Monday, December 24, 2012

A conversation with Prof. Ghirmai Negash

Professor Ghirmai Negash

Part I

Issayas: Briefly, would you tell us about yourself?

Dr. Ghirmai Negash: I want to start in Eritrea. I was born and raised in Eritrea. I am a Tigrinya-phone Eritrean. As a child, I attended quite a few elementary schools, including in Idaga-Arby (Asmara), TeraEmni, Adventist Mission School in Asmara, and Haile Selassie Junior Elementary School (Asmara). We moved around a lot then, because my parents had a house in Idaga-Arby and shuttled between Asmara and my father’s birth place in Guila-TeraEmni. I am the fourth child of seven children, most of who have left too soon. My father was an accomplished mechanic, a trade he learned when he was a soldier with the Italian colonial army. He actually fought with the Italians in Gondar, Ethiopia, and he surrendered to the British army when they defeated the Italians there during World War II. My mother had also connections with the Italians. She came to Asmara from her birth place when she was young to work as a cook for an Italian family. She was an intelligent and loving person, and spoke fluent Italian. As a youth I grew up entirely submersed in Tigrinya culture but also listening to my parents’ stories about the Italian period, which I gradually realized was important (among other influences) for my formation and thinking on personal and professional levels.

For secondary school education, I went to Prince Makonnen Secondary School in Asmara. That school is now called “Asmara Comprehensive Secondary School.” After that, I was a student at Haile Selassie I University, in Addis Ababa. When I entered the university, I was aiming to become a medical doctor, although I was interested in writing and had actually written some essays for radio and a high school newspaper. I left the university in 1974, following its closure by the Dergue. After going through some compelling years marked by struggle and exile, I resumed my university education in the Netherlands in the 1980s. In the Netherlands, I studied at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and received two Masters Degrees in English (1990), and Critical Theory (1991). I earned my PhD in African literature from the department of Critical Theory of Leiden University, the Netherlands in 1999. In terms of my education and life in the Netherlands, I should also add that studying and living there was a turning point for me in both limiting and enabling ways. Having to learn a new language and culture was not easy, but I was also fortunate enough to meet and work with critically-minded Dutch and transnational individuals from different parts of the world, including from Africa, the Caribbean, Iran, and the former Eastern Bloc countries. And I enjoyed living in the lovely city of Amsterdam.

I came to the United States in 2005 to work as an assistant professor of English and assistant director of the Institute of the African Child, African Studies Program, in Ohio University. Currently, I am a tenured full professor of English & African Literature in the Department of English, and Associate Director of African  Studies Program , at Ohio University. Previous to my current position, I had worked and studied at Leiden University, the Netherlands (1994-2001), and I was the chair of the Department of Eritrean Languages and Literature at the University of Asmara (2001-2005).

The first book that came out from Dr. Ghirmai's PhD dissertation in 1999.

I have written a few books and articles. My first book was A History of Tigrinya Literature in Eritrea: The Oral and the Written 1890-1991. It came out from my dissertation and was published by Leiden University in 1999.  This book has been re-published by Africa World Press for the North American market in 2011.  Since the publication of A History of Tigrinya Literature, my academic interests have ranged widely, from research in orality, to Eritrean and South African fiction, to translation works from indigenous African language(s) into English. The result has culminated in the publication of several articles in reviewed journals and three books, The Freedom of the Writer (in Tigrinya), Who Needs a Story? as well as a translation of Gebreyesus Hailu’s novel, The Conscript. Currently, I am co-editing a volume consisting of keynote lectures and essays, which came out of the 37th Annual African Literature Association Conference, which I hosted in 2011 at Ohio University as the principal convener. In subsequent projects, while carrying my interest in Horn of Africa literatures, I plan to focus more on intersections between postcolonial and transnational literatures. I am also interested in exploring thematic concerns between African-language and European-language African literatures, for I believe that it is important for us to understand both the ruptures and the continuities between tradition and modernity.

Issayas: Given your work on Eritrean literature, what would you say is the purpose of literature in a society like Eritrea?

Ghirmai Negash: This deceptively simple question is difficult to answer. That is because the idea of literature and its function is complex as its characterization and role can be defined using different analytical models, which, in turn, are themselves defined by time and location. As far as I am concerned, Eritrea has beautiful
people and beautiful culture. It has also a long history of suffering and oppression coming from both external and internal forces. So, while acknowledging that the  role of literature in Eritrea, like in any other society, would be (and should be) different in different circumstances, at the moment I personally am interested
in Eritrean writing that is uncompromisingly beautiful and political at the same time. I truly believe that the country needs talented writers that are capable of  portraying “the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune” that have shaped the people’s history. As you know of course, I am referring to Shakespeare here.  But, when you think of it, this is also precisely what the concerns of some of our greatest writers have been. Think of the works of Alemseged Tesfai or Beyene Haile or Gebreyesus Hailu. The strength of their stories derives from the authors’ ability to write beautifully about the ‘slings and arrows of our misfortune’, our peoples’ determination, and hope. Remember also that that’s why these three writers are known and/or read transnationally. Remember, too, that in the Eritrean context the idea that literature should serve exclusive political or ideological interests philosophically contradicts the very notion of art as a fundamental right of human expression.

Next, part II