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Love and fantasy mix in Laura Restrepo's new novel

Colombian Laura Restrepo's latest novel is inspired by the time she spent in Africa with the NGO Doctors Without Borders.

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Obsessed with the Queen of Sheba, Bos Mutas, a young contemporary writer, goes out in search of her around the world, just as historical figures like Solomon, Thomas Aquinas and Gérard de Nerval have done throughout the centuries. Although the Queen of Sheba is elusive, Bos Mutas finds in her place the very earthly Zahra Bayda, a Somali midwife. In this way, the real time of the present runs parallel to the immemorial time of myth.

Based on the author's travels with Doctors Without Borders in Yemen, Ethiopia and the Somali border — the magical and fierce geography of what was once the kingdom of Saba — Canción de antigos amantes (Song of Ancient Lovers), the latest novel by Colombia's Laura Restrepo "is a beautiful kaleidoscope, a gateway to exciting worlds, an audacious amalgam of genres, eras, profane and biblical rhythms, cruelty and solidarity, love and war, pain and healing," as described by the publisher. 

One part of the novel, constructed on the basis of two plot lines that converge at the end, is led by Zahra Bayda, a Somali midwife who works for Doctors Without Borders, inspired by many of the women the author met during her travels in Yemen, Somalia and the Ethiopian border. 

"Although I also found many other Zahra Bayda in the trips I made with Doctors Without Borders in several Latin American countries, in India or in the Syrian refugee camps in Greece. In all these places what I have found, basically, are women with enormous courage, with the courage to carry their children, their sick and their elderly, in search of a place where life is still possible," said the author in an interview with the Diario de Sevilla. "They are women made in adversity, who despite living in a permanent tragedy are starring in a great adventure in search of a space that welcomes them, with their own. That is why I see these women as a symbol of the future, of dignity and courage." 

The other part of the novel takes the form of a story somewhere between biblical and fantastic. It recreates the legend of the Queen of Sheba because, as the work reveals, "every myth that is born is reborn, [and] every myth that is incarnated is reincarnated." Throughout the story, the Queen of Sheba takes the form of other women, many of whom are part of the pedauque tradition (those with a foot anomaly), such as Frida Kahlo, who suffered from poliomyelitis, or the singer Patti Smith. 

In this new novel, the author of Delirio, winner of the 2004 Alfaguara Novel Prize (available in English) narrates "the eternal journey of migrant women who, despite their limps and stumbles, always get up, keep going, learn to look further and further ahead and cross the borders of time and space," the publisher describes. 

Restrepo has published several books, some of them translated into English, such as Delirium (2004), a searing portrait of a Colombian society battered by war and corruption, as well as an intimate look at the daily lives of people struggling to stay sane in an unstable reality, and Hot Sur (2013), a thrilling story of a young Latin American woman who, like many others, has come to America chasing a dream. When she is accused of murdering her husband and sentenced to life behind bars, she must struggle to keep hope alive as she works to prove her innocence. 

She has won several awards, including the Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Prize for novels written by women; the 2004 Alfaguara Novel Prize; the Prix France Culture for the best foreign novel published in France in 1998; the 2003 Archbishop Juan de San Clemente Prize; and the 2006 Grinzane Cavour Prize for the best foreign novel published in Italy. 

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