Writer Sinkneh Eshetu was born in Konso, an area in the Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s Region known for its unique landscape and communal life. He was raised in the nearby towns of Jinka and Arba Minch. He did his first degree in Agriculture at Alemaya University; and his masters in Landscape Architecture in China. He has worked for the rehabilitation of the environment in the countryside of Southern Ethiopia and Tigray. Some of his books include “The Dao of the Dusty Foot Philosopher,” “Catch Your Thunder – Rendezvous with the End,” “Ye’Sisaye Lijoch/Kekrosna Kentros” and “Ellan Fillega”
In this exclusive interview with Addis Standard’s Mahlet Fasil, Sinkneh says “I am now trying to make a living out of my writing, which so far did not start paying off. Hopefully, it will in the near future.” Excerpts:
AS – In your works it is easy to notice the intersection between Eastern mysticism and African indigenous knowledge. How do these two different Universes meet in your world? How do you characterize your writing?
Sinkineh Eshetu – Deep down, every member of the human family shares something universal. We all are citizens of a kingdom of human experience. My soul is not from the east or the west. It is a being of a realm beyond all conceptions of time and space. My body though is forged out of the soils and water of a particular place. My experience finds expression in a bounded space-time within the unbounded pool of the totality of human experience.
Africans of all ages have been through experiences similar to the experiences of, say, the monks of the Himalayans. The intensity and external manifestations of that experience differs, of course. Different also is the level of consciousness of experiencing it. It is no wonder you see the same traces of deep human quest in African folktales and rituals that you find in one or another “eastern” way of life. Because African culture is dominantly oral, you have to read those traces in the day to day lives of the people and in their cultural landscapes that they have been shaping and are being shaped by since time immemorial. That is what I am trying to do.
This age of ours made this shared experiences more obvious than ever before. The internet for example created a realm for every one of us to indulge ourselves in a world or dimension that seems so different to that of ours. That makes most of us more consciously world citizens than ever before. All these impact the way you, as a person of this age, express yourself. So, I could say, my works are an aspect of this universal experience that found their synthesis in the African pot that is my life. My timeless soul may be made in Africa. That makes my language African. But my call is universal. That is to say, even though the experiences that I try to express are universal, my writings are unique because I am unique as an individual and as a culture.
My works focus more on the subtle unity, on the deep interconnections among all created things. Some think they are mystic writings. Others think they are philosophical. For me, they are expressions of my conscious as well as unconscious search for profound meanings and experiences. They are to me, like science, a means of searching for truth; and for beauty in the truth.
I am an agronomist by profession. But, the erosion of the genes of our folktales worries me more than the genetic (biological) erosion threatening the world. I am a landscape architect also. But, the erosion of the landscapes of our culture worries me more than the erosion of our physical landscapes. I even think the major cause of the later physical erosions is the erosion of the human values and experiences – those gems of our common heritage that are unique in time and space. So yes, I write to contribute towards the preservation of the cultures of indigenous people that brought me up.
Arba Minch and its environs are places of natural and cultural diversity; most so than any other part of Ethiopia. This land is a mosaic of culture and nature. My father was a police man. In answer for the calls to duty, our family used to move from place to place in this area. In such world of diversity, moving in space is also moving in the landscapes of human consciousness – the plethora of folklores, rituals, songs, people’s ordinary way of life that come to your mind in the making as something so extraordinary! To me, that moving in space was also moving back and forth in time. I always felt the different ethnic groups at this place are not in the same time period, even though they may share the same field of time. If you think of time to be a landscape, some live in the mountains; some in the valleys; others in forests; still others in the prairies or deserts of that landscape of time. Wouldn’t that be time past, present, and future superimposed? Wouldn’t moving from one culture to the other make you feel like you are rowing the river of time back and forth?
A journey doesn’t go by without leaving its footprint in you. When you come back to your ordinary life, you bring words from there. You see how the writer in me grew up? When I didn’t know it was growing!
The cultural landscape that brought me up is deep in me. And I am deep in it. Wherever I may go, I return. Wherever I may sleep, I wake up there. That is both in thought and in body. The umbilical cord of my essence is buried in there. That is like a whirlpool of the soul. You can’t let it go.
What was your childhood like and how did you get into a literary life?
I came to literature very late. I realized I could write and knew I wanted to be a writer only after I joined university. Growing up, I didn’t read many books. But, when I started writing, I knew I was not a beginner. Why? I used to read the landscape. I used to write the words from my imaginary flight on the pages of my soul. Writing came to me so naturally. If I were not a writer, I could have turned a mystic or something.
The literary scene in Ethiopia doesn’t appear to be as multicolored as the people and the land in it appear to be. You seem to stand out and chart a unique path. Was it deliberate?
Doesn’t that make you wonder where that near-homogeneity in our literature came from? We are so diverse culturally. Diverse also are we in our individual experiences. Is it because of our education? Or of the books we are made to take as standards? Or of the influence of the media? Are we caught up in the whirlwind of imitation? … I think everyone of us needs to answer that.
Writing for me is a life I live with joy; almost unconscious. Connecting the local with the global was not also conscious at first. I just be. Now that it became conscious, I try to bring the deeper interconnections to life with my fantasy stories and with my poems. I think there is nothing special in this. You just live your life and your life brings forth a fruit as worthwhile as that of others. When you so try to express yourself without imitation, you give the world something unique. And, what is unique for me is also global. It means, in the temple of the human experience, you take your irreplaceable place as an essential brick for the health of the great edifice.
Considering the classic works, Ethiopia has a very rich literary heritage. When it comes to modern literature, I think we started it much earlier than many African countries. We are diverse culturally – yet another mine for rich literary or artistic harvest. But, where would you place the level of Ethiopian modern literature in today’s world? Where are we compared for example to the literatures of Nigeria, Ghana, Egypt, Kenya, and many other countries? Don’t you see something lamentable in this? Where did things go wrong? Is that, as many people try to reason, only because we write in Amharic? Don’t we know many writers in the world wrote in local languages and attained global acclaim? How did our proud culture and heritage fail to produce proud literature? I always wonder why people, professionals and non-professionals alike, do not talk about this openly and boldly. Don’t we feel accountable about this? Is literature, or art, not a voice of a people?
You have written both in English and Amharic. In your writings, does the subject matter dictate the language that you write it on? While you are at it, can you also explain to me the genesis and process of your works?
When I read the stories of Dostoyevsky, I feel that not only his characters, but he, the writer, as well, grew up with me picking the coffee beans of my Jinka’s backyard or planting the Moringa trees of my beloved Arba Minch.
I feel fulfilled in feeling so connected. Is that not what distinguishes me, the human being, from animals: feeling increasingly boundless in my experience of being alive? Is this not the ultimate goal of art: enriching the human experience to unchain the angel, the unbounded self, in every one of us so that our world maybe a better place to live in? Then, why should I allow language to be an obstacle on the ways of my fulfillment and the fulfillment of others through my, or other people’s, works? Like the fragrance of the flowers of the valley, I want my works to travel far and wide in time and space and find the heart that may appreciate them; find also my friends out there. No, the subject matter does not limit my language choice. One day, I will hopefully re-write (not translate) my stories in English; and those now in English, in Amharic.
I walk around with hundreds of stories in my heart. I allow them to grow organically in there. I don’t try to force them out. I don’t even take notes when new ideas come up. I just allow them to permeate my being so that they may not be stillborn in my attempt to nail them down prematurely.
What does the future hold for your literary life?
My latest work, Catch Your Thunder – Rendezvous with the End, is an ambitious project. We know scientists, using genetics, fossil studies, and the like, traced the origin of the human race back to Africa. In this epic story, I am trying to see if we can trace the genetics of human culture and civilization as well back to Africa, to Ethiopia in particular. The conclusions are out in the future – there are at least four more books to come in the Catch Your Thunder serious I just introduced to the wide world. This will then be my biggest quest in the years to come. Please allow me to quote a passage from this work:
What was your secret, O Hendeke of the untouchable fame! What was the source of your strength, O you queen of the undying flam! What was your anger for, O Yodit of the unyielding seed! What did you hide from the temptations of the King, that master of a thousand concubines, O Sheba of the peerless wisdom! (P. 276)