Q&A: Professor Ghirmai Negash – Literatures of the Horn of Africa, a conversation series

AiW Guests
Interviewers: Mollie McGing, Julia Karpinska, Abolaji Oshun, Alsadiq Suliman
Interviewee: Ghirmai Negash
Interview Date: 14th December 2021.

AiW note: This is one in a series of interviews carried out by undergraduate students as part of the module “Ethiopian, Eritrean and Somali literatures in global intellectual history,” taught by Dr Sara Marzagora in the Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures of King’s College London in the 2021-2022 academic year. The interview scripts have been transcribed and first-edited by Nadira Ibrahim, who holds a first-class English degree from King’s College London and is proud to have contributed to the wider scholarly discussion surrounding these important literatures.

Ghirmai Negash is a Professor of English and African Literature & the Director of the African Studies Program at Ohio University. He holds two MA degrees, in English literature and Critical Theory, and a PhD in African literature from the University of Leiden, The Netherlands. He was the 2020-21 President of the African Literature Association (ALA), and the recipient of several awards and honors, including the National Endowment for the Humanities NEH (2015) and Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Studies (STIAS, 2019), fellowships. In addition to publishing numerous essays and articles, he has authored, (co-)edited, and translated eight books, including A History of Tigrinya Literature (1999), Who Needs a Story? (with C. Cantalupo, 2010), Welcome to Our Hillbrow (2011),  and The Conscript (2013).

Mollie, Julia, Abolaji, and Alsadiq read the novel The Conscript: a Novel of Libya’s Anticolonial War, by the Eritrean novelist Gebreyesus Hailu, in translation, as part of their final year module, “Ethiopian, Eritrean and Somali literatures in global intellectual history”. Written in Tigrinya in 1927 and published in 1950, the 2012 edition the students studied is translated from Tigrinya to English by Professor Negash, who talked with them about their readings and thoughts in December 2021.

The Conscript depicts, with irony and controlled anger, the staggering experiences of the Eritrean ascari, soldiers conscripted to fight in Libya by the Italian colonial army against the nationalist Libyan forces fighting for their freedom from Italy’s colonial rule…
Ohio University Press

Within the context of their thinking together through the literatures of the Horn of Africa with Dr Marzagora at King’s, and, in their words, the “multiple interesting texts they studied alongside the history of their authors and nations on the module”, this African language text and their conversation with Professor Negash gave the students the opportunity to open, in particular, a focused strand of the module’s ongoing conversations – “the impact of the problems surrounding concepts such as colonialism and capitalism”.

Julia Karpinska (to Ghirmai Negash, for KCL): For many of us, the module ‘Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Somali Literatures in Global Intellectual History’ at King’s College London was our first opportunity to experience literature from the Horn of Africa. One of the texts we read was Gebreyesus Hailu’s The Conscript: a Novel of Libya’s Anticolonial War, translated by you. We would love to know the opinions you had when you first read this novel. How did it make you feel?

Ghirmai Negash: I was a big fan of reading from an early age, and I had heard of The Conscript when I was growing up. I started reading fiction when I was in grade five or six. When I was in junior elementary school there was a group of students, myself included, that were lending books to each other saying ‘I have this book, have you read it? Would you like to borrow it?’ So, I had heard about The Conscript, but there were no copies around and even if there were, I don’t think I would have been able to understand it in any meaningful way at that age.

The first time I read The Conscript was in 1994/1995 when I embarked on research for my PhD. Even at that time, it was very difficult to get hold of a copy because there are so few. I got my first copy from a second-hand shop in Asmara. It was one of the most expensive books that I had purchased at that time. That was my first encounter, and when I read it, I was really blown away by the language and the diction. 

Later, when I was doing my PhD and investing a lot of time and interest in postcolonial studies, it struck me that this was one of the first postcolonial texts. The Conscript was written in 1927 and published in 1950; postcolonial theory and Postcolonial Studies as a discipline came later in the 1990’s, with a text by Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin called The Empire Writes Back. It was then that I thought ‘Okay, this novel is really amazing’. When you think of Postcolonial Studies as a discipline, it is always in relation to texts in European languages, like texts from the Caribbean and subaltern Indian studies. This, however, was written in an indigenous African language — not that English and French are not African languages in a sense — but this was written in Tigrinya. 

The second thing that was really striking for me was the text’s local originality, to borrow a term from Edward Said. That is to say, a local intellectual responding to the project of colonialism in the continent. These are my memories, if you like, which drew me to get involved with The Conscript in the way that I have tried to.

Julia Karpinska: What is your favourite theme in The Conscript

Ghirmai Negash: My fascination lies in the language — if language can be a theme.  In a list for Vulture of her 10 Favorite Books, The Conscript has been described by the writer Maaza Mengiste, the author of The Shadow King, as an epic. I agree. And I also think that its significance lies not merely in being critical and resisting against the empire and colonialism,  but that it’s also consciously critical of the complicity of the Africans themselves. For me, then, The Conscript’s ability to be internally critical towards the complicity of indigenous populations in terms of their collaboration with colonialism was very interesting. Not many texts do that, so I enjoyed that aspect of it.  

Julia Karpinska: The novel itself is very unique, but are there any specific passages that were more meaningful to you, that you endeavoured to replicate as closely as possible in the translation? 

Ghirmai Negash: The translation was a lot of hard work but also brought me so much joy and pleasure. I think in particular, the description of the landscape and the Libyan desert was significant for me to retain. Also, moments when the text explores concepts such as prejudice and racism: the scene in Port Sudan when they were saying, “you are a slave and dogs” and so on, those moments were impactful. 

Julia Karpinska: What would you say drew you to study literature from the Horn of Africa?

Ghirmai Negash: My understanding of African literature is that there are different traditions. Within these traditions there is an overarching commonality — orality. The oral tradition is everywhere, it’s pervasive! So, my belief is that the best texts in the Horn of Africa are ones that combine this orality with printed literature. The Conscript does that. The Conscript is really a text where you see, almost literally and visually, this intersection of orality and the print culture, but also of tradition and modernity. That was the most attractive thing for me. 

More generally though, what drew me to study literature from the Horn of Africa was the sheer vastness of traditions in Indigenous African literatures. It’s not just in Tigrinya; you also have Arabic in Sudan, right? You also have Amharic which has a huge corpus of literature as well. There are too many different traditions to name. Unfortunately, not much has been done in terms of critical studies on the literatures from the Horn of Africa. I try to bring those epistemologies of the Eritrean tradition, of literary voices, if you like, to light.

From original research – images of oral poets interviewed by Negash during field work in Eritrea in 1995.

Julia Karpinska: Obviously, colonialism is a big thread; it’s a big theme. We were wondering, what are your views on people who were not only colonized but also made to fight wars for their colonizers, such as conscripts for Italian wars? 

Ghirmai Negash: I don’t have sympathy for the conscripts. It is the cruelty of history; they were used as tools. But this is what colonialism does. This is one of the matrices – colonialism occupies a land and occupies the people. It destroys their culture. It exploits them. It uses them to build infrastructure. It also uses them to serve in the army, and, if need be, it uses them to conquer other people. Do I understand the plight of conscripts? Yes. Do I understand their condition? Yes. My father was conscripted at the age of 17 or 18. I love my father, he was a very proud and sweet man in many ways. Still, this doesn’t exonerate conscripts from being instruments of colonial power.

Julia Karpinska: Thank you for sharing that with us. What are your views on censorship within Eritrea, and the impact it has on Eritrean literature?

Ghirmai Negash: I think the history of colonialism and the colonial violence is still haunting Eritrea. There was Italian colonization and then there was conscription; and then the British came – I think they stayed there for around 10 years and then they left; and later there was the War of Independence against the Ethiopian government which led to a lot of fighting. Eritrea finally achieved independence in 1991. Then what you see is the whole country being militarized and conscripted. That’s why you see refugees and people leaving Eritrea en masse. These refugees, however, could not vocalise their thoughts on conscription, because there is no freedom of speech or freedom of press. At some point we decided to do something about it. That is how the PEN Eritrea organization was founded. I was involved in that when it started, as the first president, and that helped vocalise the feelings of the people without state suppression.

Julia Karpinska: For academic and educational development, freedom is crucial, especially the freedom to express our thoughts. How would you characterize the differences between teaching in the US and teaching in Asmara? 

Ghirmai Negash: Access to books and other resources is definitely more difficult in Asmara. If I were to ask you to read, for example, Things Fall Apart, you would just order it or buy it from the thrift shop or something and you’ll have the book tomorrow, if not this afternoon. In Asmara it is not like that. Many books are not available, so we have to make copies. 

THE FREEDOM OF THE WRITER’ (Tigrinya text) And Other Selected Literary and Cultural Essays, by Ghirmai Negash. Africa World Press Books.

A big difference is also the constant anxiety or the fear of being arrested as a professor. In my case, I wrote a book called The Freedom of The Writer so I have never hidden my commitment to democracy and freedom of speech. But still there is always this concern that there might be repercussions, that something may happen. 

Working in the United States has also been great. It is exciting for me to work with grad students. It has also professionally, I think, opened up new opportunities for me. I have been able to publish books and articles, meet people and probably to grow academically and intellectually during my time teaching here. Do I think about Africa and Eritrea a lot? Yes, I do. I’m still interested in the well-being of the people, the writers, the students and the culture. I can’t travel to Eritrea obviously, but I do travel to Africa, and I have been the President of the African Literature Association as well, so I still have connections in that sense.

Julia Karpinska: I feel like when you describe your experience of teaching in Asmara, it is more challenging, but in a way, it also feels more personal to you because it’s close to your heart and the cause that you are striving for. You’ve been awarded the PEN Eritrea’s Freedom of Expression Award in 2021, so I was wondering…

Prof. Ghirmai Negash Named PEN Eritrea’s 2021 Freedom of Expression Award Winner.

Ghirmai Negash: They were very kind to me.

Julia Karpinska: …I was curious as to how this achievement felt to you? Does it feel like you’ve been on track towards it your whole life? Is it a milestone for you? Or maybe you’re just getting started?

Ghirmai Negash: I always try to make a change, at the frontier if possible. I’ve always tried to push the boundaries in my own teaching, scholarship and writing too. It is reflected in the sense that I am moving from this traditional, conventional, postcolonial thinking into decoloniality which simply means work in a systematic way through teachings, writing, and activism to untangle the epistemic power of the West, which is very Eurocentric. So, I’d say this award does feel like an achievement, but it is not the end of my work, there is always more work to be done.

Julia Karpinska: You speak at least eight/nine languages —

Ghirmai Negash: Yes.

Julia Karpinska: That’s impressive. I also think it is essential to be familiar with the different cultures you’re interacting with, to aid the quality and accuracy of your work. The Conscript was so crucial for the discipline that did exactly this. Is there anything else you would like to translate that you think would be important for the development of the discipline? 

Ghirmai Negash: Oh yes, there is so much that I would like to translate, but often it is not as easy as choosing a text and starting to translate it. In Ethiopia, for example, there are works of literature that I would have loved to translate but when you wish to translate a text you have to obtain permission to copyright. This process of getting copyright from publishers or the families is not easy at all. What I do to try and bypass this dilemma is look for texts that are in the public domain. Those are texts I would be able to work with to translate. I would also probably like to write my own thing in the near future.

Julia Karpinska: I’m very glad you’re mentioning that, as Alsadiq, who I am about to hand over to, has some questions on your own writing, so I’m going to pass over to him. Thank you very much for your answers thus far.

Ghirmai Negash: Thank you.

Alsadiq Suliman: Hi, yes that does neatly tie into my questions, so I’ll begin. My first question is, would you ever consider writing your own novel or future novels in Tigrinya?

Ghirmai Negash: My answer is going to be, I don’t know. I certainly think about it a lot. I think if I were to write a novel it would be between the language of Tigrinya and English that I choose. Or write it in Tigrinya first and translate it into English and other languages later on. Alternatively, I would focus on some creative non-fiction, that is probably my direction. I feel as though I’ve been spending the last twenty-five years trying to find ways to combine my creative and critical interests. It’s not easy to combine them, so maybe a journal of creative non-fiction might be the way to go, but the more simple answer is, I really don’t know.

Alsadiq Suliman: Thank you. My second question is based on a quote from your article, ‘Native Intellectuals in the Contact Zone: African Responses to Italian Colonialism in Tigrinya Literature’ (in Biography, 2009)  where you said: ‘African literatures produced in African languages are out there in the physical and imagined literary space of African that assumes subalternity or peripherality within the periphery itself as opposed to the imperial and or global claims made for Euro-phone African literatures [that] undermines their visibility in the academy and mainstream publishing economy’ (p. 74).  Do you feel that African literature is frequently undermined by European literature and more generally, European academics?

Ghirmai Negash: Yes, I have no doubt about that. Hegel predicted or projected Africa as a subaltern, that is where it started. In the long imagination of Africa and the West, Africa is not in motion, it’s static: it doesn’t have culture, it doesn’t have language, it doesn’t have art and so on. If you are an English writer, you are automatically seen as good enough; establishment is there, the publishing houses are there, the reviewers are there, the language is there, probably the money is there. The next level in the hierarchy of acceptance is African writers who write in English. Their work is seen as okay but inferior to English and American texts, nonetheless it will be published. Then, if you are writing in indigenous African languages, like Tigrinya, that is seen as the bottom of the bottom, ‘peripherality within the periphery itself’. 

Within the context of Africa, the centre is Anglophone literature and Francophone literature, that is why you see –– I’m happy for them, don’t get me wrong — all these awards and prizes going to writers who are published in the English language. Are they the best in Africa? No, but who is reading the rest of the world’s literature? 

Abolaji Oshun: Hello, I also have a couple of  questions. Earlier, you touched on the traditional aspects of orality in African literature. What do you think modern readers and writers can do to interact more with these traditional aspects of orality? Is there anything in particular that we need to do more of?

Ghirmai Negash: In terms of orality, I would say there is no pure orality anymore because modernity has infiltrated it, impacting all kinds of levels of life. Even if you go to a very remote village now in Africa or Asia, you will see people tweeting on the internet, and so on and so forth. So, modernity is everywhere, its impact is everywhere. But oral tradition also evolves. You can see this in Tigrinya or Amharic or many other languages in the way singers have kind of refashioned and recycled them in lyrics. It is very difficult to say this, these days, that there is no pure oral tradition, because it’s shifting and being used and repurposed, and there unquestionably is a version of orality.

Abolaji Oshun: I was going to ask you in my next question how you think the oral storytelling aspects have been changed, but I guess you have answered that already, so thank you…

Ghirmai Negash: I mean, you see it also in rap music and in African American music. If you are listening, you can see how traditional dance, for example from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Gambia, Senegal, or Nigeria, are incorporated in the music videos. Take for example string instruments, like the guitar and so on, they are technically very Western but when combined with the drumming and the collective singing which is found in more traditionally African music, you can see how aspects of orality and traditionally African ways of self-expression seep into every culture and corner of the world. 

Julia Karpinska: I would like to thank you very much for the stimulating answers that you gave us, and we’re very grateful that we had this opportunity to chat with you.

Julia Karpinska, Mollie McGing, Abolaji Oshun, Alsadiq Suliman: Thank you.

Prof. Ghirmai Negash: It was a pleasure talking to you all.

Works cited: Negash, Ghirmai. ‘Native Intellectuals in the Contact Zone: African Responses to Italian Colonialism in Tigrinya Literature’ (2009) in Biography, vol. 32, no. 1, p.74.

The Conscript: A Novel of Libya’s Anticolonial War, written by Gebreyesus Hailu and translated by Ghirmai Negash, with an introduction by Laura Chrisman, is widely available with links to buy at Ohio University Press; the book’s page on the Press’ website is worth a visit – it also includes feature free additional content, courtesy of Professor Negash, such as his translator’s notes and the translated first chapter (PDF), and a download of the text in the original Tigrinya (1950) – also in PDF form. 

Anticipating midcentury thinkers Frantz Fanon and Aimé Césaire, Hailu paints a devastating portrait of Italian colonialism. Some of the most poignant passages of the novel include the awakening of the novel’s hero, Tuquabo, to his ironic predicament of being both under colonial rule and the instrument of suppressing the colonized Libyans.

The novel’s remarkable descriptions of the battlefield awe the reader with mesmerizing images, both disturbing and tender, of the Libyan landscape—with its vast desert sands, oases, horsemen, foot soldiers, and the brutalities of war—uncannily recalled in the satellite images that were brought to the homes of millions of viewers around the globe in 2011, during the country’s uprising against its former leader, Colonel Gaddafi.

Also on the Press’ book page, there’s a link through which Ohio University has made available a recording of Negash discussing The Conscript in a transnational context, on the 50th anniversary of their African Studies Program:

For more conversations in the Literatures of the Horn of Africa series — each emerging from an undergraduate module taught by Dr Sara Marzagora, “Ethiopian, Eritrean and Somali literatures in global intellectual history,” in the Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures of King’s College London in the 2021-2022 academic year, all of which have been transcribed and first-edited by Nadira Ibrahim — please follow this link

…or work back through to our first — discussing Black Land: Imperial Ethiopianism and African America with its author, Nadia Nurhussein, among many other things — by tracing it from our previous conversation in the series, with Fiori Berhane…

Dr Fiori Berhane:… my point is that, yes, it is possible that we all experience dispossession, but not to the same degree. It is, of course, undergirded by race and class and gender.

Eleanor Walker: Thank you. I noticed that your Twitter background is a photo of The Conscript, which we’ve studied for our module. We were wondering what your reaction to that novel was when you first read it, and what you think the key takeaways are regarding the postcolonial world?

And with thanks to Professor Ghirmai Negash, to Mollie, Julia, Abolaji, and Alsadiq for this conversation, and to Sara Marzagora and Nadia Ibrahim for this and the others, watch this space for more conversations in the series — coming soon…

Categories: Conversations with - interview, dialogue, Q&A, Research, Studies, Teaching

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  1. Q&A: Professor Ghirmai Negash – Literatures of the Horn of Africa, a conversation series – Literary Spaces

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