Ghirmai Negash

Twenty years ago, in November 1992, Ghirmai Negash delivered “The Freedom of the Writer” as a speech at the then Officers Club in Asmara, Eritrea, to an audience of Eritrean writers, journalists, and intellectuals. First printed and circulated in Europe as a booklet, it was included in the author’s Tigrinya-language book, The Freedom of the Writer & Other Cultural and Literary Essays (The Red Sea Press, 2006). While describing and offering a pointed critical evaluation of the ordeal of Eritrean writers across generations  of colonial rule, this historical piece also goes beyond its time in that it is prescient of the post-independence government’s crackdown on the freedom of expression in the country, a few years later. 

History's amphitheater has always contained the martyr and the lion. The former relied on eternal consolation and the latter on raw historical meat. But until now, the artist was always on the sidelines. He used to sing purposely, for his own sake, or at best to encourage the martyr and make the lion forget his appetite, but now the artist is in the amphitheater.


It is not surprising...that art should be the enemy marked out by every form of oppression. It is not surprising that artists and intellectuals should have been the first victims of modem tyrannies, whether of the Left or the Right. Tyrants know there is in the work of art an emancipatory force, which is mysterious only to those who do not revere it. 

The words that I have just recited - words that when pondered upon and read over and over again gain more meaning and unravel mysteries - are not mine. Those are the words of the great French writer, Albert Camus, whose name may not be unfamiliar to most of you artists, writers, and men of letters, present here at this gathering. Albert Camus spoke those words in a speech he delivered on the occasion of his receiving the 1957 Nobel Prize for Literature in Stockholm, Sweden. 

By the time Camus gave the stated speech, World War II had long ended in 1945, after causing the loss of millions of people and the destruction of a vast amount of property; but it was also a period when new confrontations were looming, at a global scale. It was a moment when dark political and ideological clouds were haunting Europe, first slowly sowing the seeds of enmity, and eventually leading to the so-called Cold War between Russia and America, and their satellites. In general, the growing tension also brought an increased restriction, constriction, and violation of fundamental democratic and human rights of peoples and, in particular, adversely affected the plight of writers. The violation of rights did not happen only in the then Eastern European and Third World countries but also in the United States and in some Western European countries, which, otherwise, could boast of well-established democratic traditions. It was, in short, if you allow me to use his words again, that historical instant in time, which Albert Camus, lamentably and yet aptly, characterized as a moment when society, generally, and the artist as a creative agent, especially, were "threatened daily by barbarism and the rising power of the totalitarian state." And it is also then within this context of the restrictions of democratic and human rights that Camus’s argument should be understood, when, in his well-drawn metaphor of the "amphitheater,” he likens the artists and intellectuals in general, and the writer in particular to a  "martyr,” and the tyrannical political systems (“whether from the Left or the Right,” which in order to secure or prolong their 

It is, of course, true that Camus’s writing has a historical particularity in that he was writing to express the plight of his contemporary writers against the backdrop of hostile political systems that invariably stifled their liberty through state censorship, imprisonment or death. One must concede, too, that, even if they come from one of the world's greatest and most renowned writers, Camus’s pronouncements inevitably remain his individual?so to speak, subjective?observations and judgments. Thus, depending on one’s stance on the matter, some might be inclined to regard his symbolization as a hyperbole, and subsequently eschew its message. And others may choose not to be at all concerned with the issues that preoccupied Camus so deeply. However, the question of freedom is too important to be taken so lightly. The struggle for one’s freedom is not a matter of preferences, but, in essence, a matter of life and death. And there are a myriad of recorded cases of writers from around the globe that, unfortunately, prove right Camus’s premise about the tenuous relationship between writers and repressive political systems. They also show the continued attack against writers in our contemporary world, which, perhaps, is taking place with greater severity and at a wider scale than ever before. In this regard, one of the most extraordinary cases that comes to mind is that of Jose Maria Arguedas, a Peruvian novelist and university professor, whose suicide in 1969, a year after the left-wing military coup of General Valesco took place in 1968, stunned the world. Mario Vargas Llosa, the victim's fellow-countryman and the nation's most distinguished writer, in his 1978 article "The Writer in Latin America" describes the circumstances of Arguedas's death in the following words: “He was a very discreet man, and so as not to disturb his colleagues and the students with his suicide, he waited until everybody had left the place. Near his body was found a letter with very detailed instructions about his burial.” 

Answering the question as to how and why Arguedas, despite his accomplished life and career as a writer and university teacher, killed himself, Vargas reveals:   

Some days later other letters by him appeared, little by little. They too were different aspects of his last will, and they were addressed to very different people; his publisher, friends, journalists, academics, politicians. The main subject of these letters was his death, of course, or better, the reasons for which he decided to kill himself. These reasons changed from letter to letter. In one of them he said that he decided to commit suicide because he felt that he was finished as a writer, that he no longer had the impulse and the will to create. In another he gave moral, social and political reasons: he could no longer stand the misery and neglect of the Peruvian peasants, those people of Indian communities among whom he had been raised; he lived oppressed and anguished by the crises of the cultural and educational life in the country; the low level and abject nature of the press and the caricature of liberty in Peru were too much for him, etcetera.

Vargas, moreover, affirms in the article the certainty that the letters left behind by Arguedas read as unmistakable proof of the “personal crises” he had been going through as a citizen, writer, and an individual in the Peruvian society. He adds that the letters can, hence, be seen as "the dramatic call of a man who, at the edge of the abyss, asks mankind for help and compassion." However, the significance of Arguedas’s letters cannot be limited only to the personal. As Vargas further makes clear, they are, too, a “clinical testimony" of the deeply rooted problems that have hampered  the economic and cultural development of the Peruvian and other Latin American masses in general, and of the frustrating, stunting,  and paralyzing practices and dilemmas that "many times destroyed [the] literary vocation" of the continent in particular. 

The tragic nature of Arguedas’s case cannot be overstated. It is indeed distressing not only because of the violent end of the writer's life, but even more so because his death was caused by a thirst for freedom, a predicament that  symbolizes the harsh reality that many Latin American writers and artists have been faced  with. 

The situation of African writers is no better. At present a good number of them are languishing in various prison cells, or live in isolation in their own countries, because of the African governments’ design to keep them away, separated from each other and the people. Those who have managed to escape those injustices find themselves in the Diaspora. The most representative figure of the latter group is the Kenyan writer, Ngugi wa Thiongo. 

Ngugi is Kenya's best known writer who writes in English and his mother tongue, Kikuyu. To date, he has written five novels, three plays, numerous essays, short stories, and some seminal texts in literary theory. His debut novel, Weep Not Child (1964), is the first East African novel in English, as well as the first in Kenyan literary history to deal with the country's historic struggle for liberation with a critical audacity, rooted in an autochthonic perspective. In it, the author lays bare the different political, economic, cultural and historical periods the Kenyan masses went through, from pre-colonial times to the post-independence era. And, as the living conditions of the characters in the novel show, the book particularly makes clear the hoped-for but betrayed aspirations and objectives of the Kenyan masses, which they had set during their national struggle for independence. Furthermore, while portraying the dismay of the Kenyan freedom fighters, who had fought to bring freedom and justice to their people, in the face of continuous deteriorating conditions of the majority of the masses (and that of their own), the novel reveals the affluence and concomitantly rising economic and political power of the new Kenyan bourgeoisie, which replaced British rule.  

The River Between, Ngugi's second book, published one year after Weep Not Child, basically depicts how the British colonial system attempted to undermine the values of the Kenyan people’s indigenous culture and education, in order to prolong their colonial rule.

Ngugi's third novel, entitled A Grain of Wheat, was written in 1967. As many critics agree, this book is Ngugi's aesthetically best work, and one whereby Ngugi demonstrated his "maturity" (1) as a novelist. Set in a place called Thabai, the novel details the patriotic struggle carried on by the people of Kenya, depicting important events surrounding the struggle and their outcomes. It is a time of heated fighting and of much bloodshed underscored by complex political and social turmoil. On the one side, we see freedom fighters sacrificing their lives for the freedom of their people. On the other, we see Kenyan collaborators bleeding their own country. The main characters of the book--all freedom fighters and people closely associated with the struggle--are also as complex and unpredictable as the environment in which they find themselves. One of them is Mugo, a native of Thabai.

Mugo is many things to different people. Some see him as a very bright and compassionate person, while others consider him odd and “strange.” Others worship him as a “great hero” of their liberation struggle, and some still, while acknowledging his legendary status, believe he is someone with "something heavy in his heart." Mugo has also a private vision of himself. He sees himself as a great man, whose being is essential to Kenyan society and the Kenyan struggle. However, as the narrative progresses, uncovering its mysteries, what we learn about Mugo in the end proves to be so complex that it baffles the reader as much as it does his fellow compatriots (the actual listeners of Mugo's story), including those who knew him closely. For instance, it is revealed that Mugo, contrary to his self-image and despite some people’s view of him as Kenya’s messiah, was in fact a double-agent at one point in the struggle. It also comes out that Mugo had a hand in the death of one of the true leaders of the struggle, Kihika, whose killing up to that point was suspected to be mainly the work of the British authorities. As the Tigrinya saying goes, “a victim of fire is treated with fire,” and, hence, the people of Thabai are also confronted with other more sordid revelations, as they grapple with what they hear in this hour of truth.  They discover, for example, that, Mumbi, a sister of one of the heroes of the liberation movement and a wife of an activist, had been raped by her husband's friend, Karanja, who had defected to the enemy. She was raped while her husband (Gikonyo) was incarcerated in a detention camp because of his involvement in the independence struggle.

While these personal tragedies of betrayal and treachery are being fully played out, there is also a different kind of betrayal that the freedom fighters begin to see all around them. They find that, despite their huge sacrifices for Kenya's independence, it is not they, but "those who stayed in the wings during the struggle [who] step forward to occupy the seats of power." (2) The novel ends with a big question mark about Kenya's political future, while the personal tragedies of Mumbi, Gikonyo, and Karanja are washed clean with forgiveness, and Mugo's record is closed by death.

Petals of Blood (1977) is Ngugi's fourth novel. As Minke Schipper, a researcher of African literature at the University of Leiden, has put it briefly, this book "is, more than A Grain of Wheat, a political novel in which the value of Uhuru is put to the test." (3) There are four major characters in the book: Wanja, Munira, Abdullah, and Karega. Wanja is a prostitute with a rich life experience. Munira, a teacher given to adultery and drinking, suffers from individual and social crises. When seen from the perspective of the Kenyan society, these characters portray the excesses of alcoholism and prostitution, and the cultural and psychological decadence that stems from it. Abdullah, a former freedom fighter who lost a leg in the armed struggle, opens a small shop to earn his living, in the absence of other means to support him. From his anger, pain, and resentment, one sees vividly the difficult fate of the majority of the Kenyan veteran freedom fighters. Karega, the main character of the book, is a 'conscious' member of the working class. He opposes the prevailing impoverishing and exploiting economic system in the country. Keenly aware of the situation, he also teaches the people to fight against their poverty, pointing out that the fraudulent Kenyan neo-colonial forces are at the root of the problem. 

As may be expected, these books by Ngugi were not - could not be - to the liking of the Kenyan authorities initially. Yet, despite how they indirectly tried to frustrate Ngugi’s activities, they did not immediately interfere in the author's life or his work. However, the clampdown was soon to come, when Ngugi went on to write a play in Gikuyu, his native language, Nghaki Ndenda (“I Will Marry When I Want”). The play was written in cooperation with another Kenyan writer name-saked Ngugi wa Mirli, and deals with the Kamitamu, a term which refers to the Kenyans who were collaborators with the British colonial rule and, at least some of whom, held high government posts in post-independence Kenya. Partly because the play is written in a Kenyan language, it attracted large crowds. Apparently, this development further annoyed the Kenyan authorities, who retaliated by first banning the play, and subsequently arresting Ngugi for one year, without trial. In his memoir, Detained: A Writer's Prison Diary (1981), Ngugi has described his detention as a humiliating, inhuman, 'dirty' experience. During his imprisonment, he also wrote his novel Devil on the Cross on pieces of toilet paper, revealing again the gruesome condition of the author's imprisonment, and the Kenyan authorities' mockery of freedom. 

Tonight, I have chosen to speak at length on the predicaments of Arguedas and Ngugi. But it is not that Arguedas and Ngugi are the only writers who have been deprived of their right to write. The list could be, regrettably, extended with many more writers who have met similar fates of victimization. Should there be the necessity to supply more concrete evidence to expand the list of writers who became victims of oppressive political systems because of their literary work, one could mention the cases of the great Indonesian writer, Paramoedya Ananta Toer, who spent a great part of his life in various prison cells; of the distinguished Czech author Vaclav Havel, as well as of Salman Rushdie (though his case is in some ways complicated), amongst others. However, one does not need to go that far looking for such examples. For there are also - and some of you present here know about them far better than I do - the familiar cases of the two Ethiopian writers, Abe Gubenya and Bealu Girma, who suffered similar fates. Bealu Girma lived in Asmara and specifically wrote about Eritrea with far reaching consequences in his novel Oromai; he was killed by the dictatorial regime of Colonel Mengistu Hailemariam.    

Although not amply publicized, the situation of our national writers is also one that exhibits much similarity with the circumstances of the writers discussed above. The Italian colonization of Eritrea that lasted for about fifty years and which, while acting as if local culture and literature did not exist or by simply repressing them, imposed the rhetoric of Roman demagogy and the doctrine of Italian might and superiority made sure that the potential of Eritrean literature was nipped in the bud. The Italian colonial power in particular did all it could to aggravate the production and dissemination of traditional literature (oral poetry, songs, and stories) that was genuinely representative of indigenous life and thought. However the British administration of Eritrea may be considered less intrusive - for the British had allowed the exercise of limited democratic rights, especially during the first two years of their arrival, and poets were able to print in newspapers pieces that opposed and mocked European colonialism - yet they, too, silenced Eritrean writers by taking back the rights they had granted, at the very moment they realized that the freedom they had initially granted could well turn against them. From 1952-1962, when Eritrea was federated with Ethiopia, it proved difficult for Eritrean writers to beat, or work around, the censorship grid that was, from the outset, methodically put in place by Emperor Haile Selassie. And after the country’s formal annexation in 1962, Eritrean writers found themselves in a snare caused by, on the one hand, their desire to get published and, on the other hand, the juxtaposed pressures of censorship and the artificially inflated price of printing paper. One consequence of all this was also that, driven by the eagerness to get their work out, authors were forced to write things they did not necessarily stand for or believe in. This does not mean, of course, that there were no literary works of interest published at the time. To mention a few, such important books from that era include; Aynifelale (Let Us Not Separate, 1967) by Mesghenna Tekeste, Abidu'do Tibliwo? (Madness, 1965) by Beyene Haile; Kihalif’do Emberyu? (Will This Come to an End?, 1966) by Yebio Umer, and the novels and stories by Musa Aron, Yishak Yosief, and Berhe Araya. Still, it is clear that the nascent literary talent that was then transpiring could have surged to produce works of higher quality if writers did not have to contend with the stifling censorship rules by Haile Selassie’s political system. Both the rule of censorship and the resultant tendency in some authors to write  ‘things they did not necessarily stand for or believe in, in order to get published’ continued up to 1974, the year the Dergue regime of Colonel Mengistu Hailemariam seized power in Ethiopia.

During the Dergue era, literary activity in Eritrea was at its low point. It would be no exaggeration to say that, barring one or two exceptions, hardly anything of value was published during the entire period of seventeen years (1974 to mid 1991) of the military regime's control of Eritrea. It is not that those Eritrean writers who stayed in the areas of the country that were controlled by the Dergue - most of them having gone to exile or joined the liberation movement - did not attempt to write or that their literary creativity had waned. A few of them have indeed written and, as exemplified by Tiquabo Aressi’s Nefahito (“Chameleon”) and Yishak Yosief’s Hatsir Hiywet Tarik Isaac Teweldemedhin (“A Short Biography of Isaac Teweldemedhin”), they have done so with seriousness and magnificence.  However, because the all-devouring Dergue regime categorically pursued a policy of never permitting the publication of anything that was not about praising or supporting its actions in Eritrea, these two works excepted, there are no writings from that era that are worth mentioning either for the expression of  Eritrean character or for the manifestation any other literary quality. 

As I was told by the authors of Nefahito and Hatsir Hiywet Tarik Isaac Teweldemedhin, it seems that there was even some kind of extraordinary overlap of events at work in the publication of these two books. Tuquabo Aressi’s Nefahito, which is a translation of Chekov’s play Chameleon, was allowed to be printed because the Dergue censors - in line with the government’s ties with the then Soviet Union - seemed to believe in an interesting but nonetheless hilarious proposition that a translation of a play by a Russian author, no matter who (Can you believe the lack of imagination!) could do no harm to them. Yishak Yosief’s A Short Biography of Isaac Teweldemedhin was able to be printed because prior to its publication it had been presented in the Second Tigrinya Language Symposium organized by the University of Asmara, Institute of African Studies, and had been favorably received and commended by some influential academics working at the Institute at that time. However, as the subsequent attacks on the author Yishak Yosief and his book revealed, the Dergue authorities proved once again that they were determined, in word and deed, to punish any writer who ‘voiced any dissent’ from what was tolerated. Soon after its distribution, the book A Short Biography of Isaac Teweldemedhin was banned and copies were seized by security forces. The author, in addition to his previous incarceration for nineteen months from 1976 to 1978 on the charge of keeping a diary, was locked up for three years and a month in the Mariam Gimbi and Sembel jails without trial. Some of the new charges leveled against him included 1) that there was no literal mention of the word "Ethiopia" anywhere in the said book; 2) that the book’s portrayal was as if Ethiopia did not “contribute” in Eritrea’s development; and 3) that the protagonist of his then forthcoming novel, entitled Dehab Gu’al Asmara (“Dehab, An Asmaran”), was a hidden metaphor for Eritrea.

In concluding my talk, it also seems to me important to raise the question: What does the future hold, after all this? Before I attempt to answer the question however, allow me to first answer the question “Where do we stand today?” so that we will be able to furnish an objective explanation based on concrete facts. As our country prepares to declare its independence, after thirty years of bitter armed struggle, we are today at a decisive moment in history.  It is important to realize that the freedom that is to be declared a few months from now is not the achievement of any one particular group, but rather the fruit of all patriotic Eritreans, who collectively sacrificed and gave their lives, right from the day the movement started. At the moment, like in all other fields of reconstruction activities, there are clear signs in the literary realm that promise the renaissance of Tigrinya literature. For example, Yishak Yosief's book Dehab Gual Asmara, the novel I referred to earlier as having being banned under the Dergue era, will be on the market soon. The novel is about an Eritrean girl who looks into the Dergue's political system from within, with a critical eye. Moreover, there is a flowering of radio programs and stage shows that, whilst providing entertainment, deliver criticism on social and administrative issues. Several novellas written by former freedom fighters during the armed struggle have also been reprinted in Asmara. Poems by Asres Tessema and an edited collection of poetry by freedom fighters have likewise become available to readers. The edited collection, entitled Chants of a Freedom Fighter, is the first anthology of poetry in Eritrean literary history. While the poems reflect the hardship and resilience of the Eritrean struggle, some of them are truly touching and of superb aesthetic quality. Besides what has been mentioned, the Tigrinya newspaper Hadas Eritra and the quarterly magazine Hiwyet are also printing poems, short stories, and literary essays. Furthermore, if the situation is such as it has been explained to me, there is no literary censorship in Eritrea today. 

Yet, as already indicated, all this development about the emerging writings is only a sign of a promising renaissance, and one has to be careful not to be naïve and complacent in believing or thinking that, because there is no censorship at present or because the government is encouraging literature at present, our literature will henceforth blossom.  Particularly, the writers will have to be alert against becoming victims of a paralyzing “self-censorship” that expresses itself in thoughts such as, “we should not offend our government,” or “maybe our government will not like this,” or “if I write this, people will think this.”  One may ask the question “Why?” The answer - as research conducted about the history of authors and literatures of other countries over and again attest—is because, once self-censorship becomes a norm in any country, it will certainly mutate itself gradually into government censorship. In other words, where there is a reign of self-censorship, government censorship will be there, inevitably. 

Having used the time and opportunity that has been given to me to share my views with you tonight, I now come to the end of my talk. Before leaving the stage, however, I would like to say the following. 

Eritrean literature, like the Eritrean people, has been subjected to colonial rule for a century. It is now the time for Eritrean literature, just as the people of Eritrea, to develop, grow, and flourish. This is also the time Eritrean literature should be able to freely express on its pages the gamut of human emotions and expressions: laughter and wailing, lament and consolation, complaint and reconciliation, singing and screaming, adulation and litigation, and—if need be— sneering and cheering. The question is "Will this be possible?" The answer to this question is directly connected to the question of what kind of constitution and political system will be established in Eritrea, after the formal declaration of its independence. And yet, regardless of the kind of government that will come, it is important to remember that the writers will always need to continuously fight to secure their literary freedom.  For, as Albert Camus warns us, and, as we saw from the experiences of Arguedas, Ngugi, Toer, and others, especially in Third World countries, the relationship between the writer and political power is ultimately bound to be that of the 'martyr and the lion'. (4)



(1) Gerald Moore. Twelve African Writers (London: Hutchinson & Co. Publishers, 1980), 265.

(2) Gerald Moore. Twelve African Writers (London: Hutchinson & Co. Publishers, 1980), 273

(3) Mineke Schipper, Afrikaanse Letterkunde (Utrecht: Het Spectrum, 1983), 250.

(4) The foundational research work for this piece is found in my M.A. thesis, “Literature and Politics in Ethiopia: The Case of Alwelledim and Oromai “(Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Department of Literary Theory, 1992). A chapter from the thesis has been published in Silence is not Golden: A Critical Anthology of Ethiopian Literature, eds. Tadesse Adera and Ali Jemale Ahmed (Lawrenceville, NJ: The Red Sea Press, 1995), 135-154. I also want to mention with regards to this translation that the Tigrinya original did not contain annotations, as the piece was conceived for oral delivery, rather than for publication. I have added the endnotes here to indicate the textual references for the longer quotations cited in the comparative section of the essay, wherever necessary. The section that pertains to Eritrean literature is based on my interviews with some Eritreans and documents that were available to me during my short visit to Eritrea in 1992. For further account about that visit see my History of Tigrinya Literature, 2nd edition (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2010), xii-xiv.