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Notes from an exiled researcher | Ghirmai Negash

Thursday 10 December 2015 - 3:45pm

gI moved from Eritrea to the United Sates in 2005, to work in a department of literature in an American university. I had moved to Eritrea from the Netherlands in 2001, on invitation by the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences of the then operative University of Asmara, to set up a department of Eritrean languages and literature. When in 2008 my case was considered for an “early tenure” in my new department in America, I was asked by the department chair to write about the nature and significance of my scholarship, to be included in the tenure file in behalf of the candidate’s narrative. In preparation, I read a few exemplary statements by colleagues, who successfully went through the often complex process of tenure, and was most impressed by their endurance and achievement; but, more importantly, I was also envious and somewhat overwhelmed by the steady purpose and scholarly focus of my colleagues, especially the ones whose narratives exuded confidence and continuity. What was my narrative? Rather than by stability and continuity, my own life and work were, and continue to be, more characterized by geographical dislocation and cultural rupture, so I started my story for the tenure process with the following ellipsis by Edward Said.

Identity—who we are, where we come from, what we are—is difficult to maintain in exile … we are the ‘other’, an opposite, a flaw in the geometry of resettlement, an exodus. Silence and discretion veil the hurt, slow the body searches, soothe the sting of loss. (Edward Said, After the Last Sky)

Said was, of course, a colossal thinker and writer. When referencing to him, I was thus aware that it was not to line up my own humble contribution to culture criticism and world literature with his. Yet, whether as a researcher, teacher, writer, activist-scholar, or tout court a diasporic citizen, my life reveals the paradoxes so aptly and beautifully evoked by the Palestinian-American scholar Said in the epigraph.

For me, the impulse to reflect on paths taken (and not taken) began early on in life. Growing up in a large family, my life has been shaped by the memories of an intelligent mother, the humor of a hard working father, and the poetic wisdom of a grandmother.  Those influences have also been sustaining inspirations in my professional work as a researcher, serving as stable reference points to fall back on at times needed. As I ponder more on the trajectory of my academic life, however, it is evident, too, that my vision, ideas, and pedagogy are inescapably connected, formed, and at times wholly informed by my migratory experience.

Our decisions can never be pinned down to any one cause, because a network of factors is always at play. Nonetheless, there are several memorable moments when the paradoxes of exile played out more prominently than other factors. In 1991, when Eritrea declared its independence from neighboring Ethiopia, I had applied from the Netherlands, where I was living at the time, to go to the United Kingdom to pursue a PhD in literature at Warwick University, where I was accepted.  However, drawn by the wide-ranging sense of optimism reigning in the country at the time, I traveled to Eritrea a year later, and I gave a public talk on the freedom of the writer. At that time, it was hard to shout louder than the euphoria of the hard-won freedom that was resonating everywhere, inside as well as outside in the Eritrean diaspora communities. While my call for the freedom of speech and more opening for free thinking was favorably received by many, it was also taken as slight note of pessimism by some and as unfounded gesture of concern by others. Admittedly, the lecture written hastily in my mother’s small kitchen, was more about my own anxieties and, perhaps, less of a criticism about the possible directions the new country would seem to take. In other words, it was a cautionary tale learned from the experiences of other African countries that ended up substituting external or colonial oppression with internal dictatorships by post-independence governments. Looking back at what transpired later in Eritrea with the clampdown of free speech, however, the lecture, sadly, appears to have been pertinent and vital at pointing some of the dangers the country’s population and its writers are now facing.

Before traveling to Eritrea in 1992, I had other plans to research, but after the visit I made a commitment to myself to work on Eritrean literature. Entering the PhD program in Leiden University, I embarked on an ambitious and largely unchartered area of Eritrean literature, to study the 100 years of oral and written history of Tigrinya literature in Eritrea. It was an ambitious project, complicated by the scantiness of references, and hard to get primary sources. I was nonetheless very aware of the importance of researching especially literatures and cultures of historically marginalized societies, and also saw the research as a contribution to the so needed cultural empowerment of the Eritreans and peoples of the African continent at large. Additionally, the research on Eritrean literature was a milestone in terms of academic advancement and in terms of enabling to create linkages, connections, and personal friendships with many Eritrean writers, poets, journalists, and critics of different backgrounds and experiences. The challenge and the joy of being able to research and write the first postcolonial history of an African-language literature continue to inform my theoretical work and constitute a high light in my academic career.

My engagement with Eritrean writing literature and culture led to my employment at the University of Asmara, Department of Eritrean languages and literature, where I worked from 2001 to 2005. Knowing that we were working under a delicate political environment following the Eritrea-Ethiopia border war (1998-2001), my colleagues and I first focused on building and helping set up a research culture at the department and college levels. This included the founding of a new journal, the Journal of Eritrean Studies; organizing on-and-off campus lectures and seminars; writing a full-fledged curriculum for Eritrean literatures and languages, alongside the department of English. At the political level, things weren’t going well in Eritrea, however. Just about a week after my family and I resettled in Eritrea in 2001, we were greeted by the shocking news that the once vibrant newspapers were banned; reformist opposition government officials were jailed, and the constitution dismantled. The general political oppression and the human rights situation continued declining dramatically during those four years of my tenure at the university. Among other dire measures, the University of Asmara itself was ordered by the government to halt enrolling new students after 2002 and was effectively dismantled by Presidential order in 2006. It remains closed to this day. The closure of the university naturally had huge consequences for the students and faculty, and many of them have left the country since then in search of education, employment and better opportunities for their families.  It was a sad end to all of us. I left the country in June 2005, to work in the English Department at Ohio University. I knew moving to America would entail changing or re-defining my area of research and teaching approaches. It indeed came with its challenges, but also new opportunities. While continuing work on the Horn of Africa, my interest has expanded to researching about South African literature and other African writers in the diaspora. New doors for research and teaching continue to open up, including on new writings and theories originating from significant geographies across the globe. While my tenure has afforded me the opportunity to publish several books, I have also been able to organize international scholarly gatherings, including the annual conference of the African Literature Association. There is thus every reason for celebration. And yet, the experience of changing places, and the attendant adjustments needed to survive (and sometimes thrive) as an exilic subject do implicate there is a heavy price to pay. To amplify the same point with a variation of words by Edward Said, there is always a haunting sense of loss, often beside embarrassment, even when one does his best to hide the hurt.

Ghirmai Negash is a Professor of English & African Literature in Ohio University, USA and the current president of PEN Eritrea in exile.