ESSAY ... Camilla GIBB
Why Stories Matter
CAMILLA GIBB looks at the challenges of writing about a foreign culture
MY LAST NOVEL, Sweetness in the Belly, is set, in large part against the backdrop of the revolution that occurred in Ethiopia in 1974. This was the revolution where the Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown and an empire that had existed for over a thousand years was brought to an end. It was in the subsequent era—the two decades of control by a brutal socialist dictatorship called the Dergue—that Ethiopia really became known to the world as a country of famine and a producer of refugees.
My first introduction to Ethiopia was through friendship. In 1990, I met a young Ethiopian woman who had just arrived at the University of Toronto through a scholarship for refugee students. I was a student of anthropology and had been to East Africa and had studied in the Middle East and I was curious about this young woman and her world.
We’ve been friends now for 18 years and I have perhaps learned more from Agitu than any other single person. A couple of years after we first met though, I was reminding her of something that had happened during her first year in Canada. She turned to me and said: “Do you know what I remember of that year? Virtually nothing. I felt like a ghost; like I didn’t even have a body.”
I was deeply troubled to hear this. How had I failed so terribly to recognise what my friend was going through? Because it was completely beyond my experience. But I wanted, desperately, to understand. I wanted to know, to whatever extent it is possible, what it feels like to be a ghost. Fiction would ultimately give me my answer, but before I could get to fiction, a lot of research would have to be done.
In the mid-1990s, I spent a year living in the walled Muslim city of Harar in eastern Ethiopia. I lived with a local family while conducting research on religious practices for my PhD. I gained certain insights into ethnic relations as well, through daily observation.
Agitu once said to me that she resented the fact that in the West, people tended to celebrate the fact Ethiopia was the only country in Africa that was never colonised, because she felt that Ethiopians had been responsible for some of the worst forms of colonisation against their own people. And by this, she largely meant her people. A good percentage of the Ethiopian population belongs to a single ethnic group called the Oromo. Despite being a majority in numbers, theirs is a population who have been marginalised, abused, denigrated and despised throughout Ethiopian history where they have been referred to as the galla, or the uncivilized.
Agitu, as an Oromo, had spent a great deal of her life hiding. The only way to get ahead or have any rights in Ethiopia was to deny that you were Oromo. It meant changing your name, erasing your past, it meant divorcing yourself from your family and community, not speaking your language or telling your story, and living with the fear of being found out.
One day I would attempt, through fiction, to tell the story of a community of refugees from Harar now living in London. Some of those characters are Oromo. Of course I was taking a risk in writing about an experience not my own, but it was based on sound research and more importantly, driven by a desire to understand.
To say that we cannot write about experiences not our own is to say that we cannot possibly ever understand. I worry for the world if that is true. I would worry if male writers were told, for instance, that they could not write female characters. I would think we were sunk as human beings if we could not make those empathic leaps. I would go even further and say that I think we have an obligation to try and understand the world from different perspectives, even where we risk failing.
The written word is a vital means through which we know ourselves and our world and at its best, at a really personal level, it’s the way we come to empathise with the struggles of others. And no matter how different the lives we live, we share the very basic human struggles to live with dignity and meaning in our lives.
Agitu is not a Muslim, has never been to Harar or London, the two cities where this novel is set. Yet after reading the novel she wrote: “This is the first book I have ever read and fully related to the stories. For me this is not a fiction.”
This “fiction” has offered her a portrait of some truth. And that truth matters. Seeing yourself on a page matters. I’m sure every one of us has had the experience of reading a novel and being given some insight into a character that strikes a profound chord. Something that we have thought about or experienced and never expressed. Something that tells us we are not alone. Or something that tells us we are not invisible, or the history of people like us, or like Agitu’s, is not invisible.
Agitu warned me that members of certain other ethnic groups in Ethiopia would be very angered by my book. Text does confer authority. It gives legitimacy to experience—in this case, Oromo experience. I come from a privileged place, I fully realise that. I have the liberty to write this story, where if an Oromo had done so in Ethiopia the repercussions would perhaps be very serious. But if I can use my position of privilege to bring important stories to light I will. Because stories matter. All of our stories matter. And stories are all we have in the end.
CAMILLA GIBB was born in London, England, and grew up in Toronto, Canada. She studied anthropology and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Toronto. As a doctoral student in social anthropology at Oxford University, she spent a year conducting fieldwork in the Ethiopian city of Harar. Her PhD thesis concerned local religious practices, and much of this work was published as articles in academic journals. She subsequently held a post-doctoral research fellowship at the University of Toronto where she conducted research within the Ethiopian diaspora. She left academia after the publication of her first novel, Mouthing the Words, to write full time. Mouthing the Words won the 2000 City of Toronto Book Award, her second novel was the best-selling The Petty Details of So-and-so’s Life, and her most recent novel, Sweetness in the Belly, was nominated for Canada’s Giller Prize, won Ontario’s Trillium Book Award, and was named a best book of the year by The Globe and Mail of Canada and The San Francisco Chronicle. She is currently a faculty member with the English Department at the University of Toronto. She has served as writer-in-residence at both the University of Toronto and the University of Alberta.
Reproduced from the special 2008 Ubud Writers and Readers Festival issue of Quill magazine