Margaret River Press interview with Yirga Gelaw Woldeyes
The first thing that struck me about your story, ‘When the Sky Looks Like the Belly of a Donkey,’ was its title. How important is metaphor to your work, and how do you ensure you’re harnessing your most effective, most original use of said metaphor?
Metaphors do not have exact logical connections with the things they represent. When they are translated into another language, they can even become more confusing. But metaphors have this special ability to encapsulate a large body of feelings, musings, and intentions within their concise words. In rural Ethiopia, the donkey is a frequently used carrier of goods. Farmers use them to transport their seeds or grains to the market or the farm. They often meet early in the morning, when the sky is tinged with gold like the belly of a donkey. The metaphor becomes strong within the context of a culture where the donkey and the early rushing to work before the sun rises, is important. In a different culture, in this case, Australia, it becomes a sign that needs to be translated. I hope it triggers interest, as curiosity often leads to discussion and understanding.
Tell me about your native language of Amharic and its importance to your work.
Amharic is the national language of Ethiopia. It has its own alphabet and writing system that developed over thousands of years. The predecessor of Amharic, Ge’ez, is regarded as one of the world’s ancient languages. Ethiopia’s long historical, religious and philosophical texts are written in Ge’ez and Amharic. There are also other languages such as Oromiffa and Tigrigna. I was born and grew up in a place called Lalibela where 11 churches were carved out of a massive rock in the 13th century. This historical place had great influence over me. I grew up learning the Ge’ez language, proverbs, metaphors, stories, and texts from sages and elders. More than my modernist school teachers, my consciousness was framed by these people. I loved playing with words, writing poems especially. Writing in Amharic connects me not only with my experiences in Ethiopia, but it is a vital part of who I am. I think this is the same for most people. Our native language is something that cannot be removed from our being. It is the narrative to how we think, how we feel and how we dream. For me, it enriches my writings in English. It is not possible to translate everything, and I also do not think it is necessary to do so. But Amharic gives me new insights and serendipity when I write in English. In the future, I hope to write more in Amharic as well as English.
Is it possible, do you think, to walk in this world without feeling the weight of one’s cultural past? When do familial, cultural, and tribal ties cease, and when do one’s personal idiosyncrasies begin to take over the forging of one’s identity?
I think it is a mistake to think that one can simply come in and out of culture. Culture is not like a country. It does not have a border or boundary. It is basically the experience, language, and knowledge you have to live in the world as a human being. It is the first resource you are given to see and understand the world and everyone in it. When you grow up, you speak the language, eat the food, develop the habits and learn the values of those around you. The culture you grow up in is not just a part of you; it makes you. Children do not grow up thinking they are from a ‘culture.’ Indeed, I didn’t think of myself as coming from an African culture. I just saw myself as a human being. I, therefore, don’t think it is possible to talk about familial, cultural or tribal ties in contrast to personal idiosyncrasies. What becomes complicated in forging one’s identity it not the struggle between culture and the individual (for the latter is made in the former), but rather, the politics of culture: the meanings we have about certain groups of people like Africans or indigenous people. The western world has a long tradition of looking at such people as repositories of primitive traditions. Language plays a part here: the west is made up of ‘civilisations,’ while Africa is made up of ‘tribes.’ When people like myself are exposed to this, all of a sudden you realise that you are a ‘culture,’ an exotic thing, not just a human being. You come to see yourself as others see you, as ‘African,’ ‘primitive’ and ‘poor.’ For someone like myself, whose upbringing never felt ‘primitive’ or ‘poor,’ the challenge is easier. You have a story to tell yourself, and your alienation from the dominant culture does not hurt you much. But for those who have no culture other than the culture that objectifies them, it is a very difficult thing. Many Africans born here are in many respects treated as if they were foreigners. This is not because of their tribal affiliation or lack of personal idiosyncrasies. I know many Australians of African descent who have lost their African language and have no idea of African knowledges and traditions. They are Australians, yet they are always seen as different. I would say that for me, I was very lucky. Growing up in Ethiopia, my identity was not forged in a culture where I was defined as the ‘other.’
Yirga Gelaw Woldeyes is a writer, researcher and poet from the holy town of Lalibela in Ethiopia. His poetry is published in Yeteraroch Chuhet (The Cry of Mountains), in which he uses his native language of Amharic to reflect on Ethiopia’s history of loss and resilience. Yirga lives in Perth, Western Australia, where he has started to explore storytelling through his second language of English. He is one of four contributors in Ways of Being Here, published by Margaret River Press.