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  • Issayas Tesfamariam

A conversation with Professor Charles Cantalupo.

Eritrea should be recognized as a shining example: in the sempiternal presence of the stele inscribed with the beginning of Eritrean literature in Belew Kelew.." Prof. Charles Cantalupo.

Issayas: As you know I participated in the "Against All Odds" conference in Asmara. There were many amazing performances, lectures and so forth. For me, what enhanced the theme of the conference was the Tigrinya performance of Ngũgĩ ‘s "I Will Marry When I Want". Can you tell us about it? Professor Charles Cantalupo: What a pleasure to recount with you this part of the Against All Odds conference story. I can still feel the chills I experienced at the end of the performance: the packed theater and the entire audience on its feet amidst the Cinema Asmara’s red walls glowing and stage lights blazing; the audience and the actors rushing towards each other: the former onto the stage and the latter dancing into the audience; the actors waving huge Kenyan and Eritrean flags and singing Mau May songs translated into Tigrinya; the audience singing along, and the uproar echoing up into the Cinema Asmara’s cupola painted with dancing muses who look more Hedareb than the original Italian artist might have intended…. While the conference organizers had the idea of staging Ngũgĩ’s play for the conference, the director at the time of the British Council in Asmara, Dr. Meles Negusse, offered to support the production on the condition that we had the play translated into Tigrinya so that an Eritrean audience could fully enjoy it – which was a most, enlightened proposition We loved the idea and turned to Alemseged Tesfai as the best person to translate I Will Marry When I Want from English into Tigrinya. This was not, however, the first time the play would be translated. Originally in 1976, Ngũgĩ wrote the play in Gĩkũyũ, and the Kamirithũ Community Education and Culture Centre in Kenya produced it. Only later did he translate it into English. The ideal, perhaps, would have been to translate the Gĩkũyũ original into Tigrinya. Moreover, the translation of African language literature into other African languages is, to put it mildly, as important as translation into European languages, although such a necessity needs to be more widely realized. There is, of course, a strong precedent for this in Eritrea, where such translation does take place: most notably, to take one example, the translations of Alemseged’s history books from Tigrinya. Nevertheless, at the time of Against All Odds, we couldn’t find a Gĩkũyũ speaker to translate the original directly into Tigrinya and, therefore, we used the English translation. Thus, the conference might be considered in producing the play to have hitched a ride with English, as in a taxi, from Gĩkũyũ to Tigrinya. Accordingly, via a global or international language like English two African languages would communicate with one another as never before. I should add that the Audio Visual Institute of Eritrea (AVIE) made a superb video of the production, which toured all over Eritrea so that Ngũgĩ’s play in Alemseged’s translation continued to attract big audiences long after Against All Odds had packed its tents. As a result, one could say that this production has inevitably had a strong influence since then on Eritrean drama itself.

Alexander S. Pushkin's statue is in Asmara. As a poet, what do you think about that? I know the monument well and enjoyed visiting it when I was in Asmara in March, as I always do when I have visited since the sculpture’s installation. It’s a wonderful idea, and I hope there will be more such sculptures and similar ways to honor and memorialize important literary personalities. After all, as Shakespeare wrote in sonnet 55, “Not marble, nor the gilded monuments / Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme.” Frankly, I can name, and I’m sure I’m not alone in this, the names of more writers from around the world and through history than I can prime ministers, kings, queens, and presidents. Not that the political powers that be or the supreme responsibility of good governance should be denigrated. Without it, writers no more than anyone else could survive the Hobbesian state of nature that would result. Still, the names and the works of writers and other artists remain more widely recognized than all but a comparative handful of political leaders. If this is not literature as power, what is? Yet the Pushkin statue also leads me to think – particularly since you asked me to address your question as a poet – of a place not too far from it, on Harnet Avenue: Bar Gurgusum. The poet, Reesom Haile, often used to invite me to join him there: so often, that I might say that the place should have a plaque commemorating that it was one of Reesom’s favorite places. I write about it in my memoir, Joining Africa: from Anthills to Asmara (2012), and the first book I did with Reesom, We Have Our Voice (2000), contains Reesom’s poem about it . Perhaps the poem should be on a plaque in Bar Gurgusum, too? The translation is called “Asmara by Night.” May I please recall it for you? After work I like to stop At Rita’s Bar Gurgusum. The fighters who won the war drink there. “My heroes! Good evening.” The men greet me back. But where are the women who fought?

“Ciao, Rita.” “Amore!” “Please help me out. A White Horse or a cold one With the old-style Melotti cap?” “Amore! Do what you like. Don’t ask me. Peace. It’s a free country.” (Tigrinya original available: We Have Our Voice: Selected Poems of Reesom Haile, trans. Charles Cantalupo [Lawrenceville & Asmara: Red Sea Press, 2000], 76-77) In the 1950's and 1960s Nigeria, Onitisha Market Literature was popular. Is there something like that in Africa today? Are African book fairs today's Onitisha Market Literature? I don’t know a lot about Onitisha Market Literature or its current incarnations around Africa. Nor do I follow many of the book fairs that take place around Africa. I do know, however, that Eritrea’s 16th annual book fair is about to open in Asmara (already opened when this interview was published). This longstanding and annual event of great significance is the kind of thing that more people should know about Eritrea. What a powerful testimony to the art of the word in Eritrea. Nor is such an event an anomaly. When I was in Asmara, in March, I attended a great book launch in the old Sabur Press building downtown. Not only was the event packed with people and festive with readings, music, flowers, and refreshments. Another similarly happy book launch was taking place at the same time in the next ballroom over. Or consider the book launch last November of the third volume of Alemseged’s history of Eritrea, Ertra akab FedereSn nab GobeTan Sewran (“Eritrea: from Federation to Annexation and Revolution).” Close to 1500 people are said to have attended, four thousand copies of Alemseged’s book have been sold, and it is already being translated into Tigre. If I may go back to the conference, Against All Odds, as well as to one of its major outcomes: the equally historic “Asmara Declaration on African Languages and Literatures.” Their originating in Eritrea could not be more fitting and, in retrospect, is hardly a surprise. In most other African countries, the composition of literature in colonial languages becomes the norm. But it never does in Eritrea. Thus, in the literature and orature of African languages – both historically as well as currently – Eritrea should be recognized as a shining example: in the sempiternal presence of the stele inscribed with the beginning of Eritrean literature in Belew Kelew; in the lyrical power and self determination in the lines of Mother Zeineb and the poets anthologized in Who Needs a Story (2005); in the community consciousness of the getemti in their massé and melkes; in the inscrutable poetic and political power of the 19th century elegy by Weldedingel; in Beyene Haile, in Gebreyesus Hailu, and in so much more of Eritrean literature that is known – yet that is still to be known….

Prof. Cantalupo, thank you for your time.

(Charles Cantalupo, lecture, SMAP Institute of Training, Education,

Research and Consultancy, 6 March 2017)

(Charles Cantalupo, book launch, Asmara 10 March 2017,

including Meles Negusse, distinguished poet and short story

writer, and Ghirmay Abraham, poet and journalist)

(Charles Cantalupo, on the way to Adulis, 10 March 2017)

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