Interview with poet Asafa Tefera Dibaba
Decorous Decorum (My People) is new English poetry book by Asafa Tefera Dibaba, published last June 2006. The book contains around forty-five poems that the poet says are songs of hope and fear, love and hate, war and peace, of gods and goddesses. The author says the poems are written to deconstruct ‘Their mindless neocolonial discourse.’
‘Their’, apparently referring to the Amharic and Tigrinya speaking highlanders whom the author thinks have subjected the Oromo people to a mere “Subject”. In one of the poems, Assafa says
I have a House
I have no home
I have a Land
I have no country I have a People
I have no Nation
Nor Nationality Or Citizenship
I am subject
I am on Exile
On my Fatherland
I am distracted.
Though I feel there is a tendency of radicalism in Asafa’s writings, considering there had been integration of the Oromo people down the line in the county’s history, I decided to interview him with the intention to create awareness than polemic.
The interview was conducted in an e-mail and there is capitalization that seems out of place which the author uses intentionally and I tried to preserve the form as it is.
By way of introduction, could you say a few words about yourself?
My name is Asafa Tefera Dibaba. Currently, I am teaching Literature in the College of Education, Addis Ababa University, (AAU) and I studied Comparative Literature at the AAU for my MA from 2001 to 2003. I studied English Language Teaching (ELT) at Kotebe College of Teacher Education in1985 and ’86 and later at Addis Ababa University from 1994 to 1997. I completed my secondary School education at Najjo High School, Wallaga in 1983. Born from a farmingfamily in 1967 at Gombo, Jarso District, Wallaga, I have come to become a Poet, unfortunately. So far, I have published five: Edas-edanas (1997, poems in Afan Oromo), Anaan’yaa (1998, poems in Afan Oromo),Danaa (2000, short stories in Afan Oromo), Theorizing the Present (2004, a critical approach to study Oromo Literature), and, now, Decorous Decorum (2006, poems in English).
When did you pick up interest in writing poetry?
Born and bred in the World torn by hunger, by want and disease, in the World besieged by injustice and social evils, we are all Poets—Oral Poets, at least. We recite our fear, our hope, our love, our hate. In every walking human being mooning on this Planet, there are unheard voices, un-echo-ed cries, and untold stories—secrets of the Heart. We all sing of war and peace, of fear and hope, of love and hate et cetera at a Time in History. Our unheard voices are all rooted in Temporal, for Our problem must be considered from the standpoint of Time. And, only Events give us a nudge in Time. We roll on our side and then sleep to the World until the slide of other Events comes and run over us, crush us. We cannot live with or without this unbearable lightness of Our Being!We sing Songs of war and peace, of fear and hope, of love and hate et cetera at a Time in History. How interesting is it to carry fire and water in the same mouth? Our poor Soul is torn in two. We have become soorboof- soorkoo or sam-enna-worq in our very being—a double standard. We are born Poets—unfortunate Poets! Our Ayyana (Spirit) sees from ‘within’ and from ‘without’, double-face, Janus-like. We Rural Boys come to school with the Provincial mind, resistant to change (?). We see the World and learn by judging, not by questioning. We do not pose questions for we are shy. Instead, we poeticize it inside and deliver it. Even so, we react in some way more critically than our fellow Urban Boys (and Girls) and so on. But I do not exactly remember when I picked up poetry as a Purpose—a Serious Purpose. I think it all started when I was teaching at Najjo High School twenty years back.
Why do you write poetry?
Poetry does sting. You sense the pain when you are stung and it never gives you a relief. There it leaves its mark. Just with few words, you can say a lot, and you do not always mean what you say. Sometimes the Intent is not in you, but in the Text. Sometimes not even in the Text, but in the outside social Context. Today Poetry has a dual function: one, to instruct, and, as well, to critique. You, as a Poet, you are a social critic. You cannot remain passive to see and submit to the status quo—unless you are a sellout, an opportunist. In Our case, now, Literature has serious purposes more than ever. In my Theorizing the Present (2004), a critical approach to study Oromo Literature from a sociological viewpoint, I have clearly stressed the purposive function and didactic role of our Literature. In a World driven by exploitation, in a World where humanity is overwhelmed by hunger, disease, want and absolute misery, in a world of inequality and injustice, no criticism can be innocent, no literature can be of purely aesthetic value.
Tell me something about the writings of Decorous Decorum? How was the experience like?
Actually, in my writings, I say many things. First of all, I try to express myself. And, in so doing, I think, I address the feelings of many yawning out there haunted by the nostalgia of the Past good old days. I say today there are things happening wrong, unjust, and inhumane. People suffer in silence very severe hardships in the name of democracy, peace and good governance. I would not say I have covered all that stuff in this thin volume. Nevertheless, I have touched on all those areas in my long poem “My People”. In the Future, if there is Time and World, hope, this madness will relapse and the Idea will proliferate.
In the prologue you talked about ‘their mindless neocolonial discourse .Could you say more on that?
In Decorous Decorum, the alliterative ‘de-‘ is an allusive remark to the de-humanization processes We are put in. It is an attempt to de-mystify the Historicism, the My stification that We have been suffering. It is an organ of the ongoing struggle to ‘de-linking’, ‘de-centring’, ‘de-colonizing’, ‘dis-engaging’ the Self from the bondage and from the mainstream discourse We have grown to experience: the Unity deprived, in its all organic whole, of equality, mutual respect, recognition, and, above all, Common Factor, a shared vision. Before We are united, tolerated Our differences, if any, We cannot talk of Unity with Others. The ‘de-‘ is the language of ‘breaking free’ and separating from a hegemonic Past and Present in a manner that is so decorous, but so curious. It is a search for the will of power through indigenizing the struggle both in its conceptual and empirical manifestations (see the title poem, ‘My People’).
What do you think the role of literature will be in restoring the dignity of the Oromo people, the theme that seems to dominate your writings?
I feel it very important for an African writer to pick up the theme that is African, and, of course, of some universal value to humankind at large. Issues of Freedom, Justice, Peace, and Equality are true to all Mankind. There is this popular theme of Unity in Decorous Decorum, the importance of Uniting our Nation. I tried to stress the need for national unity so that We can curb Our cry for freedom, justice, justice among different strata of people, equality, equality among the nations and nationalities, among Men and Women, among the Haves and the Have-nots (?), an even and lawful distribution of resources, equal job and education opportunities for all, Children’s right…(see “Udaan”). Yes, I think, all that stuff! The form is “a poetic meditation on existence” under lawlessness. In Decorous Decorum, an attempt is made to portray a system that destroys individuality through police investigations and forced confessions. It shows what happens to characters who feel “weightless” because they lack traditional values and ideals of selfhood under harsh unbearable conditions. It addresses the difficulty of maintaining standards of morality and judgment under a government that demands total submission from its citizens. It alludes to human identity in a time of police investigations, forced confessions, and ideological ruthlessness masked as democracy. Previously people used to be happy, or pretended to be happy, when their kraals were full of cattle and grain banks were full of grain deposit from season to season. Then they were farming with an ox-driven plough. Now that we are at the age of mechanized farming, extension package, pesticide, harvesting machine, what have you, who feeds his children from harvest to harvest? Are we poor because We are really poor, or because We lack the gut to direct Our rogue Leaders towards one common goal? In this respect, I would say, the Future would be bleak.
The overwhelming impression I have in reading your poetry is the assertion of the Oromo national sentiment. But your poems are written in English. One understands that there are English speaking Oromo people but won’t it be more down- to- earth to write in a language more intelligible for a common man?
The Oromo can better express himself, I think, in Afan Oromo than in English or in Amharic. But for a wider reader readership, sometimes you happen to pick up English. The problem is you cannot find adequate English or Amharic parallels for some religious and/or institutional words, and for our proverbs and idiomatic expressions. The Oromo writer expressing himself in Afan Oromo feels more at home than when trying to do so in a foreign language or in Amharic. The majority of our audience will more appreciate our works in Afan Oromo than in English or in Amharic. This is so because the language is part of them. First it is the language that they understand, and then the Text or the Intent, next—though the Intent may not wait there in Print. We did not have this Written Literature, Written Poetry before. What we had, we had it all in our memory pool. We are just starting, faltering to root our Literature in Tradition and in the real life situation of the People, et cetera. We are not constructing just a Nation; We are also constructing Our National Literature, where Our National Character will be a spokesperson of Our Common Factor. National Literatures and Nations themselves are believed to be socially constructed under identifiable political and historical circumstances. Overall, in my poems, there is this intergenerational asymmetrical junction I try to refer to. Decorous Decorum is a direct reference to the reluctance of the Age We live in. It is a nonviolent rally against the Quietude, Indifference, and Servitude of the present generation. I am saying, if the Life they live is bad, is it because the Generation lived before them was terrible, reluctant, submissive? What if the Generation hereafter will be worse? The meeting point of Time Past and Time Future is the Present, I think. If We have to act, lets act Temporal. Our grief must end somewhere. That point in Time is Here and Now—the Present!
Who are your literary influences?
My literary influences are Oromo Oral Poets of the traditional and transitional periods: Arero Bosaro and Jarso Waqo of Borana, Sheik Mohammed Xahir and Bakri Saphalo of Harar, Abda Garada of Arsi, Lucha Abba Tuggo of Wallaga, to mention but few. The three periods of Oromo Literature are: the Traditional (the time-free and time-bound) praise songs, historic war songs and pastoral songs; the Transitional protest/prison songs, and the Modern or the Contemporary written literature.
Shall we expect some more collections in the future?
Waaqa willing? Yes. Thanks.
(Decorous Decorum, was published by Artistic Printing press and the price is Birr 15.00 and can be found in many of the bookshops in Addis.)