Bewketu Seyoum is an Ethiopian poet, novelist, and socio-political satirist. He is the author of four volumes of poetry, two novels, two collections of short fiction, and numerous essays. Currently, he’s an ICORN Writer-In-Residence at Pittsburgh’s City of Asylum, where he’s recently completed a book of poems about life in the pandemic. This month, Sampsonia Way is featuring three poems by Seyoum, one of which is from this forthcoming collection. Check them out here.
In recent years, Seyoum’s writing has been published in English translation by Callaloo, World Literature Today, The Poetry Review, Prairie Schooner, and Modern Poetry in Translation. Most recently, he contributed a short story to the anthology Addis Ababa Noir edited by Maaza Mengiste. In both his poetry and his prose, Seyoum writes with a sharp humor and a dry wit, capturing the bittersweet realities of life. His writing evokes a kind of quotidian awe, revealing the rhythms and absurdities of modern life, at once humorous and heartbreaking. Considering the repressed nature of the Ethiopian press — where the government has a legacy of shuttering newspapers and publishers — Seyoum’s deft ability to write tongue-in-cheek is perfectly suited for revealing social inequities. Ethiopian journalist Chalachew Tadesse once described Seyoum as a writer with “the courage to use political satire, melancholic humor, and poetry — mildly or explicitly — to critique the prevalent repression, corruption and social injustice in Ethiopia.”
Today, Seyoum writes from his residence on Sampsonia Way, where he is as prolific as he is proficient. For more work by Seyoum in Amharic, you can also hear him read original stories on his YouTube channel or read his weekly fiction and satire on his Facebook page. Last October, Seyoum joined the staff writers of Sampsonia Waymagazine over a Zoom call to chat about his writing process, how he remains connected to Ethiopia, and how he’s used the quarantine as inspiration for his writing.
Living Abroad in the COVID Era
You write in many different genres: poetry, fiction, comedy, as well as for social media platforms. How do you choose which form to work in and how does it inform your writing?
I focus on two major forms in poetry and short stories, but I’ve also written short prose essays, and I’ve been working on my novel, too. I write poems when I want to capture a very fleeting and elusive experience in my life, and also sometimes when I’m in some kind of sad condition. A great deal of my poems are an expression of my pessimistic outlook on life, while my stories are brighter, funnier, and lighter. These forms are reflections of these two contrasting personalities in my character.
We know you’ve recently finished a book of poems, and we’d love to hear more about it.
During the quarantine, I have written about 40 or 45 poems and have been calling them “quarantine poems.” I’ve collected them alongside poems from my previous unpublished work into one book, and I’ve titled it Adamel. It is a new term, which I coined by blending two words— “Adam,” the first man in the book of Genesis in the Bible, and “Igziabeher” is God. I created that word – Adamel – to express my conception of humanity. It represents the man that goes beyond the boundaries of society, environment, time and history. In my past work, the previous forms were about diversified motifs, or ideas. These new poems are the product of a new situation — the new condition in our life and in my life. So most of the poems revolve around one motif— alienation.
We’d like to ask about your experience coming to America and living and writing in Pittsburgh, and what that’s been like. How have you stayed connected with your Ethiopian culture and language while living here?
That’s an interesting question. I have two ways I stay connected to the language and to the land of my native language. As I said, I follow social media, which helps. But I also have a connection with a community here in America. In Pittsburgh, we have a very limited number of Ethiopian people, so I sometimes welcome guests from DC or Atlanta or other cities. Unfortunately, the COVID outbreak cancelled a lot of things. I used to host a lot of friends. I would talk with them, share stories with them. I was able to save most of my memory and my language by this kind of method.
About the new language, I try to socialize with people. I think it was easy before the outbreak, but now it’s very difficult to socialize with people. I still try to socialize with new forms of technology and am still trying to improve my English.
It sounds like the pandemic has made life a lot harder. What have you done to get through this and to stay connected despite the shut-down?
So at the beginning of the outbreak, the experience was very horrible. I thought that I could get the infection or that I could even die alone. Over time, this feeling of anxiety disappeared, and I could even see a kind of blessing in disguise. COVID has offered me a new perspective on life. It’s also been a subject matter for writing. It gives me a new way to see the condition of life in general. I started to work on my quarantine poems, and I also started to write a book, which is tentatively titled Notes on the Quarantine. I started to serialize it on my Facebook and people started to like it. I have a plan to arrange it into a novella or something.
Finding Community in the Writing
We noticed that you have a robust audience on Facebook and YouTube. We were wondering what drew you to release your writing online, as opposed to using more traditional platforms?
I narrate my stories and my poems and put them on YouTube because people sometimes demand the audio version of my work. So YouTube helps me do that. For Facebook, I use it as a way to keep myself connected with my native language, because exile uproots you and alienates you from your native language. The Internet, especially social media, helps me to connect with the language that my people are speaking today, so I build a relationship with my readers by posting videos and writing online, and also by following the news of my country. I write my reflections on news events, and then I see the feedback and direction from my readers. It helps me to express myself and preserve my memories and my language.
We’ve spent the last couple of days reading some of the Google translations of your Facebook page and it’s made us wish we understood Amharic. You have a truly engaged community of followers!
The Google translation of Amharic is very disastrous because they are not even able to capture 70 percent of the elements of the story. Amharic is a very different language from other European languages. Some European languages like Spanish, French, and others are somehow related to English, but Amharic is a Semitic language, which has its own alphabet. Google is learning — it’s learning to capture the ideas, the metaphor, and the meaning of the language, but it’s a work in progress. You can’t have the full sense of the meaning from the Google translations but maybe some elements.
From what we could tell, your writing there is humorous and satirical, and people seem to really love it. We can see your readers reacting, and it seems like they’re in on the joke with you.
You’re right. People read that, and they put in loving emojis. Most of the posts in my Facebook are meant to make people laugh. They’re hilarious, in the language.
How do you handle the editing process? It sounds almost like you’re serializing book-length work on your FaceBook page, which is pretty unique!
Eight or 10 years ago, I used to share stories in the newspaper, but now, you know, the newspaper has kind of been replaced by the internet and by social media. So my friends are interested in my stories, so when I post, I write like I’m writing a book. I write it out in my notes, edit it, and then when I think it’s done, I post them online. I sometimes see the reactions, and sometimes I move on without reading the comments.
Crossing the Cultural Divide
When it comes to translations, how do you decide when to translate your work into English? And have you spent any time attempting to write in English?
I’m still writing in my native language, Amharic. I’m writing and thinking in Amharic. I also read English, watch English movies, read English novels, and so on. But I’m also struggling to express myself in English. It’s not easy because there is a basic cultural difference between the Amharic- and English-speaking worlds. What I’m trying to do now is to get a translator who is well versed in both English and Amharic. By working with them, I hope to produce the best translated version of my books. That’s what I’m working towards.
Working with a translator brings a kind of community aspect into the writing process too, in translating it into a different language. Could you talk a little bit more about what aspects of writing and language you think are lost or gained in the process of translation?
Yeah, it’s a very interesting question. In my poetry, there is wordplay, which is limited to the language itself. There is the use of metaphor, and there is also rhyme because in Amharic poetic tradition, you can’t write poetry that doesn’t rhyme. There must be some music or rhyme in it. So it’s not easy to capture these elements in the foreign language, and some of the elements are gone in translation. The other problem is, compared to a language like Arabic, Amharic is a very local language — it’s limited to my country. There are a lot of people who speak Arabic and English here. The writer who writes in Arabic has no difficulty in bringing his work to the English-speaking world, but Amharic has its own law, its own limits, its own game, and it takes time to capture all of this. And I’m trying to do that.
Have you found any major differences between American and Ethiopian culture, whether that’s in everyday life, in the content that we write about or the way that we express our writing?
I think the first difference that I notice is that Ethiopia is a very closed society. So the Amharic language has a lot of layers. As an example, in Ethiopia, there was a form of poetry called “Wax and Gold.” In Amharic it’s called “Sem Ena Worq.” But in English, it can be rendered as Wax and Gold. If you see the form of the poem, the surface meaning of the poem is called “wax,” and the hidden meaning in the poetry is the “gold.” So these different layers of language are a result of repression in the language. The poet or the bard wants to express his idea, but he fears that he could be punished by authorities, so he created this kind of language.
The Amharic language is a product of a long period of repression and it has a lot of layers, but English is kind of more transparent. You don’t use a lot of hidden forms to express yourself in English. But in Ethiopia, in Amharic, you find a lot of layers in the language, and in this form of poetry, you don’t show the main idea of the poetry spontaneously. Only the readers dig into the poetry and then find the real meaning.
This concept is very revealing. It’s interesting to think about how it requires readers to read so carefully or read for nuance and ambiguity. It sounds like this veiled language is a way for you to get around censorship in your writing. Is that true? How much does the Ethiopian government or culture censor your writing, and is that why you have to hide meaning?
It’s a very challenging question. So, the Wax and Gold is no more — it’s not outdated, but you know, it’s not in fashion. I mentioned it, as an example, to explain about the nature of the language. Today, we write poetry as plain as possible. We are not using this form, but it tells you about the nature of the language.
So about censorship — officially there isn’t any censorship in Ethiopia. But you can be held accountable by what you have written. There is repression not only from the government, but from the institutions in society too. It’s a very religious society, a very conservative society. The society is well established in the traditional religious values, and if you somehow challenge or mock some of these values, you’d be punished in various forms. So you know, there is no direct censorship in the society, but there is indirect repression, indirect censorship, indirect punishment. I can’t say that the writer is free to vent what’s in his own mind, to speak his mind.
Earlier we asked about your approach of posting on social media. Is there a certain vulnerability by putting yourself out there and sharing your emotions on social media?
Yeah. So the problem is, maybe … and I’m not sure if it’s a problem, but sometimes I have this tendency to speak my mind without thinking about the consequences. And if you are a writer, there is a temptation to not delete the things that you feel, even if you might offend some group of people. I’m not thinking about the consequences, but there might be consequences. But if I censor myself, if I force myself to avoid this kind of thinking, I’m no longer a writer. If you are a writer, you have to be honest with yourself. You have to be honest with your mind, with your way of thinking.