Telling a Nation's Story Through a Grandmother's Eyes
Aida Edmariam's remarkable book, The Wife's Tale
Over the past few decades, there have only been a handful English-language books about Ethiopia that have received international literary acclaim. Aida Edemariam’s latest book, The Wife’s Tale, joins this brief list of titles, alongside the works of Nega Mezlekia, Abraham Verghese and Maaza Mengiste, but it also stands on its own as a unique work of nonfiction. The book is a biography of a remarkable woman from Gondar named Yetemegnu, who is the author’s grandmother. Aida’s writing was informed by many hours of interviews with her grandmother and years of extensive research. The end result is far from a simple family history, however. Told almost exclusively from Yetemegnu’s point of view, The Wife’s Tale transports readers into the engrossing story: an ordinary woman who lives a difficult, incredible life, crossing paths with larger-than-life historical figures along the way. Aida uses colorful imagery, authentic cultural descriptions and skillful translation of Amharic, to craft an intimate memoir that reads like a grand literary novel. The Wife’s Tale also stands out for shedding a new light on how ordinary Ethiopians lived through of some of the most tumultuous decades in the nation’s history. The book has received unanimously positive reviews from major publications in the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States, including The New York Times and The Economist, which named it one of the best books of 2018. We recently interviewed Aida to find out more about how she created this incredible book.
What inspired you to write this book?
I loved listening to my grandmother — her stories, the shape and music of them; the jokes and the wisdoms, and the vivid details of the old Gondar in which she grew up. Also, I am a journalist in my day job, and I know a fascinating story when I see one. I wanted to find out if I could render the things she told me in an English that did justice to the skill of her telling.
How long did it take you to complete the book? Please explain the research and writing process. Any travels to Ethiopia?
I first started recording her 20 years ago, and in the end I had about 60-70 hours of tape, all in Amharic and almost all recorded in Addis, where she lived for the last decades. I would just sit with her, when she did the daily coffee ceremony, and listen to where our chat led us; when I got a book deal, much later on, I was more organised, and worked through the last century of Ethiopian history, from her point of view (she was born during the reign of Empress Zewditu and died nearly a 100 years later). I also had a lot of help from my father, Professor Edemariam Tsega, who was writing his own book about his father, The Life History and Qineis of Liqe Kahinat Aleqa Tsega Teshale, which is now available in simultaneous Amharic, English and Ge’ez — he translated some of my questions when my Amharic ran out of steam, and his mother’s answers when my comprehension did.
I went to Gondar, talked to people there, and visited all the still-existing churches and courthouses and homes and surrounding villages she had mentioned. I went to Debre Libanos, where she had been a pilgrim, and I wandered around Addis looking the buildings she had visited and lived in there – the modest homes, the courthouses, the palace where she petitioned the emperor. Finally my father helped me hire a horse and I rode it into the mountains above Gondar. I wanted to see and smell and taste the landscape as she might have done when she did the same journey on mule-back in the 1930s and 40s, and to try to make it live on the page.
One of the most distinctive aspects of the book, for Ethiopian readers, is the way that you translated Amharic expressions, idioms and figures of speech into English. How did you approach this process, and how challenging was it?
Well, the first time I transcribed those 60-70 hours, it took a whole year, as I was also working full-time. And I had the bare bones of the story.
I then spent months in the British Library in London, reading about the Orthodox Church, about social and emotional and religious customs (Wax and Gold by Donald Levine is a brilliant book, a great primer both on the qiné of which my grandfather was a master, and on the customs of Gondar; Bahru Zedwe’s authoritative histories; the amazing 5-volume Encyclopaedia Aethiopica, Reidulf Knut Molvaer’s insightful study Tradition and Change in Ethiopia: Social and Cultural Life as Reflected in Amharic Fictional Literature, among much else). I organised the transcript I had, and wrote a draft of the book — which took about three years — and then I went through and listened to all my tapes again. It was amazing how much I had missed the first time, and how much I was then able to add, in terms of the resonances of words and events; I understood so much more of what they actually meant. If I was talking about making tej or injera or wat, or the things I saw on my horse-ride, I asked what the spices and grains and plants were in Amharic, found them in Thomas Lieper Kane’s brilliant 2-volume dictionary – often in Latin! — or in the Encyclopaedia, then tracked down the demotic English for them. I started to discover that being as accurate as you can about the roots of a word can bring you surprisingly closer to the original language, which is also trying to describe the world as accurately as it can. Also, Amharic and English both owe a great deal to the stories and language of the Bible, so if you use an English steeped in that register, as I have done, there are many pleasing correspondences. In other places,I just translated my grandmother’s own words as directly as I possibly could; often lines appear in the book exactly as she said them, except in English. At one point, for instance, she describes herself as so thin that her hips jut out like guns; it’s a very Amharic way of putting it; translated into English it’s vivid, surprising, and totally comprehensible (and better than any simile I might have come up with). So I did a lot of that, too. This was one of the most rewarding aspects ofthe whole project.
The Wife’s Tale has received rave reviews from major newspapers in the UK and America. Did you expect this level of positive response from literary critics?
Not in any way. The first one was a surprise (rather like having schoolwork marked, but in public, which is a little odd!) and it has felt a bit like that ever since.
How has your book been received so far by Ethiopian audiences, and how would you like it to be received in the future?
I have been very moved and grateful for the kind responses I have received so far.