A Guardian journalist tells the story of her Ethiopian grandmother’s remarkable life.
In this ambitious, elegantly descriptive, but occasionally disjointed narrative, Edemariam interweaves the story of her grandmother Yetemegnu's eventful life with the tumultuous history of Ethiopia. Yetemegnu was born in the northern Ethiopian city of Gondar in 1916. Born into a well-respected family, she was married off to Tsèga, a 30-year-old “nonentity” of a priest “from the sticks” of neighboring Gojjam before she was 10 years old. Against expectation, however, Tsèga proved his worth to Yetemegnu’s family by petitioning for, and earning, the position of chief priest of Gondar from the Ethiopian empress at the time, Zewditu, a year after his marriage. Edemariam’s grandmother saw her husband’s fortunes rise with the coming of a new ruler, the Emperor Haile Selassie, as she entered motherhood in her early teens. By the time she had given birth to her sixth child and buried a son, Italy had invaded Ethiopia and declared war on its former “ally in the Horn of Africa,” Britain. After Italy left and Selassie returned from exile, Yetemegnu witnessed her husband’s fall from political grace, his imprisonment for supposed “plots against the emperor,” and his death shortly after his release. The newly widowed mother of nine fought to successfully convince the emperor to restore her land that Tsèga’s enemies had stripped from her family while stubbornly refusing to remarry. Yetemegnu then watched her children begin lives in lands as far away as Canada while Ethiopia descended into a long and bitter civil war. At times profoundly lyrical and other times fractured and difficult to follow, Edemariam's book offers a glimpse into a singularly fascinating culture and history as it celebrates the courage, resilience, and grace of an extraordinary woman.
A flawed but richly evocative tale of family and international history.