Mihret Sibhat Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Mihret Sibhat
Photo: © Dena Denny

Mihret Sibhat

How to pronounce Mihret Sibhat: MIH-reht sib-AHT

An interview with Mihret Sibhat

Mihret Sibhat talks about how her childhood in Ethiopia during the socialist dictatorship influenced her novel The History of a Difficult Child.

Most of The History of a Difficult Child is narrated by a young child, and at points, a baby. How did you find this remarkable voice, and what was it like to inhabit the perspective of a child?

When a book is narrated by an adult, we don't often think about how much credit their younger self deserves for the wisdom being imparted, unless their childhood is an important part of the story. Even then, the child is in the background, a passive character being shown to us through the retrospective gaze of the adult. The History of a Difficult Child is an experiment in the reverse: not only does the child command the microphone, everyone else—her older versions, her community, God, the radio, the surveillance state, etc.—is at her service.

As a girl child, Selam is a vulnerable member of her community, so letting her tell her own story was the just thing to do. I also wanted a story with a sense of urgency—for the child to grow up on the page, with little distance between readers and her pains and triumphs. There was the interestingness factor too: children are endlessly fascinating.

Inhabiting the child's world for so long turned into a therapeutic exercise in the end; it gave me permission to grieve. I had never grieved my mother's death properly. As an adult, I often dismissed my urge to do so, telling myself that it happened too long ago. In imagining the child stand on the veranda waiting for her mother to come back, I saw myself doing the same. If an adult had said, "You can kiss me when you come back ... you can kiss me all the time!" to their dead mother, I would have dismissed them for being too melodramatic. That a child says that removed the wall of propriety that stood between me and my deepest feelings. We adults extend children the kind of mercy and understanding we don't afford each other and ourselves. I had gone without crying for several years in my twenties. So much so that I went to therapy for it. In the course of writing this book, I probably cried more than I did in all my years before that.

I was able to do some reparenting, to go back in time and give myself the assurances that I missed out on. My inner child came out of her hiding as a result. She now has a lot of say in my life. The two of us look forward to helping our teenage self speak. Onward with more self-integration and healing, we say! Highly recommended: speaking to your child self over the length of a book!

The novel is at once hilarious and vivacious, while being profoundly tragic. It is an examination of grief and loss, and a life-sustaining demonstration of how to laugh through it. How did you strike the balance between comedy and tragedy in the novel?

To me, the truly tragic is often hilarious. Following the sudden loss of my immediate older brother when I was ten years old, I had a painful existential crisis that left me feeling that life is ultimately a very big joke. I sometimes found myself laughing while crying at the simultaneous absurdity and seriousness of it all. And people often tell me that the sad things I say are funny and vice versa. (I must also mention here that, according to an older sibling, I had always been inclined toward inexplicable laughter. I used to sit by myself as a baby and laugh endlessly for no apparent reason. I bet the angels planning to steal my mother were performing for me to make up for their impending crime.)

The decision to write a funny book wasn't just a matter of habit, however; it was a deliberate move primarily motivated by the fear of approaching my grief empty handed. I think of my tragedies as giant boulders blocking doorways that I must go through. It is exhausting to even think about having to move them. Humor is a sort of chisel that I use to chip away at each scary rock, a little piece at a time. It wears many hats in this book. As a therapeutic device, it helped me face my fear and take back some power. As a literary device, it gave me an entry point into a difficult story while playing a double role in shaping (as a chisel) and in being an important element of the overall look of the book (a funny looking sculpture).

Once I gave myself permission to make this book a tragicomedy, I didn't have to sweat too much to strike a balance between the two elements—every application of the chisel led to the fall of a piece of rock and each fall determined where the chisel went next.

Radio broadcasts play such an important role in the book. Did you study the programs from that era? Is the radio still a popular vehicle for political debate across the Ethiopian diaspora, or has something else taken its place?

The radio was very important to my family when I was growing up. Especially before the overthrow of Mengistu Haile Mariam's dictatorship, we religiously listened to the Amharic programs of the Voice of America, Deutsche Welle, and Yemisrach Dimts (a radio station set up in Kenya by exiled Ethiopian Protestants). Those were our only sources of alternative information.

When I began writing this book, I wanted to revisit the radio programs we were listening to in the late '80s, so I spent a few weeks doing research in the archives of Deutsche Welle in Bonn, Germany. It was an emotional experience; it helped me reimagine that period even more vividly.

For me, listening to the radio as a child was about more than keeping up with the news; it was an instrument for bonding with my father. There were two things my father would never lend anyone: his flashlight and radio. I grew up watching him walk from his bedroom to the living room and back every evening, carrying the radio, as if someone were trying to steal it. The story of my father's love of the radio and my love of him is the story of how I became a political junkie. After I came to the United States, I got involved with a pro-democracy group that had been declared a terrorist organization by the Ethiopian government. For a few years I worked on the organization's radio station, with a pseudonym, as a writer, editor, and presenter. Our programs were broadcast to Ethiopia three times a week.

The radio remains a very important medium for political discourse in Ethiopia and the diaspora, but I would say the internet has taken the number one spot by a wide margin. Unlike traditional radio, which can only let a few people speak at a time and, hence, tends to be an elitist medium, the internet lets everyone broadcast. And people who have been repressed for so long have a lot to say. Moreover, at a time when information is being shared at an impossible speed, listening to the radio requires too much patience. Even I, who grew up worshipping the radio, no longer turn to it for political content—I prefer mediums that I can scroll through.

Can you talk about what it was like to write about Ethiopia in the late '80s, during the last years of the socialist dictatorship? Did you have any new insights about the politics of this time during the writing process?

Despite my sympathies for the revolution, I grew up hating the socialist dictatorship. I had heard and read so many terrible things about it, and I have memories of being afraid a lot, and of seeing my siblings arrested for becoming Protestants. When I began writing this book, I wanted it to be about the experiences of my family and people of my hometown, so I focused more on oral history than on outside research.

I still wanted to expand my understanding of the wider context. To supplement previous readings on the history of that era, I spent some time doing research in a radio archive at Deutsche Welle in Germany, and reading old newspapers at the National Archives of Ethiopia. However, the biggest insight into that period came from my interactions with some international feminist theory readings in graduate school. In learning about the insidious operations of Western imperialism around the world, I was able to consolidate my scattered understanding of injustice in international politics. One outcome of this new realization was seeing Ethiopia's socialist dictatorship and others like it in a different light. I remain critical of that regime and condemn its violence, but I also learned that, tragically, dictatorship is something many countries are pushed to resort to in order to protect themselves from being turned into neoliberal wastelands. I also found myself reexamining my past in pro-democracy activism: was I really helping Ethiopia and Ethiopians or was I merely helping generate the kompromat that powerful nations like the United States use to blackmail governments in the global south and force them to do their bidding? This doesn't mean that fighting for justice is naive or that being anti-imperialist should mean supporting authoritarianism. It means that she who cares about justice should always seek to expand her understanding of the wider context within which the events in question are unfolding.

The Ethiopian Protestant movement plays an important role in the novel. It was at once seen as an imperialist threat by the socialist dictatorship, while appealing to many of the marginalized communities of the time. How do you understand its impact on the characters in the novel and on Ethiopian society more broadly?

For centuries, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church played a critical role in rallying people to defend their country against foreign invasions. Defending country was equated with defending faith. It was a potent strategy because every invader came in the name of another religion (or another brand of Christianity), and my forefathers ran at open spears to defend the land of the Virgin Mary without thinking twice about the loss of their lives.

Naturally, Protestants were considered traitors working on behalf of Western imperialists seeking to infiltrate and divide the country. But despite decades of persecution, their numbers rose from 5 percent in the mid-1990s to 18 percent in a decade. I would be surprised if that percentage hasn't risen to more than 30 percent by now.

I think the genius of the Protestant movement was in its pursuit of marginalized communities. As a queer and irreligious person, I am critical of Protestants as well as others, but I acknowledge the positively disruptive nature of the movement. Women were allowed to preach and tell prophecy. Unlike Orthodox churches, which held services only in Ge'ez and Amharic at the time, the Protestant church I grew up in reached out to various communities in their respective languages. Our evangelists were not shy about visiting isolated communities, such as potters, who came to our church in droves.

Protestant churches gave your life direction with strict rules but they also served as platforms for rebellion against the wider community. I often joke that the churches were a sort of safe house for those with grievances and questions but were afraid of breaking away from the larger society completely. Those questioning tendencies eventually turned many of us against our Protestantism too. But it was nice to have the protection of a religion as we practiced our rebellions.

For me, the history of the Protestant movement in Ethiopia is a perfect example of the limits of anti-imperialist movements. It isn't enough to point out that something is an instrument of imperialism. It is unjust (and a political mistake) to persecute a non-violent group of people due to their real or perceived connection to imperialism. For as long as a society remains narrow and unable to make room for difference, imperialist notions will continue to find their local sympathizers.

"My impression of America is that it's a land of miracles," (page 320). To Selam, America seems to represent escape, possibility, justice, and democracy. Did you think about the dream of America versus the reality as you were writing this novel?

Absolutely. My move to America gave me the distance and independence that I needed to escape survival mode, to decompress a bit and begin my journey toward self-discovery and healing. As a queer woman, I get to have some of the freedom that my closeted brother didn't have in Ethiopia. But sometimes a blessing is a weapon. Like a kitchen knife.

My disillusionment with America began during the latest invasion of Iraq. Then I learned about the history of America's role in conflicts around the world, including in Ethiopia. I learned about systemic racism, about how the petrodollar bleeds the rest of the world while enabling American excess, about how democracy, human rights, feminism, and the like have been co-opted to drive the neoliberal agenda.

I have come to realize that my move here was part of a larger economic strategy that the United States uses to lure immigrants to this country and use us as a weapon against the workers of America, who are deprived of the leverage they need to negotiate for better working conditions due to the perpetual availability of cheap labor from desperate new arrivals like me. This strategy also strips our origin countries of their best minds, leaving them defenseless, easy targets for exploitation by powerful nations. Of course immigration is a complex subject and immigrants should always be treated fairly and justly. And I do not think immigrants come to America thinking, let me go there and advance the politics of profit over people. The vast majority of us come here to survive, and to unwittingly turn over our pain to the powerful, who fashion it into a weapon they then use to perpetuate the very conditions that drove us away from our homelands while pitting immigrants against American workers.

Selam had none of this information about America. She was only exposed to the propaganda. But she knew of the principle behind it all: "In this life, you think you're running away from one trouble when you're only running towards another." This is a recurring theme throughout the book: she talks about pulling out a serpent while looking for fish. And in the God chapter, she learns that He too created all this mess while trying to improve His circumstances. That our good intentions don't necessarily determine the outcome of our actions. And understanding that and not being defensive when we are shown the ways in which our well-intentioned actions have led to pain is a crucial feature of growth.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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