No reader can continue reading a book or a story if he or she found it unreadable. To read it, he or she has to find it interesting, informative, or both. Readers assume they will enjoy a book or they will find some useful information in it. Making their writing readable, writers presume, is the least they can do. Many exceed this basic requirement and produce books that are both informative and interesting.
Experienced fiction readers expect to be entertained and their thoughts stimulated. They expect to derive pleasure out of the story they read. They look forward to a tale that keeps them turn page after page until the last sentence. For most experienced readers, a writer that has not kept them glued to their seats reading has failed in his task. Such readers say a good book hooks you at the beginning, won’t let you put it down in the middle, and keeps you thinking after you finish reading it.
I was introduced to such a book by an acquaintance a few days ago.
“Have you read Ghirmazion’s stories?” he asked me. I was in his office. “He has written two good books. I think they are good.”
“No, I haven’t. But I have seen his books in book-stores, on display,” I answered.
“You should,” he said. “I think he writes excellent stories. You should read them.”
Honestly, I didn’t give much thought to his comments. Himself a playwright, a poet, and an essayist, he has a good knowledge about Eritrean arts and literature. “I have not heard about this man before, and beginners often do not write well. Why waste my time reading an amateur?” In Tigrigna literature, I have learned not to expect much from first time authors. Often, they have a lot of zeal but not much writing skills. True, many of them have stories to tell, but many don’t have the story-telling skills. Most test my patience, and often I do not go beyond a few pages, where they are supposed to have engaged my interest and should have hooked me, and transported me to the world of the characters. Usually, they don’t. For this reason, I avoid first time authors.
So, I didn’t expect much when I started reading Hanqewta, a book of six stories by Ghirmazion Kidane and Michael Debrezion. As a man that loves stories, I found out that my lowexpectations were not justified in Ghirmazion Kidane and Michael Debrezion’s case. I immediately saw that they have the qualities of experienced storytellers, recounting everyday events as if they were happenings of great importance. They make us want to read until we finished all six stories.
Mr. Ghirmazion’s stories begin at very interesting parts of the events he recounts. In ‘Mehaza’ (Tigrigna, for Friend), the only story that is not based on a real event, he begins the story with Makda, a young woman, meeting Samuel, her boyfriend absent for two years, returning from the US for their wedding and another man, Daniel, who got involved in a love-affair with her. At this stage of the story, we have no idea who Daniel is. In a flashback, the writer skillfully relates Samuel’s and Makda’s romantic relationship and how she got involved with Daniel, a relationship that threatened her future blissful married life with Samuel. Readers are made to feel the impending disaster that would destroy her future with Samuel though we also are made to feel that Samuel may never return from the US, and if he didn’t Makda still has Daniel, the new loving boyfriend. At the end, the story makes full circle and comes back where it began.
Mr. Ghirmazion Kidane employs the same storytelling skills in Yhuda (Judas) and GuuzoHadeMealiti (The Trip of a Day). In Yhuda, he describes the experiences of a woman whose brother drowned as he tried to cross the Mediterranean. While mourning him, she receives a telephone call that informed her that her brother was not dead but still alive in an island, and she could have him back if she paid a huge amount of money. In the middle of the story, readers are made to think about Lula’s grief and that her brother’s death has brought the story to an end. The writer gives it a turn, and makes his readers feel that they are reading a detective story, in which the detective is at the heels of the criminal. In anticipation, readers keep turning the page. Skillfully, Mr. Ghirmazion doesn’t allow readers’ interests to flag until the last sentence of the story.
In GuuzoHadeMealiti, a woman whosechildren were starving, sends a veteran fighter of the EPLF to seek help in early 1992. In a series of dangerous encounters with outlaws, risking his life for others, he comes face to face with the man he was sent to meet.
Michael Debrezion (who passed away in 1996) was not less skilful. His ‘Ellen’ is an excellent story about the late-1970’s, when the EPLF withdrew from Southern Eritrea to the Sahel, its base for more than 15 years. His description of rural Eritrean life in the 1970’s is one of the strengths of the story. One feels as if we were transported in time to a rural Eritrean village in the 1970s and through his powerful description, he shows us the confusion that prevailed. As we read the story, we are transported in time and made to recall Eritrea’s difficult hour, as some people fought for its independence, and some sided with the Ethiopians, who were burning villages, and fighting the EPLF. Through ‘Ellen,’ and ‘Hanqewta’ Michael Debrezion shows the role of Eritrean women in the struggle for independence, and how without them the revolution could have suffered.
It is difficult (but not impossible) to judge a writer’s potential from a single story. However, a single story can reveal the potential of a writer and if he could develop into a great writer. ‘Ellen’ shows the extent to which Michael Debrezion could have developed as a writer had he not passed away in an accident in 1996. In a vivid, realistic description he showed his storytelling skills, especially in narrating stories about rural life, which he showed he knew well.
But Hanqewta is not just a readable book. The authors make us think about the issues they raise, some of them issues raised by other Eritrean writers. They give their points of view on issues such as freedom, sacrifice, dignity, struggle, and other important issues, without which life cannot continue, and make us reflect on them. Though it is hard to distinguish which is fiction and which is fact in the stories, reading them one is forced to reflect on the actions of the different characters and the ideals they embody. Reading them, one questions what one holds dear if trust is absent. One comes to the conclusion that one may ruin one’s life by betraying another human being. Reading the stories, one comes to the inescapable conclusion that trust holds the life of people together, and when trust is gone, things fall apart, as Makda and Lula, two female characters in the book, realize. I was reminded of an article in ForeignPolicy, in which the writer (whose name I don’t remember) argued how President Trump’s statements are hurting America’s interests, as its allies are made not to take America seriously for its president made statements he didn’t follow up on.
The events in the six stories may broadly represent the kind of life Eritreans were forced to live for four decades (1970’s to 2000’s). Employing women as their central characters, they magnify their role during the armed struggle, and their part in pushing the revolution forward through their perseverance. We see them inspiring men, and supporting them when they wavered. In the stories, the central characters (who represented the aspirations of the Eritrean people for freedom) fight aggression and injustice. They show how lawlessness poisons people’s lives at the national level. At the individual level, they show people cannot enjoy their lives as long as the rule of law is not allowed to reign supreme and criminals are at large and are not brought to justice.
Through Hanqewta I have discovered a writer whose stories I have enjoyed tremendously, and I have come to the knowledge that Eritrea has lost a writer whose potential for storytelling has been displayed through one of his stories.