Author Profile: Ondjaki

In 2018, we profiled some of the authors who participated in the 39th edition of the Festival including Angolan author Ondjaki.

Ondjaki is widely considered to be one of the greatest writers in Angolan history, with critics hailing him as one of the most important writers in the history of African literature. Ondjaki’s diverse bibliography includes children’s books, poetry collections, short story anthologies and novels, plus additional credits in writing for film/television and theatre.

Ondjaki’s ongoing legacy is made even more impressive when considering how young he was when his writing career began. His debut publication, Actu Sanguíneu, was released when he was 23 years old, and by the time he was 40, Ondjaki had already won several of the most prestigious and continentally-revered accolades, including: the José Saramago Prize, the Jabuti Prize and the the Grinzane for Africa Prize.

Ondjaki’s early obsession with writing and reading was inspired by his parents’ own careers as writers, both of whom had even collaborated on scripting a stage production. Ondjaki has also pointed to the works of Gabriel García Márquez and Jean-Paul Sartre as major influences on his writing. Though he admits that he didn’t fully understand the complexities of their work when he first dove into their catalogue Ondjaki was only 14 years old he credits their books with showing him the full potential of the medium.

Ondjaki’s main source of inspiration is the city in which he was born: Luanda, the capital of Angola. His novels AvóDezanove e o Segredo Soviético (Grandma Dezanove and the Soviet Secret), Quantas madrugadas tem a noite (How Many Dawns Has the Night), and Bom dia camaradas (Good Morning, Comrades) are all set in/around his hometown, and they all seek to represent the broad range of experiences within that community and how the Angolan people survived through the long-term consequences of colonialism and war.

This subject reappears in a documentary that Ondjaki himself co-directed, May the Pitanga Cherries Grows, which traces the very different lives of ten characters living in present day Angola. Ondjaki’s Os Transparentes (Transparent City) – his 2012 magnum opus – is similarly documented in its scope (albeit with a twist of magical realism), honing in on the residents of a crumbling apartment block in Luanda and their daily struggles. The book was translated to English and published by Biblioasis in early 2018.

Enjoyed this profile? You can now listen to second season of the TIFA Backlist which features our 2018 event with Dionne Brand (Theory), Isa Kamari (Tweet), Pierre J. Mejlak (Having Said Goodnight) and Ondjaki (Transparent City)! All three authors read from their newly released works before being interviewed on stage by Wendy O’Brien, philosopher and longtime Festival friend.