The question of whether a book has to be set in a particular country in order to be ‘from’ that place was a recurrent theme during my year of reading the world. Many people feel that this is an important factor in determining a story’s cultural identity. Indeed, I know of a number of literary quests that make setting the primary consideration when it comes to choosing books from different regions – sometimes preferring stories by non-nationals over texts by people born or living in the nation.
During my project, I took a different view. Although the majority of stories I read in 2012 took place at least partly in the country under whose name they appear on the list, this wasn’t the case with all of them.
There were several reasons for this. Firstly, as British and American wordsmiths write books set all over the world, I didn’t see why I should expect authors from other places to limit their imaginations to the space within the borders of their own nations, or even to the real world at all. What interested me most was voice and perspective, rather than a representation of cultural detail in each place.
However, sometimes there was no option but to choose a story set somewhere other than in the country I was selecting it to represent. This was particularly true in the case of states where freedom of expression is limited and most of those who write have been forced to flee.
Eritrea is a prime example. Although North Korea is frequently described as the home of the world’s most oppressive regime, the north-east African nation often ranks below it for freedom of expression. The iron-fisted government control in this one-party nation, where all media is owned by the state, means that anyone who wishes to express an independent opinion must either suffer or leave.
As a result, when I came to look for a book by an Eritrean writer, I knew it was likely to be by someone no longer living there. This proved to be the case: the novel I chose was by Eritrean-born Sulaiman Addonia, who has spent most of his life outside the nation. It was called The Consequences of Love and was set in Saudi Arabia.
While I’m sure the oppressive atmosphere Addonia conjures around the illicit love affair at the heart of his novel owes something to the fear that his family must have known in their country of origin, the choice meant that the specifics of life inside Eritrea remained a mystery to me. So when I was contacted by a publicist to ask if I would be interested in reading ‘an immigrant’s story from war-torn Eritrea to asylum in the US’, I was intrigued. Within a few weeks, a copy of Gratitude in Low Voices by Dawit Gebremichael Habte had landed on my doormat.
As its title suggests, Habte’s is a success story. Having escaped to Kenya as a teenager in 1989, the young man made his way to the US. There by dint of hard work and extraordinary determination he carved out a life for himself, eventually receiving support from Michael Bloomberg to develop a software and training programme to benefit his compatriots.
Habte’s life has been a mixed one and his book reflects this. Part memoir, part treatise, part self-help volume, with a goodly amount of historical detail, political argument and philosophical musings thrown in, this is an unusual work.
For readers like me, its most interesting sections come in the first half, where Habte writes clearly and warmly about life in his homeland. He shares many insights. We learn, for example, about naming conventions among the Tigrinya-speaking population, for whom surnames don’t exist but who have the tradition of giving each child a new name and then the father’s first name from every known preceding generation, leading to official names that can stretch over numerous lines.
I particularly enjoyed his description of his time reading at the British Council Library in Asmara. Here was another writer inspired by reading stories from elsewhere. Indeed, Habte’s account of the influence of British stories and games on his thinking is a powerful testament to what books can do, as well as an echo of some of the sentiments other African writers raised on European fiction (perhaps most notably Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie) have expressed:
‘Thanks to the British version of the Monopoly board game and the books of Charles Dickens (Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, A Christmas Carol…), we made London our virtual vacation home. We basically were strolling through the streets of London without actually setting foot at Heathrow Airport. It is at this point that we started to live locally but think globally.’
Habte’s explanations of the political and historical context of the situation facing Eritrea in the last few decades are clear and damning – if occasionally a little roughly shoehorned into the narrative. Through his eyes, we see how the nation has been failed by the international community, which has repeatedly allowed greed, oil deals and wider political considerations to come before the interests of the people in the region.
Yet the writer is not bitter. Indeed, one of the most remarkable aspects of the book is Habte’s unfailingly positive attitude to the challenges he confronts. In the face of huge difficulty, he does not look for help from others but relies on his own ingenuity, meeting prejudice and selfishness with compassion (as he does when he crosses paths with the people smuggler who betrayed him) and humour (fabricating an outlandish account of life back home to scandalise a group of ignorant high-school girls).
At times, the gratitude of the title can become a little wearing. Habte makes no secret of the fact that the book is intended at least partly as a thank you to the many ‘angels without wings’ who helped him on his way. His earnestness is touching, but the repeated, dutiful digressions to give accounts of the lives of people who were kind to him get rather exhausting.
The narrative is patchy too and could have done with tighter editing. And I’m sure I won’t be the only one to find the final third, in which Habte recounts his progression through various US educational institutions, dull in comparison to what goes before (although the accounts of the lengths he went to to fund and sustain his education are often inspiring).
And yet this remains an important book. It is an insight into a nation that is little represented in the minds of many people, as well as a powerful portrayal of the experience of being an immigrant. As such, it provides a sound riposte to anyone who thinks people leave their homelands and everything they know to travel across the globe and start from scratch lightly.
Those looking for masterful writing won’t find it here. But those looking for passion and a fresh perspective undoubtedly will.
Gratitude in Low Voices: A Memoir by Dawit Gebremichael Habte (RosettaBooks, 2017)