I began listening to my grandmother properly — and with a tape-recorder — twenty years ago, when she was already in her late 70s (she died when she was about 97). I loved listening to her: her use of language was so musical, and apt, and vivid. She would have recognised Chaucer, I sometimes thought, her speech had a similar earthiness, a poetic, sophisticated seeming-simplicity that arose partly from character, partly from the rich and very old religious and social background in which everyone around her shared. And partly because she did not learn to read until she was in her 60s, and everything was from memory – stories and jokes and dreams told and retold, in an oral culture that prized the ability to do this in the most skilful way possible.
And then there was her story: born near the beginning of the twentieth century, in which Ethiopia moved from a loose collection of feudal kingdoms to a Christian empire led by Emperor Haile Selassie I, through revolution to Marxist totalitarianism and beyond. My grandmother was unusual in encountering, either herself, or through immediate family, many major figures of the Ethiopian 20th century (including Emperor Haile Selassie, whom she personally petitioned). She was also unusual in being a woman representing and defending herself in long court cases — even though she could not read. But she was not unusual in living the daily, largely unrecorded life of millions of women in Ethiopia: giving birth nine times, caring for the children, attending coffee ceremonies, spinning cotton, telling stories, learning (in her 60s) to read, looking for chinks in the day when she might express herself. Eventually I had about 50 hours of tape, in Amharic.
I knew from the start that a standard biography could not do justice to her life and spirit and especially her voice — I wanted to translate not just the facts of her experience, but the tone in which it was told, the world that it evoked. I remembered literary experiments like Coming Through Slaughter, Michael Ondaatje’s evocation of the life of New Orleans jazz cornetist Buddy Bolden, or Hilary Mantel’s Tudor books — the utter physicality of them, the way we could almost see and taste and smell what they saw and tasted and smelled — and they began to show me a way in which it might be possible to attempt this. I went to Gondar, looking for all the houses she had lived in, even though the early ones stood only in memory, and most people who remembered had died. I traveled to the village outside Gondar where her first daughter was born, and the village where she had lived in exile under the Italians. I rode a horse up mountain slopes, moving through the landscape as she had done (though on a mule, in her case) over and over again. I retraced her steps through Addis Ababa, to the places she lived in, and through the grounds of Haile Selassie’s palace. And I kept talking to her, all the time, listening, watching. What I really wanted to do was to let her tell her story in her own words, a woman’s view of a transformative century (Ethiopia, like Britain, has always tended to tell its history through its famous men) — and to immerse the reader in a confident, self-sufficient world.
The Wife’s Tale is out now.
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