Addis Noir

Edited by Maaza Mengiste

Short stories have never been my favourite genre. There’s insufficient time to enter deeply into the characters and endings can feel like falling off a cliff.  Thus, I entered the collection with prejudice.  I stumbled through the first chapters, loyal only to the fact that the book offered an introduction to more writers from Ethiopia.  Once in stride, however the book began to prick at my emotions.  A picture of the hardships of being an Ethiopian builds up.  Not, thank goodness, about food scarcity, but about cultural displacement, political betrayal, oppression of free speech and estrangement.  

Stories of mental illness, voilence and grief

The book is batched into different sections: Past Hauntings, Translations of Grief, Madness Descends and Police and Thieves There is little of the beauty of Ethiopia here: the cooking smells, the quick wit of the people, their handsome faces, the purple glow of the hills.  Instead, the themes here are the dark side of life.  Meskerem, an unmarried woman finds herself pregnant and is beaten up by the powerful friends of the father’s family.   Orphanage director, Abba Dabo, wishes to do good by the children but is lured by the large sums of money in adoption.  Waaqoo spends his life fighting for liberation of the Oromo people only to be betrayed by his friend.  Some characters find new lives abroad, free from torture and oppression but finds themselves culturally homeless.  The book blurb stats that love comes at a terrible price in this country.  A child is lost in a second to a policeman’s blow, a boy loses his whole family in the night to hyenas.  Mental illness, suicide, domestic violence are all covered here in a book unafraid to approach any subject.

No such thing as a free country 

Although this is fiction, these are stories of everyday life.  Tragedies are commonplace and the history of oppression is real.  The cruelty of the communist regime of the Derg is now 30 years past but people will still show their scars from the beatings with electric cables.  People are still anxious to tell what these times were like. Street children still roam, their skin dull with dust.  Society still has many taboos: single motherhood and same sex relationships and those who go against these mores may well pay with their lives. 

Ethiopia is still home

Despite these horrors, many of the characters also say they would not live anywhere else.  Ethiopia is home, culturally, spiritually, emotionally.  Perhaps what comes across less in this book, is why.  Addis has a beat, the call of minibus touts, the cajoling and teasing in the street, the national pride, the religious fervour. Ethiopia is a country of contradictions.  Society has a certain cruelty at its heart, and it is this that the book displays.  To suffer is seen as the way to God.  Yet daily life is also littered with random acts of kindness.  The human connection is alive.  A birr note handed to a beggar, the endless exchange of greetings, an extra handful of fresh grass thrown on the floor when you enter a coffee shop. These things that are the pull into Ethiopia are less evident in these stories. 

Addis Noir’s strength is these writer’s unflinching approach to reality. No story is sugar coated. The book makes a dark entry to understanding Ethiopian society and the effects of its history.  It’s not a first choice of book to read about Ethiopia but one to read later.  The other major plus is the opportunity to discover many accomplished Ethiopian writers   A book to definitely explore.   

Addis Noir is published by Akashic Books and edited by Maaza Mengiste 

Read about other Ethiopian literature here

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