The Wife’s Tale: A Personal History: Winner of the RSL Ondaatje Prize 2019

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The Wife’s Tale: A Personal History: Winner of the RSL Ondaatje Prize 2019

The Wife’s Tale: A Personal History: Winner of the RSL Ondaatje Prize 2019

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Yetemegnu was born in 1916 and married Tsega in 1924 in Ba’aata when she was eight years old. Tsega was born in Gojjam where he had gone to church school and where he had learnt the poetry of Ge’ez. It was Memhir Hiruy “famed throughout the country for his skill with qiné,” who first saw Tsega’s exceptional knowledge. He took him to Ba’aata Gondar to continue his studies where he was awarded aleqa-ship in 1926. And so Tsega’s turbulent and at once blissful relationship with Ba’aata begins, which the author dazzlingly portrays. For those of us who were brought up by fathers who were intimately connected to the Orthodox church, Tsega’s story melts with our own experiences and Aida helps us claim the story with pride. Being a native of Gojjam “where everyone knew the evil eye flourished,” complicated Tsega’s relationship to the people of Gondar and significantly so after he became Aleqa. It is through this brief account of Aleqa Tsega’s life that the subject of the book, Yetemegnu, evolves.

The Wife’s Tale” is based on Aida Edemariam’s 60-hour long conversation with her grandmother, Yetemegnu Mekonnen (Nannye), that spans 20 years. By situating her grandmother as a central agent, Aida Edemariam tells a story that transcends the authority of the official archive, and its assumption to singular and credible knowledge. If you do nothing, you will be auto-enrolled in our premium digital monthly subscription plan and retain complete access for 65 € per month.Landscape around Gonderoch Mariam, near to where Aida Edemariam’s grandmother Yetemegnu grew up. Photograph: Fourth Estate/Harper Collins Married as a child, she did not know what the world of marriage meant or comprised. It was in her new husband’s house that she cried and played like a child. As for Tsega, “he worried whether she ate enough. “Lijé,” he’d say. “My child. My child is hungry.” Again, it was as if Aida was telling me the story of my own mother, who was also a child when she was first brought to my father’s house as his wife. So intimate is Yetemegnu’s narrative to my mother’s life, and to the lives of women who once lived through a particular moment of Ethiopian history, that we the descendants can truly imagine their deferred dreams and their anticipation for possibilities in the rapidly unfolding social and cultural transformations of the 20th century. The physical world around her too – the look and feel of things, the age-old customs, the seasons around which the book is structured – is invoked with a richness that feels tangible, sensuous: “The dry season wore on… Wild figs darkened in the trees. The peaches mellowed.” You may change or cancel your subscription or trial at any time online. Simply log into Settings & Account and select "Cancel" on the right-hand side. Her husband is a priest who rises up the ecclesiastical ranks and then becomes a judge under the aegis of Emperor Haile Selassie. She has 10 children by him (not all of them survive and the deaths are wrenchingly described). Despite an often anguished and violent marriage, Yetemegnu fights to clear Tsega’s name when he is arrested for his involvement with the Gojjamé, a resistance group mobilised against Italian occupation whose members were later seen as agitators by the emperor.

Yetemegnu was only 14 when she had her first child, who later dies. Mariam, Mariam, Mariam, direshilin is a chant by midwives and others that Aida repeatedly inscribes to describe the performative setting of Yetemegnu’s 10 entries into motherhood. And through the recurring lines of Mariam, Mariam, the author brilliantly conjures this exhilarating chant that was performed by women during a time when there were no hospitals around. Certainly, what fascinated me most was Aida’s returning urge to articulate such types of cultural and social formations that are spread throughout the book. It is as if Aida wanted to understand her own unfamiliar journey to such experiences and that she also wanted to urgently remind the reader about notions of culture that were once important but are now completely erased from the memory of contemporary knowledge. Change the plan you will roll onto at any time during your trial by visiting the “Settings & Account” section. What happens at the end of my trial? In this remarkable book that also strikingly nudged my own memory, Aida tells us about Yetemegnu’s ordinary life, which in turn evokes the extraordinary lives of Ethiopian women who lived at a certain moment of history; our mothers and grandmothers whose stories are forgotten in contemporary memory. I vividly saw my own mother’s story through Yetemegnu’s tumultuous but amazing life. The narrative covers almost a century, since Yetemegnu lives to be 98. Living the cloistered life of a cleric’s wife, Yètèmegnu is forbidden from playing with other children or, after a few short lessons, learning to read. This claustrophobic world is soon punctured by the Italian invasion of Abyssinia and the exile of Emperor Haile Selassie to Britain. Edemariam, a Guardian journalist, elucidates how the invasion was resisted by some and welcomed by others. Massive investment in the country’s infrastructure by Mussolini’s fascists and their promotion of men ignored by the imperial government meant that the eventual return of Selassie was met with local ambivalence.Attempting to bring the fragments of Yetemegnu’s rich and vast account into one narrative may have been difficult, and results in an occasional disjointed narrative that is sometimes hard to follow. But the narrator’s profound knowledge of Ethiopian history enjoyably invites us in regardless. Another exceptional moment is Yetemegnu’s “wayward” experience with the zar, a ritual that can only be captured by one’s own lived experience. But with a vividly cinematic narrative, the author takes us through Yetemegnu’s recurring trance as if she felt and sensed the zar through her own imagination of Ethiopian myths and ancestral spirits. In other words, Aida locates the past in such a way that seems to converge with her own memory and identity.

Idiots, I mutter. Don’t they know it means “hand of Mary”? That’s what I’m like after reading Aida Edemariam’s enriching book about her grandmother’s long life (1916-2013) in Ethiopia, from child bride to wrinkled great-grandmother. A week ago I knew almost nothing about Ethiopia, except that it is Orthodox Christian and that there was a dreadful famine in the 1980s that my malapropism-prone great-aunt once referred to as “the famine in Utopia”. Born sometime in the 1920s, Yètèmegnu has lived her life with forbearance but also with courage, creativity and love; she nourishes many people with her own hands, including the infant of a destitute family left with her during the famine of 1984. The biography is interspersed with prayers to the Virgin Mary and it is clear that in Edemariam’s eyes her grandmother is a kind of mother goddess, giving life to her garden, her animals, her children, her neighbours. Aida Edemariam found the subject of this engaging biography in her own family tree – The Wife’s Tale being the story of her paternal grandmother. And in choosing to excavate and write a family history, she follows a growing trend among biographers reshaping the genre with intimate studies of late mothers, complicated fathers and tragic siblings, from Helen Macdonald and Richard Beard to 2017’s Costa prize-winning biographer, Rebecca Stott. For cost savings, you can change your plan at any time online in the “Settings & Account” section. If you’d like to retain your premium access and save 20%, you can opt to pay annually at the end of the trial.Each chapter of the book is titled after a month of the Ethiopian calendar. Pagume, the 13th month, ushers in Yetemegnu’s intimate and exhilarating story. The rain on Ruphael’s Day, and its “thud, thud, thud” on the corrugated iron roof reminded me of my own childhood when my mother, just like Nannye, dropped frankincense on “coals huddled into a low clay pot—releasing sweet smoke that rose and tangled with the smell of roasting coffee.” Edemariam began recording Yetemegnu’s voice 20 years ago and some of her words feature in “direct translation”, so this part of the book might be seen as oral history pinned down in prose. It works, for the most part, though the language veers into antiquated phrasing (“I took my leave”; “Would that every day could contain such camaraderie”). In this elegant account, Aida Edemariam has sketched her grandmother’s life in an Ethiopia that shifted, within 50 years, from feudal monarchy to Marxist dictatorship. We first meet Yètèmegnu in the years before the Italian invasion in 1935, as a child of nine betrothed to a cleric more than two decades her senior. It is with a deft, subtle touch that Edemariam portrays both the contemporary celebration of the event and the deeper tragedy of it. This is a loving portrait of a grandmother, undiminished by the distances between the author and her subject. Edemariam takes the facts of Yètèmegnu’s life – her illiteracy, her isolation, her submission to her husband and to Selassie – and goes beyond them. You may also opt to downgrade to Standard Digital, a robust journalistic offering that fulfils many user’s needs. Compare Standard and Premium Digital here.

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