One Cannot Find: In Conversation with Deborah Ekoka

Cervantes called Sevilla “the chess board” because there were as many blacks as there were whites.

Today on the blog, podcast editor Layla Benitez-James draws us into the vibrant but seldom-discussed community of Black writers in Spain. In this essay-interview hybrid, she introduces us to two booksellers working to amplify the voices and and experiences of black Spanish writers.

In the past year, I have interviewed three of the panelists from the 2018 Tampa AWP panel sponsored by ALTA, “Translating Poetry, Translating Blackness,” for the Asymptote podcast: Lawrence Schimel, John Keene and, Aaron Coleman. My last interview with Coleman gave me a quote which has been rewritten at the beginning of each new journal I’ve started since December as it got at something that I have often felt but never expressed so well: literary translation is a tool to make more vivid the relationships between Afro-descendent people in the Americas and around the world.

I was reminded of the first time I read Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila and Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Of course, nothing overlapped with my life exactly, but there was this kind of constant shock and pleasure at recognizing pieces of my identity described by people from places I had never been, a sense of belonging and kinship.

Beyond dictionaries and historical reference works, in my latest projects I have relied heavily on community to understand the context of the text. I moved to Spain in 2014 to work on translation and improve my Spanish. I had fallen in love with the practice after a translation workshop at the University of Houston and started translating the work of Madrid-born and based poet Óscar Curieses. After a teaching placement in the city of Murcia flung me much farther south than I had originally planned, I began to find incredible Murcian poets, like Cristina Morano, Bea Mirales, José Daniel Espejo, and José Óscar López, whose work I wanted to bring into English.

I quickly noticed, however, that the Spanish poetry publishing world was dramatically monochrome. When I first asked Curieses about this in 2015, it was after my first poetry reading in Madrid, as part of the Caja de Resistencia reading series, which took place in the basement of an amazing independent bookstore originally from Barcelona, La Central. While he agreed there must be more diverse poets in Spain who were not getting published, he also looked towards the future, suggesting that maybe these poets were still in high school, and that maybe this new generation of black Spanish writers had yet to be encouraged enough in Spanish schools to start writing in the first place or send their work out for publication.

I began to seek out community in Spain and started actively searching for black Spanish poets. After moving to Madrid, I found the Afroconciencia Festival in its inaugural year (2016). Hosted in the Matadero, a huge slaughterhouse turned art space in the south of the city, the festival was composed mainly of different booths and food stands, and organized panels and performances. It was there that I found Kwanzaa, a group of black students affiliated with Madrid’s Complutense University, where I studied in 2009. After going to a few of their meetups, I had a much better understanding of where my experiences overlapped with theirs, and how much I still didn’t know about Spanish history and black life in Spain. In one meeting, after going around and sharing our first experiences of feeling racialized or othered, there was a deep sense of camaraderie and laughter after going through the ridiculous food-based slurs like “coconut” and “oreo,” which were often used to bully. However, I was taken aback when one woman shared how frustrated she felt when black people from the United States specifically talked about how much better things were in Spain, and Europe in general. Because many anglophone black Americans don’t understand what privileges a USA passport and speaking English bring, we become blind to injustices here, ignorantly thinking things are better here overall, while really, they are just better for us.

After returning to the festival’s second year, I noticed a familiar logo and rediscovered a booth for an Afro-centric bookshop based in Valencia, United Minds. I had first seen them in Alicante at a soul festival but had been too shy to strike up a conversation. This time, I needed their help. I ended up speaking to co-owner and founder Ken Province, who opened the shop with Deborah Ekoka in 2014. I told him I was a translator and specifically looking for black Spanish poets and writers. They didn’t have poetry, so I asked who I should begin with to better understand black life in Spain and was recommended España y los negros africanos by Inongo-vi-Makomè, which I bought along with the newer Visión del mundo de un africano desde ¿El Edén? When told him I had had trouble finding translations into English and books by black Spanish writers in general, Ken laughed and nodded, telling me that Spain and Africa almost kissed, and yet . . . white Spanish identity seemed determined to remain apart.

Through reading Makomè’s works, and then translating some excerpts, I got a much better understanding not only of his personal experience, but of the US military bases in Spain in the 80s that led to African Americans having a kind of special status in Spain. Later, when I moved down to Alicante, I made a trip to United Minds’ brick and mortar location in Valencia, where I met Deborah again. I asked about poets, but we again shifted to fiction and nonfiction, and I realized that instead of poetry, I was being sucked into the world of nonfiction written by Afro-Spanish writers. In the shop they had many of Roxane Gay’s books in Spanish translation, including Bad Feminist and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. There were so many contemporary American essays, and I was struck by the fact that these streams of communication were not flowing both ways.

I decided to learn a bit more about the shop, and Deborah was kind enough to answer my questions via email:

Layla Benitez-James (LBJ): How long did United Minds take to create from the initial idea? I read “born in 2013,” but how did it begin?

Deborah Ekoka (DE): The main idea for ​​United Minds was born with the possibility of having a space. As soon as this came up, my partner, Ken Province, was clear about what he wanted; after living four years in the US, he was surprised that he couldn’t find a specialized shop in Spain, just finding a few books lost throughout some bookstores, and as he says, “When you can’t find something, it’s your turn to create it.”

Almost a year later, after we put on the Black is Beautiful conference in 2013 and after spending a few months in New York, a place that inspired us a lot, we were ready to launch something of our own. We were especially inspired by a space called Nicholas, because we loved being able to find everything that we couldn’t find in a single space in Spain.

In October of 2014 we opened United Minds.

LBJ: Why did you want to create a space that is more than a bookstore and more of a cultural space? (Also the idea of ​​traveling with books to Alicante/Barcelona/Madrid and helping to organize Afroconciencia and Black Barcelona?)

DE: The idea of ​​traveling came up because, being the only bookstore in the whole of Spain that is dedicated to this, we were called to places and events where they were interested in that content. One of our first outings was to AfroEmpowered, a conference organized by Ana Cebrián at Matadero Madrid, where we were able to connect with other like-minded collaborators. After we met, Ana told us that she would like this to be an annual festival, and she proposed that we participate and collaborate in this new event. I signed on immediately, along with Rubén H. Bermúdez and Yeison García. It seemed important to support an initiative like that, and that’s how it started in 2015. 2019 will be its fourth year.

As for Black Barcelona, ​​in 2014 Ken discovered the play No es país para negras (a one-woman show written, directed by, and starring artist Silvia Albert Sopale). We found it super interesting and we brought the work to Valencia. I met Silvia and, months later, we asked her about doing some kind of Afro conference or meetup in Barcelona. In spite of the city’s cosmopolitanism, there was nothing like that at the time. She immediately agreed, and in 2015 we had the first conference. Little by little we were contacted to go to events like Eat My Soul in Alicante, and others such as Maig di gran, FCAT, etc . . . and on the other hand, we looked for spaces where we fit, which were already quite diverse: Afro meetups, music festivals, book fairs, cultural festivals. In this way, we are able to self-manage.

LBJ: What is your opinion of Spanish publishers/the editorial landscape in Spain? (I am now thinking about this question in relation to the publication of Metamba Miago (published in February 2019, this book is a collection of essays and stories by thirteen Afro-Spanish women writers, edited by Deborah; “Metamba Miago” translates to “Our Roots” in ndowe, the Kombe language native to Equatorial Guinea) and what kind of stories are missing.

DE: Spain is a rather closed place; I have been told by fellow writers and colleagues that it is difficult to publish Afro-themed literature, beyond the American bestsellers, as there was, in fact, a time in the 70s and 80s when they were translating and publishing many books from the Negritude movement.

There are also Africanist publishing houses run by white people, such as Sial or Casa África, who have contributed their work, but, in my opinion, they have become obsolete, in part because their outlook is quite paternalistic.

In 2015, the Editorial Mey publishing house was set up, led by writers Remei Sipi and Norberto Masa, publishing Guinean authors. As far as I know, it is the first publishing house established and run by African people. There are also more recently established publishers with a conscience like BAAM (Biblioteca Afro Americana Madrid), Capitán Swing, Dream Traders . . .

I think nowadays a publishing house isn’t as necessary as it was before; there is self-publishing and I encourage people to do this, as long as they can promote it. As for missing stories, I don’t think it’s just because of publishers. Alongside their influence, it’s also because they have made us think that our stories don’t matter, that they aren’t common, that they don’t exist.

Our decision to publish directly from the bookshop has allowed us to be open to the publication of new works.

LBJ: Has the publishing industry changed since the shop opened? Or in the past ten years, between 2009 and 2019? 

DE: We’ve only been going since 2014, so I can really only talk from that moment on, as that’s when we immersed ourselves in this world.

I think that there is now kind of a blackness boom in generalwe’re in fashion, trending, although it’s certain that this consciousness, trendy or not, will remain in some sense. This very year, the Wanafrica publishing house, run by Africans, started their collection of African and Afro-descendent writers.

We’ve definitely seen that slowly but surely there have been more translations and that those more mainstream publishing houses have been broadening their outlook and are encompassing a bit more each time.

LBJ: Do you consider that translations, and specifically English translations, are useful for Afro-Spanish writers? (I’ve been thinking about the links and connections I’ve seen African-American writers make between their experiences and black culture in the United States with writers such as James Baldwin and Angela Davis, and with popular culture and TV series from the nineties.) And, conversely, what part do Spanish translations of English and North American writers play in the lives of Afro-Spanish writers?

DE: Of course, translations from Spanish to English are important; it’s necessary to tell our own stories, and to know each other.

It’s true that we have a lot of American authors in mind because they are coming out of the African Diaspora. For many years we could identify more with their stories as they were more similar to our own. That writing has been very important to create a foundation.

However, I realized a few years ago how little the history of the US resembles that of Spain. In terms of geography, you can see Africa clearly and perfectly from Cádiz; in fact, the saying goes that Africa begins in the Pyrenees. After the Andalusian period in Spain, especially in the south, there has always been a large presence of African and Afro-descendant people. Cervantes called Sevilla “the chess board” because there were as many blacks as there were whites.

There are silenced stories that they don’t teach us in school. These omissions ignore the presence of slaves, instead claiming they all went to South America. . . but this is not the real history. Documentaries like Gurumbé: Canciones de tu memoria negra (Gurumbe: Songs of Your Black Memory) by director Miguel Ángel Rosales, or La historia perdida afroespañola (The Lost Afro-Spanish History) by Pedro Hondo, talk about these facts and recover the history.

Equatorial Guinea was a Spanish colony, and to this day the official language is still Spanish. Spain is a place that systematically denies its own black presence, so today, they keep asking us two out of three times where we are from, and when we say, “From here,” they continue with, “Yes, but from where?”

For all this, there are many differences from one culture to another; the realities are different beyond the constitution of identity.

I also want to add that as far as feminism is concerned, for me, Latin America and Africa are great sources of inspiration, probably because of the women I have been meeting and with whom I have had the opportunity to share my experiences.

LBJ: What would you like anglophone readers to know about Spanish literature?

DE: We would like you to know that Spain is and has always been a culturally and racially diverse country. And that, although I think that this is known everywhere except here, “Spain is not white,” and its literature does not come only from white writers.

LBJ: And of course, what Afro-Spanish writers do you recommend?

DE: I recommend Remei Sipi, Inongo vi Makome, Justo Bolekia, Edmundo Sepa, Lucía Mbomío, Ángela Nzambi and Odome Angome.

While the Afro-Spanish writing community could still be considered far from the mainstream in Spain, it has been growing since I first went searching. Because the community is still small, it is also fiercely connected, and one writer quickly leads to another. There is much more writing online, and especially on blogs, than published in physical book form, and a growing readership which has helped to bridge the gap. A shining example of this is the brilliant Ser mujer negra en España by Desirée Bela-Lobedde, a nonfiction book mixing personal history with cultural commentary about race. I first heard about the book via a radio interview during the book’s second launch week in October of 2018. Originally published in September of 2018, it had needed a second printing within a month of its release date.

Among many other topics, the book explores black hair and what Bela-Lobedde calls “aesthetic activism.” I was reminded of Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race. “Words are always at the heart of all our problems, and the beginning of all our solutions,” Oluo says, and Bela-Lobedde is careful to dissect language, favoring her own idea of daily aggressions over the term “microaggressions,” which made its way over from the US, saying that even if they are more frequent, this does not make them micro. She also coins a term, “aesthetic apartheid,” that describes the practice of marketing and making cheaper and safer products available to white clients. She focuses on the economics of racism, which are much less talked about in Spain, but probably even more exaggerated than in the United States. Through translating her work, I reexamined much of what I thought I knew about the conversation, which is so ingrained in my upbringing in Texas and the fact that I lived most of my life in the US. My favorite interviews and conversations with translators have recently been of a more personal nature, where they show how works have cracked into their own lives and deeply changed the way they view the world, long before publication.

In his introduction to John Keene’s “Translating Poetry, Translating Blackness,” Daniel Borzutsky notes that were there more translations of black writers into English, “we would have a clearer sense of the connections and commonalities, as well as the differences across the African Diaspora.” He asks, “What does it mean that US readers might not even be aware of the presence of black people, let alone black writers, in countries like Pakistan and Iraq?,” and I have been surprised when visitors comment on the fact that Spain has a greater diversity than they previously thought until I remember my own surprise years ago. I wish to fight against that lack, which Keene notes “limits our understanding of forms of living and being.” Like Coleman’s words, this essay struck a chord with me. Keene closes by wondering if  “perhaps not only more translators but more black translators, particularly from the United States, will step into the breach to undertake this work,” and much of what I have been driven to explore in the past five years begins to take clearer form; first for myself, I am driven to discover and share these connections between Afro-descendant people around the world.

Deborah Ekoka is cultural manager and coordinator of cultural programming activities at United Minds. Born and raised in Valencia and of Guinean descent, she is part of the organization of the Afroconciencia Festival in Madrid and the Black Barcelona Festival. She is an activist who also conducts presentations and workshops, coordinating activities around Afro-Spanish culture. Most recently, she is the editor of Metamba Miago: Stories and Wisdom of Afro-Spanish Women (Metamba Miago: Relatos y saberes de mujeres afroespañolas)

Ken Province is the director of United Minds. Born and raised in Valencia with Haitian ancestry, Ken directs United Minds as a work of art, a collage of books that shows us a truer African image. Ken is a bookseller, cultural promoter, multidisciplinary artist, musician (Mc, producer, singer) and presents the radio program “La Llave del Matrix” ( He performs book recommendations as part of their Book Jockey series.

Layla Benitez-James (Austin, Texas) is an Asymptote Podcast Editor, poet, translator, and artist living in Alicante, Spain. Translations can be found in Waxwing and Anomaly. She currently works with the Unamuno Author Series in Madrid as their Director of Literary Outreach and is the editor of their poetry festival anthologyDesperate Literature: A Bilingual Anthology. Her first chapbook, God Suspected My Heart Was a Geode But He Had to Make Sure, was selected by Major Jackson for the 2017 Toi Derricotte & Cornelius Eady Chapbook Prize and published by Jai-Alai Books in Miami, April 2018.


Read more interviews on the Asymptote blog: