About the book
Fiery yet demure Katmé lives a privileged life as the wife of the Prefect of the capital in the fictional African country of Zambuena. But after years of playing her part in her marriage and raising twin daughters, Katmé now chafes at her role. Traditional gender dynamics leave her roiling inside despite her best efforts to live up to the norm. Her interactions with her husband, Tashun, are stifling at best and sometimes violent.
Katmé’s best friend, Samy, is an “activist artist” who helps to keep her afloat and constantly broadens her horizons. He is also gay – an offense punishable by law in Zambuena. To damage Katme’s politician husband’s image, an opponent leaks the family’s connection to Samy and alludes to his sexual orientation in the press. Samy is arrested, and Katme must find a way to free him from prison and save him from the country’s outdated laws.
Unfortunately, changing mentalities in society at large proves even more difficult, and Samy’s darkest hour comes at the hands of the Aquatics – the marginalized people living in a flooded slum whose plight his art aimed to showcase.
As she strives to save her friend and plans her mother’s second funeral, Katmé finally develops the courage to forge her own path.
What our readers say
Both the original and the sample are beautifully written. They are easy to read, with rich details that set the scene. The “cinematic” style is evocative, and will help readers understand the cultural context of Cameroon, where traditional gender norms are enforced and homosexuality is a criminal offence. As a book tackling homosexuality and traditional gender norms in Sub-Saharan Africa written by a Cameroonian woman, it would provide an Anglophone readership with something new and much-needed cultural understanding. The book would have a broad readership due to the relatable nature of the main character and her plight. However, readers of other books by authors from Sub-Saharan Africa would be particularly interested.
– Caitlin Job
Awards and press
Prix Panafricain de la Littérature 2021
Prix Ahmadou-Kourouma 2022
Prix du rayonnement de la langue et de la littérature française 2022.
Prix des 5 continents de la francophonie
Prix des Afriques 2022.
“With this first novel, Osvalde Lewat dares to tackle one of the ultimate taboos in contemporary African societies: homosexuality. With scalpel-like precision, she depicts the collective madness that ensues when a community believes itself to be threatened by a changing world.” – Kidi Bebey Le Monde, 10 October 2021
“Tenderness, irony, indignation, it all jumps out at you, though the text never shouts; it’s all obvious without explanation. Every remark is acute. Les Aquatiques is a very fine novel indeed.” – Le Figaro littéraire
UK rights sold; other rights available
The Aquatics by Osvalde Lewat
Translation Sample by Maren Baudet-Lackner
We buried Madeleine the first time twenty years ago. Somewhere, in the middle of nowhere. A rushed, slapdash funeral, rather like her life had been. She had lived in splendour and died at the age of thirty-nine, as poor as Job. Her family found a small plot of land, not too expensive and far enough from Fènn, the city where she had grown up, so that no one would claim the square metre beneath which she would be laid to rest. A local farmer, a former classmate – and a jilted ex-lover people said – had taken pity on them. Without too much haggling, he had agreed to cede a meticulously measured scrap of land outside the village for a trifling sum.
Madeleine Lapteu was five feet and three inches tall. The coffin was five feet and seven inches long. Before she died, her waist had measured thirty-eight inches. After the accident, after the hospital, she dropped a few inches. All those who saw her agreed that she really had lost quite a bit of weight. Since wood wasn’t cheap, they calculated the width of the coffin for half of her waist at sixteen inches. Then there was the zinc, yet another expense. Though it was terribly costly, zinc was indispensable, and they got it at a good price. Everything had its price: the depth of the grave, the tiling of the walls, the slab that covered the tomb, the sand, the cement, the water, the gravel, the choir, the labour (that of the grave diggers, the criers, the gun saluters, and the priest), the rented hunting rifle, and the ammunition. They kept to what was strictly necessary, only allowing the bare minimum; there was no room for waste.
At the end of the mass, the coffin was sealed. Holy water was sprinkled. The priest uttered his litanies, and they sang ‘Libera me’. Sennke, Madeleine’s younger daughter, mumbled her final goodbyes to her mother amid sobs, and the attendees were duly moved. The older daughter, Katmé, kept quiet. No tears. Nothing.
Someone shook her shoulder and a voice whispered, ‘Say goodbye to your mother, dear, say a few words, she can hear you, you know.’ A second voice joined in, ‘Treasure, everyone is watching, you didn’t even cry, people will think you’re not sad that your mama is dead, and you know she’s waiting for you to say goodbye to make her way up to Heaven.’ A third voice hissed, ‘Say something, Katmé! What is wrong with this child?! Didn’t you love your mother? God will punish you if you don’t speak up, so say something, for goodness’ sake, we’re about to bury her and you’ll never see her again, you know!’
Katmé’s lips remained sealed. For no obvious reason, Innocent Patong, the girls’ father, tried to slip a handful of dirt scooped from the ground into his pocket. A member of Madeleine’s family twisted his arm to prevent him from succeeding. Two shots were fired into the air, in line with the Fènn tradition for a middle-aged woman’s funeral, muffling the wailing of Mama Récia, Madeleine’s only sister, who knew more than most about crying, mourning, and burials.
Madeleine was stuffed into the coffin, which was wrapped in raffia ropes, and carried by four of Mama Récia’s many sons, who took slow, even steps, in time to the psalms sung by the choir and the criers, towards what they then believed would be her final resting place.
I will not wait to strive
For the bliss purported;
He who sets forth, who goes ahead
Will be rewarded.
While the attendees recited their final prayers and shed their final tears, the coffin rested for a few moments on wooden slats placed across the grave. Then, manoeuvred by the four sons, it began its descent into the earth. Exactly fifty-two seconds after the operation began, the casket became stuck. The hole wasn’t wide enough. The men persisted. The coffin was being difficult, refusing to budge. The choir sang fervently, at the top of their lungs:
Near the throne, the crown
Awaits the victor.
No truce! Rise up!
Said the Lord.
Let us be content to obey;
Don’t hesitate, don’t stray!
He who loses his way, loses his place
At the banquet in Heaven.
Mama Récia’s sons, the villagers who had come to the funeral (it was an opportunity for entertainment and feasting like any other), the nimblest choir members, the few friends who had made the trip, bold volunteers who overcame their distaste for the reddish Fènn earth, which stuck to and stained their shoes and clothes—in sum, all the able-bodied men got to it, struggling to push the stubborn wooden box down to the bottom of the hole. Suddenly, there was the sound of shattered glass. The window in the lid, designed to allow the mourners to see Madeleine’s face until the end, had broken. Once the initial surprise had worn off, they stopped everything. It was time to face the facts. The casket wouldn’t reach the bottom of the grave, and it couldn’t be pulled out either. They would have to find jack hammers, spades, and picks. And dig. And demolish. As Katmé and Sennke looked on in horror, the men smashed the cheap tile whose slab-like width had been left out of the otherwise meticulous calculations conducted to determine the dimensions of the grave. The choir stopped singing. The criers—nearly impossible to silence when it came to earning their due—curled their fists around their mouths to signify their shock. Everyone was quiet as the men savagely widened the grave.
Funerals never come at a good time. Madeleine’s came at a particularly bad time. For several weeks, students and a few politicians had been demanding that the Father of the Nation and President of the Republic end the single-party system, open up the political space, enact democracy and free elections, increase wages, put a stop to arbitrary arrests, and make university free for all—demands described as naïve by several shrewd observers. The Old Man, the Father of the Nation, had turned a deaf ear, provoking economic paralysis throughout the country. Had the family had the money, it still would have been impossible, in those troubled times and on such short notice, to find a hardware store open in Fènn so they could retile and cement the grave. Since the region was home to quite a few dissenters, the order to close shops on certain days of the week, like Saturday, the big market day, was scrupulously enforced in town.
Following some hasty discussion, Madeleine was buried. She was buried on a Saturday morning. A Saturday morning before noon. That Saturday morning, before noon, as soon as her mother was buried, Katmé decided to bury her mother’s memory. She was thirteen years old.
I preferred to take Boulevard du Trente-Avril, a site of permanent chaos – rather than the shortest, most logical route – which inevitably led me past the football stadium, shops, playgrounds, and my childhood home. Cars drove the wrong direction. Drivers, tired of waiting, danced bare-chested on the asphalt or on bonnets; taxi drivers honked or listened loudly to hit songs on the radio; street hawkers glued their faces to windows, peddling all sorts of food and objects, and motorbikes slalomed between vehicles. I was headed to Samy’s studio, a former carwash warehouse located on the outskirts of the Cité des Enseignants, the neighbourhood where Sennke and I had lived with Madeleine. I spotted a police uniform in the distance and unlocked the RAV4. Perched on the running board with the door under my arm, I gestured vigorously in his direction. When he reached me, he pinched the visor of his khaki beret between his thumb and index finger.
‘Mama Prefect, God bless you. You’re in a go-slow, ooh! I beg your pardon. I’ll clear the road for you, now.’
The prefecture badge on the windscreen hadn’t escaped his attention. I got back into the car and rolled down the window.
I usually refused to take advantage of the priority lane. Today, I needed to keep my arms and legs busy – avoid potholes, taxis and motorbikes that slam on the breaks without warning, pedestrians who cross without looking. To get the letter from the Fènn Town Hall out of my head, I had to stay on the move and focus my attention elsewhere.
‘Abeg, Mama Prefect, save a brother.’
‘And who will save me?’ I asked jokingly.
‘Mama, Mama, times are tough… Your sister at home dey always on my back.’
I took my purse from the passenger seat, pulled out a five-thousand-franc bill, rolled it up in my fist, then palmed it to the officer. In no time, he had cleared the road. I jammed the key into the ignition.
The SUV bounced down the dirt alleyway that led to the studio. It was a far cry from the paved roads and airconditioned streets of the Fleuve neighbourhood where I lived with Tashun. This district, where the government had once housed Ministry of Education employees, had grown dilapidated since it had been sold off to private investors, but it offered affordable rent. The Cité des Enseignants was impoverished, like most parts of the capital, and wouldn’t be able to elude the status of ghetto much longer, despite the flowering flame trees which enveloped the houses in sunlight. Everywhere, families had moved into makeshift shelters cobbled together from sheet metal and wood. During the rainy season, their hovels turned into hovels on stilts. An expensive renovation to raise its foundation protected Samy’s studio from the elements; high above it all, the veranda provided a stunning, unobstructed view of poverty and all its ills. Samy knew that I had lived nearby. I would have preferred he settle somewhere else, but he said the atmosphere stimulated his creativity. And he really had seemed more prolific since he’d been working there. If the exhibition—his first solo show—was a success, he would finally be able to turn the page on the mouldings he sold to tourists on the hunt for cheap souvenirs. I was eager to see his latest sculptures. I knew this wasn’t the right time to mention the letter I had received. I also knew that I would mention it anyway. Who else could I talk to about it? Under different circumstances, regarding any other subject, I would have laughed as I showed him the obsequious, handwritten note the mayor of Fènn had added to the bottom of the letter. The prospect of serving His Excellency and Madam Excellency fills me with deferential joy. My laugh, which Tashun always found inappropriate, would have burst from my lips. But this letter didn’t make me want to laugh at all.
‘The activist artist in all his glory!’ Samy exclaimed, pointing at four sculptures supported by wooden rods. Drawn features, red eyes, dark circles, he clearly wasn’t sleeping enough. ‘This isn’t the final scale, just maquettes,’ he continued, ‘it will be bigger, the height of a grown man. I’m doing ten on the same theme.’
Four men stood before me, their long necks headless, two-thirds of their abdomens replaced by their heads lodged between their solar plexuses and belly buttons. The square heads overflowed on all sides to create love handles and sagging bellies. Bloody nostrils, mouths twisted in pain, eyes wide with the same despair found in Courbet’s The Desperate Man. The faces of the four terracotta characters Samy had sculpted were vaguely familiar. I thought for a moment. The president and the three vice presidents.
‘So?’ he asked anxiously.
‘You really want to put this on display?’
‘There’s more, not just sculptures,’ he said as he gestured towards the far end of the warehouse. ‘I’m still thinking about the title for the show, but I think I’ve got something. Come with me.’
A rattan bookcase, volumes on sculpture and photography, old newspapers, a pile of drawing notebooks, and on top of the pile, a standard sheet of paper.
‘Come sit here, on the stool, you’ll be more comfortable while you read,’ he urged as he pushed towards me the tall bamboo stool where he usually sat to draw and held out the piece of paper.
Ante Mortem. Before death. As I read, I grew uneasy. In Zambuena, people weren’t arrested for expressing disagreement with the president or his party anymore. Samy had the right to sculpt and write what he wanted, to criticise whomever he chose, that was his role. The important thing was that he had no political designs, and since he didn’t, there was nothing to fear. I only hoped that he wasn’t lying to himself so deftly that he actually believed that choosing the right type of earth—sandstone, ceramic, porcelain, or kaolin—and obediently following the meticulous, thankless steps required to create a sculpture in the round or a bas-relief would be enough to influence the status quo. He couldn’t actually believe that a bold and powerful piece of art forged from nothing could force society to deviate from its fixed trajectory. An activist artist, fantastic! Tashun would be sure to choke on that. ‘Your friend is a constant thorn in my side!’ I could already hear him bray.
A projector displayed an experimental film on the floor: overweight children devouring banknotes, laughing hysterically with each mouthful, while others looked on angrily, greedily licking their lips. I made a mental note to ask Samy if the bills were real or from Zambony, our local Monopoly—in the video, they looked authentic. Against the wall, a plywood trestle bore a series of large black-and-white photographs – bodies of children, teens, the elderly, men, and women; bodies pieced together to create a two-headed, multi-sexual fresco. Was it in keeping with the times? Was it good? Beautiful? Modern? I didn’t know what to think except that the combination of buttocks as old as Methuselah with a young man’s head, a grandmother’s withered breasts, children’s legs, and sex organs of different sizes and types troubled me. Not to mention the obese little gluttons. Last but not least, a series of photographs titled The Aquatics featured terrified faces emerging from wastewater and flooding, ID cards floating, women hoisting babies, lamps, or suitcases overhead, the swollen face of a drowned man. The images weren’t new. Every year during the rainy season, the same ones, more or less, appeared on television screens and in the papers. But Samy’s frame—rusted corrugated sheet metal, scrap metal, and papier mâché—and his juxtaposition of these cataclysmic images with pictures of carefree couples lying in a field of ripening corn with their children, amplified the radical despair that was bursting from every scene. My eyes were full. When had Samy had time to do all this? I could feel his feverish gaze weighing on me.
I kept quiet.
‘If you don’t like it, you can say so, Katmé!’ he exclaimed with a reproachful look.
‘Come on, don’t get upset. It’s just that… How can I put this… It’s…’ I hated my voice for jumping an octave without my consent.
I asked to see it all again, once, twice, three times. How I wish I had been able to declare with certainty, ‘I like this but not that.’ Samy believed that a lack of linguistic precision resulted from a lack of sincerity; he would ask me to find the words. I owe him what little I know about sculpture and the visual arts. The high school where we met was not so bold as to include the fine arts in the library catalogue; and growing up with Mama Récia, whose fierce devotion to the Bible and the Eucharist limited all attempts to embrace other forms of creation, certainly didn’t expose me to Sow, Depara, or El Anatsui.
Samy slid down the wall to sit on the floor and extended his legs. A part of the image from the video projector reflected off his plastic mules. I sat down in the rocking chair, the sole comfortable seat in the room. Samy only sat in it when he wanted to “unlock” his creativity. I looked down at him and decided to say what I thought as it came to me, without hesitating or overthinking it. ‘Maybe there’s too much to take in at once. It’s very dense, Samy.’
‘It’s my first solo show! It can’t be ordinary!’ Anger loomed in his voice. He made as though to stand, but stayed seated in the end, gathering his knees beneath his chin for a moment before stretching them out again.
‘Sculpture is your art, not the rest of this stuff!’
‘It’s all my art! Some of these photos are four years old. I recorded the video footage two years ago during a workshop with my students. I’m obese like the kids in the video, obese and bursting with everything I want to show people. Did you really think I had done all this in two months?’
‘You should narrow your focus a bit, Samy. You’ll suffocate people otherwise; you should tone it down a little. Really, it’s too much.’
He stood up and leaned back against the wall, a sullen expression on his face. The fat children burst into laughter on the hem of his trousers. I left the rocking chair to stand across from the photos of the flooding again.
‘You really don’t like it, do you?’ he asked, coming closer.
I frowned. ‘Their faces… It’s too raw, Samy.’
‘What these people live through is raw! Not everyone is lucky enough to live in the Fleuve neighbourhood. You’re starting to worry me! Keuna says they’re very good. The photos and everything else!’
‘Keuna thinks it’s all very good, well that’s great, I’m thrilled for you. When did I lose the right to say that it’s not perfect?’ I asked, my tone drier than I would have liked. Hearing him mention Keuna always annoyed me. ‘Your sculptures, your title—Ante Mortem—you’re looking for trouble! It’s like giving unripe plantain to a newborn. Your Keuna, who loves to go around playing White Lady all the time, how long has she even lived here? When Tashun sees this! Let’s not forget that he’s bankrolling it all!’ As soon as the final words crossed my lips, I could taste ash in my mouth. You can’t choke ash back down.
Samy let out a nervous laugh. ‘What was that? What did you say, Katmé?’ His lips curled into a bitter line. I sheepishly reached my hand out to him. He recoiled. ‘Keuna says it will be a success. I’ll pay you back. I swear I’ll pay you back.’
‘Samy, that was stupid of me. I’m sorry.’
His features hardened and he crossed his arms over his chest, his back against the wall once more. I stepped towards him and tried to uncross his arms, but he pushed me away. How could I have said such a thing? My tongue could be biting and unyielding, but never with Samy. It was the letter at the bottom of my purse. The letter and Tashun’s extravagant plans. I needed to hurt someone. Samy was my unlucky victim.
‘“That was hateful,’ I continued pleadingly, ‘Tashun doesn’t even know about the money or the studio. Please… I’m sorry… What do I know? I go on and on, but I can’t even hold a drawing pencil! Samy…’
He turned his red eyes towards me. He was a nervous wreck and, though he called me his airport and his better half, I hadn’t noticed. As usual. He pushed off the wall and made his way to the far end of the studio, where he pulled aside the curtain that hid the small private space that he had set up for himself, then lay down on his wrought-iron bed.
I followed him and sat down on the edge of the mattress, on the Scottish wool blanket that covered the sheets and pillow. Oblique rays of sunshine entered through the studio’s glass ceiling and shone on Samy’s ashy skin, his face ravaged by insomnia.
I took off my ballerina flats, crawled up the bed, and lay down next to him. I lifted his arm and slipped my head onto his shoulder.
‘It’s not even you, Kat,’ he finally said after a long silence. ‘It’s not even you. Ety called and it didn’t go well. The usual reproach. I’m never available, the studio takes up all my time, and so on. I sat in the rocking chair for an hour to get over the conversation. And as soon as I got up to get back to work, the Loon turned up. Come to see what I’m “up to in this dump” since I haven’t been home for a few days. As you’d expect, she conveyed yet again that, at my age, it would be best to give up on such frivolities, if I was a real artist, we would have known by now. I could have killed her; I could have strangled her.’
‘You’ve known your mother for thirty-five years, Samy…’ I had forbidden myself to call her the Loon like he did. He often said that someday he would write a novel, and the first line would be: How I became allergic to my mother. ‘Your mother’s not a bad person, you know. Maybe just not very smart…’
‘I have my doubts about that. At a certain point, the line between stupidity and ignominy blurs. I resent her for it. Ignorance doesn’t excuse her behaviour. She’s right, though. I’m a fake artist and a real failure. Just thinking about this show paralyses my brain and fingers.’
Samy had been turned down so many times that he had lost all hope of ever having a major solo show, that is until he met Keuna, the owner of the new Bubinga Project gallery. He had heard it all regarding his work. Too ethnic, not authentic enough, too documentary, not realistic enough, too conceptual, not abstract enough, too political, not socially conscious enough, too unique, not original enough…
I took his hand and placed it over my heart. ‘I don’t have the right training to understand your approach. I’m not a good judge, but my heart doesn’t lie. Believe in yourself.’
‘I hope it goes somewhere this time, or I’ll have no choice but to rot away in my art teacher suit until retirement.’
‘Please, Samy, don’t start down that road again…’ I loosened my embrace and propped myself up on one elbow, ‘now it’s my turn to show you something.’ I got out of the bed and walked barefoot across the floor to retrieve my bag, which I had dropped at the foot of the rocking chair. Amid paperclips, menthol lip balm, a headwrap, and some crumpled papers, I found what I was looking for. ‘Tashun gave me this at the prefecture this morning. I know it’s not an excuse. Let’s just say that I’ve been a bit of a mess, too, since leaving his office.’
Samy skimmed the letter. ‘What do you plan to do?’ he asked, just as Tashun had a few hours earlier.
‘First, go to Fènn and find out more. They don’t say when the grave has to be moved. They say it’s urgent but convey the news like any other piece of information. Urgent in this country could mean tomorrow or ten years from now.’
Muffled voices reached us from outside. Someone was knocking. Samy handed me the letter and stood up. As he made his way to the front door, I gathered my things, frustrated that our conversation had been cut short. I joined him and squinted; the sun shone in our eyes. Six children who looked to be about ten years old were holding terracotta vases in their hands.
‘Uncle Samy, we’ve chosen our designs, and we prepared the patina like you told us,’ said the tallest boy.
‘Customers prefer vases with enamelled necks, Uncle Samy. They always sell the best. Can you show us how to make them?’ asked another, whose T-shirt collar gaped.
‘I thought you never saw anyone. Your goddaughters will be jealous when they find out,’ I joked. Samy usually gave Axelle and Alix sculpting lessons twice a week, but he had put them on hold to prepare for the show.
‘I know, but if I stop teaching these kids, their parents will kill me. It’s a good thing they come interrupt me, actually. Otherwise, I’d never see the light of day.’ Samy called the time he spent with his young potters his pro bono publico work—for the public good. The children, who lived with their parents in dilapidated public housing on the outskirts of the Cité des Enseignants neighbourhood, sold the objects they made with his help at the market, claiming they were the artistic creations of tetraplegics from the local disabled centre.
‘What’s his name?’ I asked, gesturing towards the youngest-looking boy.
‘Him? Little Paul. Little but clever. Very clever. Clay no longer holds any secrets for him, isn’t that right, Little Paul?’
By way of reply, the kid puffed up his chest with pride and smiled shyly.
‘And here you have Blaise, Kouankeu, Emmanuel, Paul—Big Paul, that is—and Chrysostome.’
I plunged my hand into my bag and pulled out a stack of bills, which I handed to Little Paul. ‘You share with the others, all right?’
He nodded. ‘Thank you, Mama. You lift us up, Mama!’
As I expected, Samy shook his head and gave me a disapproving look. He pinched my earlobe. ‘Bindi, you know this is bordering on pathological, right?’
He walked me to the bottom of the stairs where we were surrounded by his beds of African violets, his miracle babies. The barren soil just outside of the studio had yielded to the gentle persuasion of Samy’s fingers. The intense purple of the little flowers, a surreal shade of indigo, stood out against the ochre floor and muddy water around them.
I shared Tashun’s big idea with Samy. ‘Maybe if we talk to him together, he’ll see that it makes no sense… You could tell him—’
‘As if your husband has ever taken me seriously! He only asks my opinion when it doesn’t matter. It would be pointless, and you know it as well as I do.’
The boys watched us impatiently, eager for me to leave.
Samy hugged me and went back up the steps.
As I opened the car door, I heard him say behind me, ‘Bindi! Ab amicis honesta petamus. One should only ask from a friend what he is capable of!’
I turned around, raised my right hand, and joined the tips of my thumb and index finger, my other digits raised to the sky. Samy smiled.
As I brushed the fallen, pink, flame tree petals from the windshield and shooed the stray dog who was urinating on my back tyre, I wondered if Samy was alluding to my inability to gauge the quality of his work, or to his inability to plead my cause to Tashun.
Providence doesn’t give you a Latin teacher for a mother without consequence: Samy declaimed classical locutions with scandalous ease.