Books

All Our Namesall-our-names

by Dinaw Mengestu
Knopf, 2014
272 pages
$25.95 (hardcover), $14.95 (paperback), $10.99 (Kindle)

Reviewed by Janet Lee (Emdeber 1974-76)

AS NEOPHYTE PEACE CORPS TRAINEES, we were, whether trained in country or in the States, soon introduced to many Ethiopian customs and practices, among them the patronymic system of using the father’s given name. Thus, a boy would receive a given name, his father’s given name, and his grandfather’s given name. Likewise, a girl would have a given name, take her father’s and grandfather’s given names but would not give up her names at marriage. We soon learned that frequently a child is given a name with meaning celebrating an event or hope for the future. Tirunesh: You are good (feminine). Tsehaye: My sun. Gebre-mariam: the servant of Mary. I had a friend who was the first son following eleven female children. His name meant “finally” or “at last.”

Dinaw has appropriately named his latest book All Our Names, as names — whether real, given, stolen, or left unspoken — run throughout the story. I will refer to him from this point forward by his given name, Dinaw, not because of familiarity, but to do otherwise would feel unnatural. The title on the book jacket appears to be written in chalk on a blackboard and is crossed out, indicative of the illusionary, universal, or temporal nature of names. Geographic points such as Kampala are frequently referred to as “the capital.” Neither Idi Amin nor Milton Obote are referred to by name, but high ranking officials in post-colonial Africa abound in this storyline.

Those of us who served in Africa in the early ’70s will recall that Peace Corps Volunteers in Uganda were evacuated to Ethiopia in 1973. The setting of this story also precedes the deposing of Emperor Haile Selassie, on September 12, 1974, but the political climate leading to that event and student unrest both in Ethiopia and across Africa are prime motivation drawing the narrator to travel from Ethiopia to the university in the capital (Kampala). Many of us served in that pre-Derg era that was first met with euphoria and later terror. I recall walking up Churchill Road on the day of the overthrow, the streets filled with young men with staffs in hand, chanting, “Haile Sellasie lebe neu.” Haile Selassie, the thief. We knew and worked with Zemetcha students who went to the countryside to teach the rubrics of the day. Many of us still have ties to our students, whether they remained in Ethiopia or fled elsewhere. Many of us lost students during the time period known as the Red Terror. But the narrator was not just running from, but also running to  . . . Kampala, the site of a writer’s conference in the early ’60s, and he had great ambitions of becoming a writer.

Dinaw Mengestu

Dinaw Mengestu

Dinaw is masterful in weaving together two parallel stories told in alternating chapters by Isaac, the narrator, and by Helen, a young woman in the town of Laurel, somewhere in the Midwest. The real identity of the young Ethiopian narrator who assumes Isaac’s name and who becomes known as Issac is never revealed. When he initially leaves Ethiopia, he reflects,

On the bus ride to the capital, I gave up all the names my parents had given me. I was almost twenty-five but, by any measure, much younger. I shed those names just as our bus crossed the border into Uganda.

In a much later chapter, he relates,

When I was born, I had thirteen names. Each name was from a different generation, beginning with my father and going back from him. I was the first in our village to have thirteen names. Our family was considered blessed to have such a history.

In polling my Ethiopian friends, most can remember back four generations, although seven is quite standard in matters related to marriage or in determining rights to land ownership. Some ethnic groups in the south can recall up to twenty. It is indeed considered to be an honor to have such a lineage.

The narrator reaches “the capital” and meets the charismatic Isaac, the revolutionary, at a major university and they form a bond that deepens over time. It is a heady period of time filled with optimism and hope for the future now that the colonial powers are no longer in rule. Isaac, the revolutionary, takes the young aspiring writer under his wing, although neither really belongs to the aristocratic student body, and names him the Professor, the first of a series of names by which Isaac christens him.

We learn more about the young aspiring writer through the voice of Helen, a young social worker in the Midwestern town of Laurel who is dealing with self-doubts, personal conflicts, and a general sense of malaise as she gives her all to her clients. The young African Isaac is exotic, although she senses there is more to his story and wonders if Isaac is truly who he seems to be; he reveals little more than a passport with a name and an origin of Africa. The two fall into a relationship that accentuates both their differences and commonalities, occurring in the immediate post-civil rights era. Laws may have been enacted in the U.S., but attitudes are slower to change.

The beauty in the writing is how the stories parallel each other, despite the fact that they occur several years apart. Post-colonial Africa is juxtaposed against post-civil rights America, both filled with optimism and unsettling reality. At times the stories mirror each other. A restaurant scene in Africa is followed shortly by an uncomfortable experience in a restaurant in Laurel when Helen takes the unsuspecting Isaac to lunch, in large part to test the reaction of the locals to an interracial couple. Isaac stands his ground when Helen wants to flee. One cannot help but wonder how much the story of the parents of our current President influenced the direction of this novel.

This is Dinaw’s third book. The first, The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears is a literary masterpiece. The title comes from Dante’s “Inferno” and brilliantly describes the personal struggles of Sepha Stephanos, having fled the “Red Terror” of Ethiopia and migrated to Washington, D.C. How to Read the Air relates the story of Jonas, born in the U.S. of Ethiopian parents, who tries to make sense of his place in the world by retracing a cross-country trip his parents had made thirty years prior. In some sense, All our Names forms a trilogy with the other two, although temporally, it precedes them both in time. It is by far the most complicated of the three. I found that I rushed through it on the first read and then returned to the beginning to savor each word.

China and Africa

A Century of Engagement

china-africaby David H. Shinn and Joshua Eisenman
University of Pennsylvania, 2012
542 pages
$69.95 (hardcover), $40.99 (Kindle)

Reviewed by Janet Lee (Emdeber, 1974-76)

RETURNED PEACE CORPS VOLUNTEERS who have traveled to Ethiopia in recent years cannot help but see the effect that the Chinese have had on the infrastructure, development, and culture of Ethiopia. From the new African Union, light rail, telecommunications, and roads that jut out from the capital of Addis Ababa, the economic impact of the Chinese is impossible to miss. Taunts of “China” replace the too-often calls of “ferengi,” whether the passer-by is Asian or not. While walking in the hills around Mekelle recently, I was startled to see a large-sized hog, a most unusual sight anywhere in Ethiopia. My Ethiopian traveling companion noticed my surprise and summed up the situation with one word: “China.”

Ambassador David Shinn (Ethiopia and Burkina Faso) and co-author Joshua Eisenman have written a comprehensive tome on the history and interrelationship of China and Africa over the past century and the importance of this interrelationship in global relations. Ambassador Shinn held his post in Ethiopia from 1996 to 1999 and has maintained a strong interest in Ethiopia and the greater Africa since. He currently teaches international affairs at George Washington University and is a coauthor of The Historical Dictionary of Ethiopia, to be reviewed separately. Shinn actively maintains a blog, and follows The Herald closely as can be noted by posts there.

Ambassador David Shinn and Herald editor Janet Lee

Ambassador David Shinn and Herald editor Janet Lee

I had the opportunity to attend a presentation by Shinn on the topic of China and Africa, sponsored by Denver Sister Cities International and WorldDenver in February 2014. The presentation complemented my reading of this very important work.

According to the foreword, this is the first comprehensive study of the China-Africa relationship published of significance since 1971. The authors did not disappoint, despite the magnitude of the project. After all, Africa is a continent of 54 individual countries, each unique and complex. The study also spans over a century of time during the era of modern China, from 1911 forward, with heavy emphasis on the post-1949 period in China and the post-colonial period in most parts of Africa.

After an extensive historical overview of China-African relations, the authors discuss political trade; investment and assistance; military and security ties; media education, and cultural relations. They then give an in depth analysis of each country region by region and conclude with a chapter looking toward the future.

Although this study is heavily fact driven, the authors provide anecdotal examples to support their research, thus making it much more readable. I naturally followed the references to Ethiopia throughout and was not surprised to find that Ethiopia is indebted to China to the tune of $3 Billion, much less than Angola, which has borrowed $14.5 billion. Having used a Chinese CDMA device to access the Internet while in country, I also was not surprised to read the extent to which China has supplied technology to Ethiopia and the rest of Africa.

China also has a Peace Corps-type program called Chinese Young Volunteers Serving Africa, a program that began in 2005 with the assignment of twelve volunteers in Ethiopia helping to develop the use of marsh gas, improving physical education, expanding information technology and upgrading medical technology. This initial group was followed with 50 more volunteers in 2006 to teach Chinese, assist in public health and engage in rural construction. In 2010, twenty Chinese youth volunteers arrived in Eritrea.

The book is especially strong in its individual analysis of each and every country on the continent, a daunting task when one considers there are 54 sovereign nations. Of particular interest to RPCVs from Ethiopia and Eritrea are the sections on those two countries. The authors discuss the countries’ relationships under Haile Selassie, Mengistu Haile Mariam, and Meles Zenawi as well as Eritrean President Isaias Afwerke after Eritrea’s independence in 1993.

Almost encyclopedic in nature, this comprehensive work will be of interest to all RPCVs who are interested in the growing influence that China has on all countries in Africa and in Ethiopia in particular.

Historical Dictionary of Ethiopia

hist-dic-ethiopiaby David H. Shinn and Thomas P. Ofcansky
2nd edition.
Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2013
696 pages
$145.00 (hardcover), $83.99 (Kindle)

Reviewed by Janet Lee (Emdeber 1974-76)

AMBASSADOR DAVID SHINN (Ethiopia 1996–1999 and Burkina Faso 1987–90) and co-author Thomas P Ofgansky have updated this comprehensive dictionary on Ethiopia. It is part of the Historical Dictionaries of Africa Series.

Compiling a current and relevant dictionary on Ethiopia is truly like aiming at a moving target. That which we RPCVs were familiar with in the ’60s and ’70s no longer exists as such, but goes by another name. My village of Emdeber was in Shoa Province, but now is part of the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s Region (SNNPR). An organization in which I have become involved will soon be developing a partnership with Adama, the third largest city in Ethiopia. I had known this city as Nazaret.

Having a dictionary such as this clarifies the name changes and the background and rationale for the changes. I had no idea during my term of service that “Galla” was considered a derogatory term by the Oromo people.

The dictionary begins with a list of acronyms and abbreviations, a complete alphabet soup of organizations and associations. It then lists a detailed chronology with major events from 975 BC — the birth of Menelik I — to 2012 and the death of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and the swearing in of his successor Hailemariam Desalegn. This is followed by an inclusive introduction that covers an overview of the land and people, government and politics, economy and economic development, regional influence, and prospects for the future. It ends with a bibliography of nearly 200 pages.

But the meat of the book is the dictionary itself. The authors list names in the Ethiopian tradition, thus, Meles Zenawi is found alphabetically under the letter “M.” In addition to short profiles of historical and political figures, the authors describe important events such as battles and famines; places like Addis Ababa and Awasa and Axum; and customs like chewing khat, eating the ensette plant, or the importance of coffee.

At $145.00 for the print edition, it is an unlikely purchase for any but the most serious Ethiopian scholar, but do encourage your local library to consider purchasing the title for its reference collection and then browse through the contents there. It is a fascinating book filled with an abundance of information.

How to Write a Novel in 100 Days

With Tips About Agents, Editors, Publishers and Self-Publishing

how-write-novelby John Coyne (Addis Ababa 1962–64)
A Peace Corps Writers Book, 2013
238 pages
$15.00 (paperback), $4.00 (Kindle)

Reviewed by Robert E. Hamilton (Ethiopia 1965–67)

“WHAT DID YOU DO TO JANET to deserve this assignment?” John Coyne wrote in an email to me, referring to Janet Lee, editor of The Herald. It is, admittedly, a daunting task to review this book, given that 13 “Established Writers” praised the book with the bright yellow cover and the black, bold typeface. A full page lists Coyne’s 12 novels, nine “instructional” books, and four “collections edited.” Who would not want to take a tutorial from the same Coyne who wrote The Searing and The Piercing? (You could continue the series with The Biting, Kicking, and Scratching.) Crafters can turn to JC for instruction regarding jewelry-making or pottery, or if you never learned — How to Make Upside-Down Dolls.

Well, that’s enough of that, except to disclose that this reviewer, to his surprise, was included in the Acknowledgments at the end of the book.

If you refuse encouragement to “Write your story” as well as a 100-day useful schedule for doing exactly that, put this book aside. “The truth is,” Coyne writes on the first of the unnumbered pages of How to Write a Novel in 100 Days (HWaN), “all writing begins in the human heart.” Coyne’s Peace Corps (Ethiopia, 1962-64) and other professional and personal experiences have made him aware of how many hearts hold untold stories. This book was written to help you “unlock what’s in your heart and write your novel.”

John Coyne is not a preacher on a proselytizing mission. He does not presume to persuade you to want to write a novel. You either want to write “your story” or you do not. Suppose you harbor that secret novel in your heart, but you’re also a realist, a skeptic or even a cynic, a busy female software engineer who’s just read a different current popular “how-to” book and you’re planning to “lean in” more at management meetings. Or, you’re a professional or working-class stiff with a lot of real-world experience but much of it results in confidential or proprietary information which you cannot disclose. But, you can draw upon it to ask, “What if . . . ?” and to construct new, created people and stories. Still, as you confessed to your girl friend over dinner last night, “I’m just not a writer. Plus, I’m too busy.”

Coyne addresses the “lack of confidence” and “too busy” excuses beguilingly: “Here’s how you do it in the next 100 days. In that time you will write (and rewrite) your novel by following the simple instructions in this small book. [It’s actually over 200 pages long.] The ‘how’ is the easy part. Writing is a craft that can be learned . . .. The only two things you need to write a novel,” Coyne contends, “are: the ability to write a simple English sentence and the desire to write. You can do it.”

Still feel that you lack the talent to be a “real novelist?” Coyne responds with a quotation from Kurt Vonnegut: “Talent is extremely common. What is rare is the willingness to endure the life of a writer. It is like making wallpaper by hand for the Sistine Chapel.” Citing the case of Jose Saramago, author at age 60 of Baltisar and Blimunda, Coyne argues that writing and, later, authorship, means that you, “Begin with pure emotion and turn it into pure prose.” For Saramago, it was the memory of his grandfather, following a stroke, paying an emotional farewell to “a few trees, fig trees, olive trees” at his village home as he left for the last time for treatment in Lisbon.

Now assume the opposite: you do not lack confidence in “your story” or writing ability, but you are skeptical of Coyne’s claim of “100 Days.” So you dismiss it and start to move on. Wait! What if you change the title to “300 Days”? Is that more realistic?

Coyne acknowledges that, “It’s hard to find time to write when you have a full-time job, a family and other responsibilities.” So, how does one manage? “Most writers have had to carry on two lives.” For example: Wallace Stevens (insurance V.P.), T. S. Eliot (banker), William Carlos Williams (pediatrician), and Robert Frost (poultry farmer).

“But, I don’t have the time to write a novel right now,” you howl. Coyne replies: “For the purpose of organization, I am breaking your writing down into ‘days,’ but a ‘day’ for you might be 30 minutes or it might be eight hours.” And, you need not start your novel today: “You must plan ahead.” Read this book, Coyne recommends, and then pick a start-date that shows the promise of some free time at the outset (e.g. the beginning of a summer vacation). Then come back to HWaN a second time “and work through it day by day, doing the exercises as you go along.” Devote whatever time you can to it but “write something every day.” Oh, and “track your progress by recording how many words you have written, and complete a short assignment that will help you organize your thoughts and stimulate your creativity.”

“Wait a minute! What does Coyne mean by ‘exercises’”! Plus “recording  . . . words” and completing “a short assignment.” This is starting to get complicated. “Don’t worry,” Coyne says in a soothing voice, “I’m an easy grader.”

Although Coyne refers to dedicated individuals who developed the discipline to become serious and successful authors without his assistance, perhaps your final mental objection to starting this journey of 100 days is: “I have a story, yes, that I want to tell, but I’ll never be a Kurt Vonnegut, Jose Saramago, Robert Frost, T. S. Eliot, or any of the 13 writers who offered advance praise for How to Write a Novel in 100 Days.”

My response is: So what? The average Kindle book in 2012, according to author Mike Cooper, had $297 in sales. That average would be lower if you included those books which are “free,” he said, noting how secretive Amazon is about average book sales. If the average price was 99 cents per book that would represent 300 buyers, and the author would have received 35% of $297, or $103.95. My two fiction books to date — a novel and a collection of short stories and poetry — are Kindle books. I can’t tell you exactly how many copies at 99 cents each I have sold — maybe 100 per book to date — or given away as free Word documents, but I can tell you that the publishing and marketing exercise has resulted in intellectually stimulating and satisfying conversations with reviewers and readers. I have five more books in the pipeline as concepts, outlines, or in draft form and look forward to collecting my fair share of the market (say 300 copies annually at 99 cents each) as well as conversation and fun. Think about it: With your book in hand, you’re standing in front of 300 people who’ve read your book in 2015 and now want to ask you all of those interesting questions you’ve posed before to published authors. Or, equally possible, inform you that, “My mother also took me to school on a Harley-Davidson.”

This review will not summarize the “100 Days” of labor but rather focus upon the start. The Roman poet Horatius Flaccus (a.ka. Horace; 65-8 B.C.) advised wisely: “He has the deed half done who has made a beginning.” Of course, giving his readers the option to postpone “a beginning,” Coyne also does not dispute Mark Twain: “Never put off ’til tomorrow what may be done day after tomorrow just as well.”

Day 1 begins with a quotation from E.B. White’s The Elements of Style: “A writer’s courage can easily fail him  . . . .  I admire anybody who has the guts to write anything at all.” “On this first day,” Coyne instructs, “decide on the story you’re going to write.” It isn’t necessary to know all of the story details, “but today you are going to begin writing.” Think about “the book that you have always wanted to write. What type of novel appeals to you?” Note that Coyne does not ask you to decide what genre of novel is popular and has the best current chance of financially succeeding. “There are no rules other than that the book must be interesting. It can be exciting, scary, fun, funny, romantic, sad or true down to the very last word. But it must not be boring.”

“ . . . not be boring” for whom?” While Coyne does not say, one answer is obvious: It must not bore you. There is a simple test you can apply: Each day, beginning with Day 2, begin reading randomly what you have written and ask yourself, “Does this interest me? Do I want to read more of what came before this sentence, paragraph, or page as well as what follows?”

Next, on Day 1, Coyne tells you not to worry about how much you write each day, citing Ernest Hemingway who “averaged 50 words a day when ‘the going was good.’” He does suggest that your goal be an average of 1,000 words per day (four pages). Remember, that is an average. And he himself confessed to this reviewer that How to Write a Novel in 100 Days was not written in 100 days! Of course, it is not a novel.

Coyne calculates that if you average four pages per day, you’ll have a draft 240-page novel in 60 days (two months) and will then have 40 days for “editing, rewriting, reorganizing and writing some more.” And, even if you take twice as long to write and edit your 240 pages, you’ll finish in 200 days. This means you could reasonably expect to write a novel each year for as long as you choose.

So, now you’re ready to write on Day 1. Finished? Good. Count your words and then answer the following three questions, using the space provided in the book:

  1. What is your favorite genre of novel?       Name some books in this genre that you enjoy.
  2. What will be the genre of your novel? Why?
  3. Describe the story in one sentence.

Your own copy of HWaN becomes a journal of your writing experience. It is not something that you are compelled to share with anyone else, so you can and should be both thoughtful and honest in answering each day’s questions or completing the exercise. Day 2, for example, focuses upon those who people your novel and Professor Coyne asks you to, “Write down the descriptions of your key characters. You need to make these characters as familiar to you as the members of your own family.” Thus, one-word answers are not sufficient: “Guadalupe is funny and Pedro is very serious” does not do justice to your mental image of them. Coyne is suggesting that you describe them with the same detail you expect from authors who share your chosen genre.

Day 3 shifts you away from “key characters” to the practical matter of your daily writing routine: the time you can afford to write, “best time of day,” and “best environment for you to write in.”

The result of using the Coyne approach will slowly result — in this reviewer’s opinion — in changing your mental image of yourself. You will come to view yourself, among other components of your persona, as “a writer.” Some runners, especially amateurs, who specialize in a 5K, 10K, or even 15K distance, have trouble adjusting to a marathon-length race — until they mentally turn on the switch which says, “I’m really a marathon runner. That’s what I do. I run marathons.” Likewise, at the New Year’s Eve party this year, you’ll be able quite casually to say, “Yes, I do write. I just finished sending Revenge of the Elf to a publisher and am now outlining The Triumph of the Troll.”

In contrast to my “small-ball” approach — thus far — to How to Write a Novel in 100 Days, author John Coyne treats his reader as a serious writer who will eventually want and need a dedicated agent and first-class publisher. On Day 89, Coyne advises: “To begin the process of finding a publisher, write a one-sentence selling line about your novel. Make this one sentence so intriguing that it catches everyone’s attention. It must go to the core of the book. It is your ‘selling hook.’ For example, ‘My novel is the Jewish version of The Da Vinci Code.’” And, your exercise for that day is: “Write a 200-word ‘selling line’ for your book. Then cut it to 100 words. Then 40. See if you can cut it to 10.” On Day 90, you’re instructed to, “Write a short description of your novel.” He quotes his description of his book The Caddie Who Played with Hickory, which “set the stage for the expectations of my readers”: “And the greatest hickory [golf club] player of all time was Walter Hagen — until the day he met a teenage caddie at a country club outside Chicago.”

Readers are instructed to “Write a short statement about yourself” (Day 91); advice is offered about page formatting (Day 92), how to approach an agent (Days 93-96), self-publishing (Day 97); and why and how to meet other writers (Day 99). Finally, Coyne includes a note of congratulations and a quotation from Gloria Steinem, author of Doing Sixty & Seventy: “Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.”

There is a section titled “Resources” which covers self-publishing, internet writers (e.g. PW.org; AWPWriter.org; Writing.com, and others), and “Terrific Books About Writing” (e.g. The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers and On Becoming a Novelist both by John Gardner).

If after reading HWaN and your resulting novel you put a boot through your computer before throwing it and your manuscript into the Mississippi River, you can always hearken back to the advice of Kurt Vonnegut and see how you like “making wallpaper by hand for the Sistine Chapel.”

Reviewer Robert E. Hamilton lives in and writes from Portland, Oregon. You can contact him at: Robu43@gmail.com.

To purchase any of these books from Amazon.com, click on the book cover, the bold book title, or the format you would like and Ethiopia & Eritrea RPCVs, an Amazon Associate, will receive a small remittance.

 


End of Issue 18 — June 2014


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