By Linda Yohannes
Dreaming to be an established English writer in Ethiopia, many told me, is a disappointment waiting to happen. And they were not without truth; as such a dreamer, on top of worrying about my craft, which all writers everywhere have to do, I have the added worry of a bunch of otherreal challenges.
My choice of language is one. In the European colonial scramble for Africa, Ethiopia was never colonized. And unlike some other African countries, English was never a pervasive second language, which makes Amharic and other local languages the expected medium of creative writing. There are also circulating views that argue writing in English in a society where a majority of the people speak a different language, is a kind of westernization —which is looked down upon. A second challenge could be that books generally command little readership in Ethiopia. With a low, but growing, percentage of literate people, reading is not a popular pastime or social practice. The third real challenge is finance – which affects authors’ capacity to publish, and readers’ to buy their work. An underdeveloped economy, Ethiopia, and her people have to prioritize resources and there’s usually not much left to spare for ‘luxuries’ such as fiction books.
But against all odds, I went ahead and dreamt. I spoke of my dreams – to people who caringly tried to coax me out of it and to unconvinced faces who seemed to say ‘she’s in for a real disappointment’ or ‘I used to dream just like you when I was younger, before reality hit hard’ – I spoke of my dreams purposely making myself accountable to fuel my devotion to the accomplishment.
Of course I feared at times, like the first time I entered and lost the Burt Award for African Literature in 2011. When I stared into the e-mail that announced the three winners, my name not among them, I think my heart froze for a few seconds. I felt foolish for holding on to a childhood ambition that I should have been mature enough to let go. I felt everyone was right. But more often than the fears, is the obvious love I have for the written word, my passion to smith words and to articulate the thoughts I entertained, perspectives I felt I uniquely held and wanted to share. So I persevered. I recovered from the heart attack and began working on my manuscript for the 2012’s Burt Award competition, which sprung me back into life the way writing always did to me.
So you can imagine the depth of elation, and reassurance I felt when I received the e-mail which carried my name this time. I screamed on top of my lungs and also held still as joy quietly travelled down into me. I was grateful and it all seemed anything but foolish. This dream of mine was starting to materialize itself, in a more meaningful way than I had so far been able to show for my insistence on pursuing writing – previous accomplishments had been blogs, columns on a youth newspaper and magazine articles.
All fiction is to some extent biographical, I believe. And my first book, The School Newspaper, is too. It’s about Menna, a teenage aspiring writer, who thrusts herself into the career the same I did and gets into complications and pays prices before she learns important lessons. But what I was privileged to have, even Menna the fictional character wasn’t. It is almost too good to be true but at the same time something I had been quietly and earnestly waited for in my life. I am forever thankful for the Burt Award, for Code-Ethiopia and Mr. Bill Burt for laying down the stepping stone for me to climb higher in this difficult business of being a writer. My only return to them is a promise that I will step right up and continue to write another book and then another and another…
Linda Yohannes is the second-prize winner of the 2012 Burt Award for African Literature – Ethiopia for her novel, The School Newspaper.