A Conversation with Exiled Ethiopian Author Habtamu Seyoum
For his column this month, Chalachew Tadesse spoke to literary writer, satirist, and talk show producer Habtamu Seyoum, who currently lives abroad in exile. A lawyer by training, Mr. Seyoum’s acclaimed books concern serious social and political issues in Ethiopia. Until it was shut down by the Ethiopian government in August 2014, Mr. Seyoum was a regular contributor to the newspaper Addis Guday. He was also the producer of the acclaimed Ethiopian talk show “Ye Birana Lijoch,” and the radio program “Sheger Shelf,” both of which concerned literature. The younger brother of poet and novelist Bewketu Seyoum, who presented his poetry at the 2012 London Olympics, Habtamu Seyoum currently runs “Fidel ena Lisan,” a website dedicated to the advancement of literature.
You were a columnist and editor at the now defunct Addis Guday magazine and produced several shows on radio and television. You have a multitude of experience. How do you primarily identify your profession?
- This column’s topics will include literature, art, education, history, and political culture in Ethiopia, as well as society and politics in the Horn of Africa. Moreover, I will address the tribulations of journalists and the ill-fated constitutional right of freedom of expression under Ethiopia’s deceptive authoritarian regime. I will try to be the voice of the voiceless, be it persecuted journalists at home or exiled journalists abroad. These themes will make Ethiopia’s uniqueness and absurdities evident.
- Chalachew Tadesse is an Ethiopian journalist and columnist. He has previously worked as a full time journalist for The Reporter and The Sub-Saharan Informer English newspapers. He was also a columnist for the much-acclaimed Fact magazine, before the Ethiopian regime closed it in October 2014. A political science student by training, he works as a university lecturer and is known for his sociopolitical commentaries on the Ethiopian private press.
I am a writer and a journalist. Both of these professions are, after all, about uncovering stories. All that you mentioned are mechanisms that enable your stories to reach the audience. Some stories can be told through writing. The nature of the stories and the target group you wish to reach may also make you search for other ways of sharing your stories, including radio and television. But what matters is reaching the audience with the most appropriate media. So, for me it is all about doing almost the same thing through different means.
When and why did you first start writing?
It is hard to recall but I presume it was in the beginning of my primary school days. I knew I was very passionate about writing. I used to see senior students, who were famous in composing poetry and short stories in our school. The applause and praise they used to receive was fantastic whenever they showed their talents on the stage. At the stages, I was often thrilled to see the power of words and stories in elevating or breaking emotions. So, those experiences motivated me to try my luck. I think my dream was not in vain.
Your elder brother Bewketu Seyoum is one of the famous literary writers and essayists in contemporary Ethiopia. Since you are a lawyer by training, you could have earned more income in law than pursuing a writing vocation. Did your brother’s popularity influence you to pursue literary writing as a career?
First of all, becoming a lawyer was never my dream from the very beginning. After I took the Ethiopian Schools Leaving Certificate Examination, I applied to study tourism management. I thought this would give me the opportunity of a lifetime to visit so many places, so that I could write beautiful ethnographic works like the much acclaimed Ethiopian ethnographer and writer Fikremarkos Desta.
Unfortunately, I was arbitrarily assigned to attend law school by the Ministry of Education against my will. In Ethiopia, the government does many things arbitrarily. No option existed to transfer to a school of my choice whatsoever. But even when I was in law school, my classmates and instructors used to wonder why I was in law school. Oftentimes, they told me: “You should have joined the art and literature department.”
Although I later served as a junior/assistant judge in a court for some time, my passion for writing was already increasing. Yes, I know the position in the justice system would have been rewarding materially, but not spiritually. So I said to myself, “This is high time to pursue my dream”.
As for my elder brother Bewketu, yes, you are right. His popularity had made me believe that I could also do things the way he did. But I can’t say that even if my brother hadn’t been popular, I might not have been a writer. Long before my brother, I had already realized my omen for writing. But it is obvious that I am influenced by his works. But the most important thing is that renowned writers like Be’alu Girma, Haddis Almayehu and Fikremarkos Desta had already taken my heart to ecstasies.
Since 1991, official state censorship has been forbidden. But notwithstanding the authoritarian regime in power, several books—which are heavily critical of the regime—have been published over the last two decades. Do you think the government practices censorship on writers informally as much as it does on journalists? If so, how do you explain the nature and/or mechanics of censorship?
Once your work crosses the “red line” of the treacherous and deceptive authoritarian government, you and your works are marked to be chastised. You will be subjected to different types of persecution, including psychological harassment and physical assault.
Firstly, whenever you publish a book that is critical of the government, big book distributors who are under the government’s invisible hand decline to distribute it in the market. They may not even want your book copies to be displayed at all.
Secondly, you face difficulty to promote your book on any electronic media in the country. Only one television station exists, and it is the mouthpiece of the regime in power. So, even programmes that talk about literature and books are not allowed to cite anything from your book. The few private FM radio stations which are based only in the capital city also follow the same pattern for fear of dangerous consequences.
Thirdly, book vendors and distributors who have the courage to distribute or sell your book can be threatened by government agents. Sometimes, you may also encounter situations when government agents confiscate critical books from the book vendors in the streets of the capital city.
Besides, writers may face insult and harassment and confrontations by armed security agents in broad daylight. I encountered all of these problems. Even some of my friends had worse encounters than these, albeit most of them don’t want to talk about it publicly because of the graphic nature of the harassment. Neither should I mention the details of specific cases for the sake of their security and privacy.
Do you think writers and publishers practice self-censorship out of fear of state persecution?
Yes, definitely, they do. We have a big, authoritarian government that controls every political and social space. And as writers, we have been made powerless and unable to confront it. I know some friends who have written amazing masterpieces but have feared to publish them for fear of potential harsh consequences.
By the way, publishers also do not want their names to appear on the covers of books that they believe are critical of the government, for fear of the government’s revenge in the form of levying arbitrary and excessive taxes. In fact, they also fear court charges pursuant to the infamous and draconian 2008 Anti-Terrorism proclamation. I hope you know about the criminal charges leveled against six press publishers last year. In short, in Ethiopia you are required to think twice before putting pen to paper.
Have you ever faced censorship personally, be it as an author, journalist or talk-show producer? How have you worked around it?
My work life was, in large measure, filled with quarrels, censorship and threats. Wherever I worked, they wanted to censor my works. The first radio station I worked for was called Fana Broadcasting Corporate, which of course is the main property and mouthpiece of the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF); albeit it operates under the guise of private ownership. So, my bosses at the radio station always wanted my programmes to be in favour of the regime in power so that every word and phrase that they perceived to be anti-government would be filtered out from my work.
Even the type of music we would select for our programmes was monitored strictly. It was also impossible to cite from books which the bosses believed were critical of the regime. It is, after all, their perceptions that matter most.
Yet I had managed to introduce some programmes and news features about art, literature and social issues which were not in the interest of the station. But my bosses began to react immediately. Firstly, they verbally told me to stop the innovative ways that I was experimenting with. But I never gave in. Finally, they totally suspended my programmes and news features from transmission.
Worst of all, they assigned me to produce programs that would tarnish the images of influential opposition politicians and international organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Understandably, they also sought to tarnish my name and my career. Then, I realized that I had reached the limit I had set for myself, so I quit.
The second radio station I worked for was Sheger FM 102.1, the most popular private radio station based in the capital. Problems began to surface when I began writing political satires for the now defunct Addis Guday weekly magazine. In fact, they used to warn me that they wouldn’t allow the airing of programmes that would cause trouble. So, cutting some portions out of my programmes became routine.
Sadly enough, the bosses even refused to make news of the publishing of my first book, 17 Needles and Twenty Plus Shorts, which was a collection of socio-political satires published in the Amharic language. As I understood it, they thought the making of news would antagonize the authorities. Of course, there was always a risk of antagonizing the authorities. But I always believed that the radio station should have been determined to face the consequences. I still have much respect for some of the journalists who are still working there under immense pressure.
The US-based Ethiopian Broadcasting Service (EBS) was a television station that allowed me to try new and innovative things. Its mangers were relatively open-minded. But they used to consult me to cut out some aspects from my programs. Some business people had promised to sponsor my TV show if I stopped writing satires on Addis Guday magazine. I refused, and continued to fund the show myself for several months.
The only media outlet where I faced no censorship was Addis Guday magazine. It was the last fortress of real freedom until the government charged the publisher with criminal charges, confiscated its property and shutdown the magazine entirely mid-2014.
Over the last few years, nonfiction political books seem to have dominated the Ethiopian book market. Many literary writers seem to be inclined to either translate the literary works of foreign writers or write short essays for commercial gain. As a result, literary works such as fiction are very scarce. Few literary writers have dealt with the present socio-political ills of the Ethiopian state and society. Why do you think this is the case?
It seems as though we have got little space and opportunity to try fictions of great relevance to society. The system by itself is not rewarding. The book market is also controlled and manipulated by the government. So, for survival proposes, most writers prefer to translate the works of foreign writers instead of writing their own original literary works.
And if you really want to get as many readers as possible, you should also write what the people really need at this time. That is why many non-fictitious books focusing on socio-political issues are available in the market. I think the majority of the people are now focused on the existing, real socio-political predicaments that are bedeviling the nation and the society at large. Writers can’t afford to ignore the dismal realities of the country.
What is your opinion of the notion that “we prefer essays/nonfiction to fiction because we live in a fictitious world?”
Yes, we used to read fictions which didn’t match the reality we lived in. I think now most writers and audiences alike are obsessed with essays. Yet sooner or later we may produce tangible and meaningful ideas that are capable of creating the necessary and sufficient conditions for fascinating literary, fictitious works that we have been longing for years.
Being one of the oldest civilizations, Ethiopia has its own unique alphabet and ancient writing tradition. Ethiopia’s literature has a very marginal place in the dynamic “post-independence African literature.” Many observers attribute this to the localness of Ethiopia’s literary writers: they don’t write in English language except for a handful of writers living abroad. Why do you think this state of affairs is still persisting? And what should be done?
I think it is good to write in our own native language of Amharic. Of course, it is true that we have not been good at translating our Amharic works into different languages, including English. Yes, as you rightly said, that is why the world is not familiar with the many great works of Ethiopian writers.
But I must tell you that many spectacular literary masterpieces of other countries were not originally written in English. You can take the much-acclaimed literary works of Alexander Pushkin and Anton Chekov of Russia, Victor Hugo of France, the mesmerizing poems of Rumi and Kahlil Gibran from the Arab world, and, even recently, the works of Paulo Coelho of Brazil. They were originally written in native languages but later became widely known throughout the world when they were translated into different languages.
By the way, I recently read that one of Kenya’s literary giants Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o has decided to quit writing in English. He has instead resorted to writing in the local Kikuyu language. So, even if you have the skill to write in English, your real inner desire may still need you to stick to your native mother tongue.
So, what we should do is to establish institutions that would translate our masterpieces into different foreign languages. I think the Ethiopia Writers Association, in collaboration with institutions of higher learning at home and abroad specializing in art, literature and local and foreign languages, could assume this important task.
What issues often motivate you to write? And why?
Any ironical scenario forces me to write. Luckily for me, unfortunately for the majority of the Ethiopian people, my country Ethiopia is known for exhibiting lots of ironies and puzzles. It is quite easy to encounter ironies and contradictions in all spheres of life, including the political system. So, every irony that I see, read or hear usually motivates me to think it over and say something about it in writing.
What events led to your exile?
Several forms of persecution happened to me throughout my working years. Just to mention the immediate reason for my exile, it became apparent on August 4, 2014 that the government had already finalized its preparations to put most journalists and writers behind bars. The magazine, for which I worked as a columnist (writing political satires) and editor, was charged, along with many other press outlets, with conspiring to instigate violence and topple the legitimate constitutional order. The intention was to shut down almost all critical media outlets before the May 2015 election in which the ruling party recently won 100 percent of the seats in parliament. So, we were forced to exile before we were put behind bars, like many of our colleagues in the most notorious prison cells.
Are there any circumstances under which you would return to Ethiopia?
I see myself as a fish; but the government has dried my pond where I can have a meaningful and functioning life. At this time it is unthinkable to return back home. I love my country, and I love the Ethiopian people, who were the source for all the satires that I used to write. But now a black iron curtain is erected between me and my country. With this wall kept intact, there is no any way of going back home. Sadly, I should stay away for sometime.
Ethiopia has rigid and hierarchical social, cultural and power structure, and the country has a long history of political authoritarianism and repression. How does your writing challenge these structures?
When writing, the only thing you should pay attention to should be your heart. Had I been thinking about the persecution I faced, many of my works wouldn’t have been conceived at all, let alone published.
Regarding your question about how I reacted to authoritarianism, yes, I wrote about the repression that Ethiopians face routinely. For instance, stories such as “Two Idiots and an Evening”, “Love with a Killer,” and “About Country, Love and Disappointment” are all about the harsh repression perpetrated by the authoritarian regime. Actually, both of my books reflect the sombre political repression, predicament and agony of our society. Well, I tried not to ignore any problem in my country, be it the ills of the political system or the gradual degradation of morality in our society.
My story entitled “On the Eve of Women’s Day” also deals with our social predicaments in gender relations, which is a manifestation of our authoritarian culture. My story “A Thief and a Martyr” also talks about reform to some aspects of our culture. I can say that my works will be remembered for chronicling our worrying state of affairs and reflecting the realities in satirical form.
How is satire an effective tool for expressing your feelings and experiences?
Life in Ethiopia is hard and complex. But I always try to present it in the form of satire so that the people can laugh about the sorrows and pains they encounter. I need them to know what the reality is, and at the same time I also need my satires to relieve the people’s pain and sorrow. I think that is why many readers love my short stories on magazines and my books. Perhaps due to age-old experiences with repression, natural calamities, and conservative culture, Ethiopians are really resilient and funny people.
What is the importance of satire to Ethiopian society? How do your audiences receive political satire?
As a people, we love making fun of anything. Even during the feudalistic periods in the past, shepherds and azmaris (local traditional singers) were known for mocking our kings and the nobility. But they were tolerated very much—so much so that they used to enjoy a relatively a freer space than contemporary satirists, including myself. This is one of Ethiopia’s greatest ironies today.
My audience takes political satire not only as a great source of laughter, but as a weapon of avenging power holders. Whenever I write satires mocking the regime, the audience’s reaction is often hugely positive. So, what makes me different from the people is my writing, talent, and courage to say what the people think publicly.
Many Ethiopians use the ambiguous and complex “wax and gold” discourse as a dominant mode of communication, which stands in sharp contrast to the western rational model of communication. Has this mode of communication contributed to literary writing under Ethiopia’s authoritarian regime?
The “wax and gold” tradition has contributed a lot to this generation of satire. In our long history, we have seen and heard about great satirists, who open-mindedly but safely told kings to behave. Aleqa Gebrehana, Tessema Eshete, Qegn Azmach Misganaw, and Shigute Tadesse are my favourite satirists.
Currently, some musicians and writers want to use the old “wax and gold”. I think the “wax and gold” discourse is limited to some phenomena. Fortunately, some 50 years ago, the famous writer Abe Gubenga had introduced the hitherto unimaginable way of chastising power holders in his satire “Politics and Politicians” These days, many people are demanding a bolder way of telling truth to power. For today’s satirists, therefore, ambiguous words are not enough.
Ideologically the regime favours what it calls “developmental art,” i.e. art should promote the government’s development agenda. In general, how do you explain the relationship between art and the incumbent regime?
Developmental art is not a bad idea by itself. But the way it is interpreted in our country is terribly wrong. According to pro-regime pseudo art experts whose works are sponsored by the government, developmental art is all about singing, writing or performing about the achievements of the ruling party. I am not against any artwork that promotes the people’s inspiration for positive changes. But the regime’s narrow definition doesn’t give any space for artistic works on human rights protection, freedom of speech, rule of law, etc. So, when you write about a road construction, the government and pseudo-artists take it as developmental art. But when you write about the demolishing of neighbourhoods due to the road construction, they see it as a conspiracy to instigate violence, not art.
I think art should be liberated from such ideologically loaded definitions. You may promote works that could inspire people; sometimes the government may also fund them. But the government’s favour of developmental art shouldn’t be at the detriment of other liberal arts. Only free creativity ensures development rather than command.
Some commentators argue that under the incumbent regime, cynicism characterizes much of the works of young Ethiopian writers. While some attribute this to the pervasive repression and the consequential sense of disillusionment, others blame the writers themselves for becoming too cynical and failing to see the country’s positive achievements since the fall of the military dictatorship in 1991. How do you comment on this?
I spent ninety percent of my life under the incumbent regime. I have witnessed many terrible things inflicted on Ethiopians. I see my generation as laboratory subjects on whom the ruling party has been testing its bizarre social and political experiments. So, the best way to tell [about] our people is by writing about the things we are experiencing. So, in a situation where repression is pervasive, you always write about it because it worries you all the time. My generation is locked in a struggle to free itself from this excessive repression. That is why I say the argument that cynicism has prevailed is greatly exaggerated.
In the first chapter of your latest book entitled “Books and Meat,” you showed how most people prefer to frequently visit butcheries rather than bookstores. Is the number of readers declining sharply? Why do you think this is so?
Well, in a country of 90 million people it is sad to see writers struggling to sell 5,000 copies of a book. The culture of reading has been declining in comparison to the 1960s and 70s. Little has been done since then to promote the culture of reading among our society. Even though Addis Ababa is a centre of many regional and international institutions, it is ironic that we can’t even name five public libraries.
Americans are absolutely right when they say taxation on paper is taxation on knowledge. But our government has unashamedly levied much tax on paper. Strangely enough, our leaders see books literally as luxurious goods. Khat (a stimulant leaf categorized as drug in the US) vendors freely roam in the city, whereas newspaper vendors are constantly harassed and dispersed by the police. This is the current state of affairs in Ethiopia. The problem is [that] the regime is entirely fearful of a conscious and literate society.
I think most young literary writers as well as nonfiction writers seem to be obsessed with politics at the expense of a whole host of other issues such as culture, history, religion/morality, poverty, inequality, social justice, violence, gender, etc. Do you agree? And if so, why is it the case?
Our politics is highly conflated with our culture, history, morality and all that you mentioned. Whenever you raise an issue it is often hard to overlook the political environment affecting it. So, it shouldn’t be seen as an obsession; rather it is about focusing on the nucleus of our problems.
How did you select the title of your latest book, “To Amuse, To Offend, To Terrorize”?
Whenever I write an article or story there are three kinds of reactions I usually get. Some people think that I write for the sake of amusement. Others think that my intention is to cause sadness, whereas pro-regime people say that my intention is to “terrorize” the people and the country. So, in order to represent these mixed reactions, I titled the book accordingly.
Living in exile and therefore alienated from the actual scenes that inspire you, how do you continue writing and publishing your work? How has exile changed the ways in which you perceive and write? Are you ever afraid that you will stop writing?
I left my country not only because I want to be secured, but to continue writing. So, no matter what happened I won’t stop writing. Currently, I am writing for The Star, a Kenyan newspaper, and an Ethiopian Diaspora website namely EthioTube. My life in exile has already introduced me to unique challenges and I hope this will give me the motivation for my next works.
Still, I have a lot to write about my country. I know I am little bit far from home, but there are several stories that deserve to be told. As I look back in my life I feel that when I was rejected from something good I was actually being re-directed to something better.
In our private conversations, you once told me that you have always sought to become a “rebel” writer who crosses the conventional lines of literary writing in Ethiopia. Which lines have you crossed and how?
Well, in my country there are lots of things that you are told not to do. ”Don’t mess with the government” is one of them, with which I don’t agree at all. I may not be as brave as our literary giants Be’alu Girma and Abe Gubegna, who lost their lives during the previous regime because of their literary works. But still I have tried to cross the line marked by our tyrannical regime. And I have never feared to die for the cause of art, which I prefer over spending a single day without writing.
How would you respond to critics who say that your books are mainly collections of your previous articles published on magazines and newspapers?
They are right. But how many Ethiopians had access to our magazine Addis Guday? The magazine’s copies were not more than twenty thousand. So, it wasn’t a bad decision to incorporate my published articles in my books. For that matter, I also added several new stories in my books. Having said this, I should also remind you that many great works of Kahlil Gibran, O. Henry, and Samuel Johnson had been published in magazines and newspapers before they were published in the form of books.
What projects are you working on now?
I am writing a new book composed of essays. Also, I contribute short stories to an Ethiopian diaspora media namely “ethiotube”. And thanks to my Kenyan friend Patrick Mutahi and the staffs of Kenya’s “The Star” newspaper, as I told you earlier I am also contributing articles.