Guardian journalist and Ondaatje prize-winner Aida Edemariam discusses The Wife’s Tale, her “outstanding and highly unusual memoir” of her indomitable Ethiopian grandmother, with prizewinning novelist Michèle Roberts, sharing how she came to write this lyrical biography. Lovingly researched, the story moves from Yetemegnu’s birth to her marriage (at the age of eight) to a cleric and poet two decades her senior, through fascist occupation, the rise and fall of ruler Haile Selassie, revolution and civil war.
Edemariam, who grew up in Addis Ababa, and is of Ethiopian and Canadian heritage, was first drawn to her grandmother’s stories “because of the language and verve with which she told them.” She reveals: “She was not able to write, or, until her 60s, to read, and everything was from memory – stories and jokes and dreams told and retold, in an oral culture that prized the ability to do this in the most skilful way possible; what I had were 50-60 hours of tape, of looping, repeating, fragmentary stories, all in Amharic; quite often what I have written is a direct translation of what she said, or as close as I was able, in the cadences in which she said it. I also made the decision that, as we were coming from such different points of view, I would try to let her and her world speak for themselves as much as I could. Though I am still present, of course, having translated, written down and/or chosen every word.”