Sunday, December 30, 2012

A conversation with Prof. Ghirmai Negash

Professor Ghirmai Negash
Part II

Issayas: Even though Eritrea is one of the few African countries that has its own script, it was not until modern times that the majority of the population (through public and private education, for example) was exposed to reading and writing. Before that reading and writing was confined to the priesthood. Am I correct in that? If so, were there any works written by the  priesthood that you looked into when you did your research to write your first book: "A History of Tigrinya Literature in Eritrea"?

Ghirmai: Yes, there were religious books and shorter treatises that were written by the priesthood, before the arrival of the modern printing press in Eritrea. A significant body of religious literature was written in Geez, the classical and liturgical language of the Orthodox Churches of Eritrea and Ethiopia.Geez language and literature has been often comparably described as the equivalent of Greek and Latin, the classical languages of Europe, and its history and influence on the other languages of our region has truly been massive. We also find some rudimentary writings in Tigrinya, dating to the 17th-18th centuries. For example, there were attempts by European missionaries to print partial translations of the Bible in Tigrinya in the 1820s. The missionaries wrote the language in Latin script. The most significant work in Tigrinya from that period was Dabtara Matewos’s “translation of the Four Gospels.” This book also marks the first appearance of the Tigrinya language in book form, written in Geez alphabet. Dabtara Matewos was assisted by Rev. C. Isenberg in this book project, which was published in Switzerland in 1866. Later, after printing presses
were introduced in Eritrea, by the Catholic Mission in Massawa (1863) and by the Swedish Evangelical Mission in Monkullu (1885), more Tigrinya books were produced locally. After having been moved to Keren in 1879, the printing press of the Catholic Mission was moved to Asmara in 1912. It was the first printing press in East Africa. Today, this press still functions in Asmara under the name “Francescana Printing Press.” The printing press owned by the Swedish Evangelical Mission was moved to Asmara in 1895. In 1896, the press published Dr. K. Winqwist’s “printed version” of the Tigrinya alphabet, which was a major event in the history of the language, as it opened the way for continued publications. It was also this same press that started publishing the first Tigrinya newspaper, MelEkhti Selam (the Message of Peace), the first
printed Tigrinya newspaper, in 1909.

The second edition of "A History of Tigrinya Literature" published in 2010.

Issayas: I know a lot of Eritreans who like to read history but not fiction.  How would you answer them?

Ghirmai: Outside my children and my students, I don’t think it’s my business to dictate what to read. Even that is not always realistic. I mean to say, it’s good enough as long as people read. Also, there aren’t many Eritreans in the environment I live and, therefore, don’t know whether Eritrean readers prefer history to fiction. I would say though the following in order to answer your question. If, as you say, the Eritreans around you don’t like reading fiction, it is perhaps because they don’t find novels that resonate with their interests. In that case, I would give this counsel by Toni Morrison: “If there’s a book you really want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”

Issayas: For people who have not read your first book mentioned above, would you give us a thumbnail sketch of the book?

Ghirmai: My first book, A History of Tigrinya Literature in Eritrea, is a critical exploration of the history of Tigrinya literature in Eritrea through the prism of post-colonial theory and also interrogates global theories through indigenous conceptions of literary and aesthetic categories. Regarding its scope and impact on African literary history, this work has been described by one scholar as a “pioneering and thus far only book of its kind on the subject, [and] is a model of what can and should be done for the literature of any African language in any African nation or region” (Charles Cantalupo, 2012), and another scholar, Ali Jemale Ahmed, has called “A History of Tigrinya Literature [is] a must-read for anyone.” Ngugi wa Thiong’o has also said some kind words about the book, which you can read on the blurb of the Africa World Press edition. These are people with established reputations in African literature, and it matters a great deal to me to get such appreciation from them. It is very inspiring.

Dr. Ghirmai's translation of Dr. Abba Gebreyesus Hailu's novel

Issayas: Now a question about your most recent book. The Conscript: A Novel of Libya's Anti-colonial War is a translation of Dr. Abba Gebreyesus Hailu's novel. Why did you choose this particular book to translate? Who was Dr. Gebreyesus Hailu? What is the significance of the book in the history of Eritrean literature?

Ghirmai: Dr. Gebreyesus Hailu was a Catholic priest. He had a doctorate degree in theology. He was born in 1906 in Afelba, Eritrea, and died in 1993, in Ethiopia. He was a prominent religious and public figure in Eritrea and Ethiopia. He wrote his novel, The Conscript, in 1927, but he was able to publish it only after the demise of Italian colonialism in Eritrea. This makes sense because of the book’s scathing criticism of Italian colonialism. Through its central protagonist, Tuquabo, the novel offers a vivid picture of the predicament of the Eritrean conscripts that went to fight in Libya against the Libyan freedom fighters, while they themselves were under the bondage of colonial Italy. It is a sad story—with the humiliation, defeat, and all that. But Gebreyesus Hailu didn’t write the novel for sentimental reasons. It was because he wanted to give Eritrean readers a critical mirror of what was happening then. Hailu knew very well the European and African universes. He was writing as an “insider-outsider” of both worlds. This stance enabled him to look at the excesses of colonialism without losing sight of "Habesha" complicity in the war. Of course, he sided with his people and hated colonialism, but he also did not shy away from portraying what he saw as the misplaced “heroism” of the Habesha conscripts.  Additionally, the novel is remarkably well written. For me, it is the best writing I have ever read so far in the Tigrinya language. And these are some of the main reasons
why I determined to translate the novel.

To purchase Dr. Ghirmai's books.

Issayas: Thank you for your time. Happy Holidays!!

Ghirmai: Thank you for the opportunity.

Monday, December 24, 2012

A conversation with Prof. Ghirmai Negash

Professor Ghirmai Negash

Part I

Issayas: Briefly, would you tell us about yourself?

Dr. Ghirmai Negash: I want to start in Eritrea. I was born and raised in Eritrea. I am a Tigrinya-phone Eritrean. As a child, I attended quite a few elementary schools, including in Idaga-Arby (Asmara), TeraEmni, Adventist Mission School in Asmara, and Haile Selassie Junior Elementary School (Asmara). We moved around a lot then, because my parents had a house in Idaga-Arby and shuttled between Asmara and my father’s birth place in Guila-TeraEmni. I am the fourth child of seven children, most of who have left too soon. My father was an accomplished mechanic, a trade he learned when he was a soldier with the Italian colonial army. He actually fought with the Italians in Gondar, Ethiopia, and he surrendered to the British army when they defeated the Italians there during World War II. My mother had also connections with the Italians. She came to Asmara from her birth place when she was young to work as a cook for an Italian family. She was an intelligent and loving person, and spoke fluent Italian. As a youth I grew up entirely submersed in Tigrinya culture but also listening to my parents’ stories about the Italian period, which I gradually realized was important (among other influences) for my formation and thinking on personal and professional levels.

For secondary school education, I went to Prince Makonnen Secondary School in Asmara. That school is now called “Asmara Comprehensive Secondary School.” After that, I was a student at Haile Selassie I University, in Addis Ababa. When I entered the university, I was aiming to become a medical doctor, although I was interested in writing and had actually written some essays for radio and a high school newspaper. I left the university in 1974, following its closure by the Dergue. After going through some compelling years marked by struggle and exile, I resumed my university education in the Netherlands in the 1980s. In the Netherlands, I studied at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and received two Masters Degrees in English (1990), and Critical Theory (1991). I earned my PhD in African literature from the department of Critical Theory of Leiden University, the Netherlands in 1999. In terms of my education and life in the Netherlands, I should also add that studying and living there was a turning point for me in both limiting and enabling ways. Having to learn a new language and culture was not easy, but I was also fortunate enough to meet and work with critically-minded Dutch and transnational individuals from different parts of the world, including from Africa, the Caribbean, Iran, and the former Eastern Bloc countries. And I enjoyed living in the lovely city of Amsterdam.

I came to the United States in 2005 to work as an assistant professor of English and assistant director of the Institute of the African Child, African Studies Program, in Ohio University. Currently, I am a tenured full professor of English & African Literature in the Department of English, and Associate Director of African  Studies Program , at Ohio University. Previous to my current position, I had worked and studied at Leiden University, the Netherlands (1994-2001), and I was the chair of the Department of Eritrean Languages and Literature at the University of Asmara (2001-2005).

The first book that came out from Dr. Ghirmai's PhD dissertation in 1999.

I have written a few books and articles. My first book was A History of Tigrinya Literature in Eritrea: The Oral and the Written 1890-1991. It came out from my dissertation and was published by Leiden University in 1999.  This book has been re-published by Africa World Press for the North American market in 2011.  Since the publication of A History of Tigrinya Literature, my academic interests have ranged widely, from research in orality, to Eritrean and South African fiction, to translation works from indigenous African language(s) into English. The result has culminated in the publication of several articles in reviewed journals and three books, The Freedom of the Writer (in Tigrinya), Who Needs a Story? as well as a translation of Gebreyesus Hailu’s novel, The Conscript. Currently, I am co-editing a volume consisting of keynote lectures and essays, which came out of the 37th Annual African Literature Association Conference, which I hosted in 2011 at Ohio University as the principal convener. In subsequent projects, while carrying my interest in Horn of Africa literatures, I plan to focus more on intersections between postcolonial and transnational literatures. I am also interested in exploring thematic concerns between African-language and European-language African literatures, for I believe that it is important for us to understand both the ruptures and the continuities between tradition and modernity.

Issayas: Given your work on Eritrean literature, what would you say is the purpose of literature in a society like Eritrea?

Ghirmai Negash: This deceptively simple question is difficult to answer. That is because the idea of literature and its function is complex as its characterization and role can be defined using different analytical models, which, in turn, are themselves defined by time and location. As far as I am concerned, Eritrea has beautiful
people and beautiful culture. It has also a long history of suffering and oppression coming from both external and internal forces. So, while acknowledging that the  role of literature in Eritrea, like in any other society, would be (and should be) different in different circumstances, at the moment I personally am interested
in Eritrean writing that is uncompromisingly beautiful and political at the same time. I truly believe that the country needs talented writers that are capable of  portraying “the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune” that have shaped the people’s history. As you know of course, I am referring to Shakespeare here.  But, when you think of it, this is also precisely what the concerns of some of our greatest writers have been. Think of the works of Alemseged Tesfai or Beyene Haile or Gebreyesus Hailu. The strength of their stories derives from the authors’ ability to write beautifully about the ‘slings and arrows of our misfortune’, our peoples’ determination, and hope. Remember also that that’s why these three writers are known and/or read transnationally. Remember, too, that in the Eritrean context the idea that literature should serve exclusive political or ideological interests philosophically contradicts the very notion of art as a fundamental right of human expression.

Next, part II

Friday, December 7, 2012

From Eritrea's Files

 from Eritrea's files


Did you know that:

Eritrean General Union of Labor was one of the first organized labor unions south of the Sahara. It was formed in December 1942.

Artifacts from 7th Century China was found at the Eritrean port of Badi (Batse'h/Massawa)

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Example of Eritrea's softpower

I've been looking into Eritrea's soft power for the last couple of years. A recent publication entitled "Eritrea Art Time" is an example of the aforementioned.

Here is the link: