An Evening of Poetry from the Horn of Africa

In conjunction with The Center for Place, Culture and Politics, Warscapes magazine presents

An Evening of Poetry from the Horn of Africa

Tues, March 6, 2012 7:00 pm at Alwan for the Arts (Tickets: $5, free for students, seniors, and Alwan members)

Non-stop civil war in Somalia. The continuing madness of war talk between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Sudan split in two. Similarly regular warnings of famine. An ominously expanding United States military presence. Is it all just one big “collision of altars” and their gods, as Ethiopian poet Tsegaye Gabre-Medhin once asserted? Can we only see the faces and hear the voices of the Horn through the barrel of a gun? 

Eritrean author Zemhret Yohannes claims otherwise! “These poets write a lot about the field and about war. And yet war isn’t only about fighting. And it’s not all about death. That’s too restrictive. They write about friendship and the perennial issues of love and life. War has that, too.” Somali poet Ali Jimale Ahmed explains, "And while in the Horn of Africa catastrophes may abound, the calamity that besets this region can equally be explained through its antiphony: the perseverance and cosmic, albeit cautious, optimism of its people. A horn, after all, is also a way of making music." 

Featuring poets Ali Jimale Ahmed, Solomon Deressa, Charles Cantalupo and Surafel Wondimu. The event will be hosted by Maaza Mengiste, author of the critically acclaimed novel, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze. 

Ali Jimale Ahmed (PhD, UCLA) is Professor and Chair of Comparative Literature at Queens College, where he also teaches for the Africana Studies Program and the Department of Classical, Middle Eastern, and Asian Languages and Cultures; he is also on the Comparative Literature faculty at the CUNY Graduate center. Author of several books, including The Invention of Somalia (1995) and Daybreak Is near: Literature, Clans, and the Nation-State in Somalia (1996), Ahmed's poetry and short stories have been translated into several languages. His most recent publications include Fear Is a Cow (2002), Diaspora Blues (2005), and The Road Less Traveled: Reflections on the Literatures of the Horn of Africa (2008, co-edited with the late Taddesse Adera). A former Editor-in-Chief of the UCLA journal Ufahamu, Ahmed has, in a past life, been a journalist (both print and radio) in Somalia, where he had a weekly radio program, Qoraalka iyo Qoraaga (Writing and Writers), and was for several years, a contributing editor for Heegan (Vigilance), the only English weekly in Somalia at the time. He also dabbled in that other witchcraft called “politics.” In the early 1980s, he chaired a panel of writers that was asked to write the biography of the late Somali President Mohamed Siad Barre. The finished manuscript was, for various reasons, never published. Ahmed has for several years now been at work on a book tentatively titled “Reflections on a Hagiography.” His latest book, When Donkeys Give Birth to Calves: Totems, Wars, Horizons, Diasporas is slated to appear in March 2012. An excerpt from this forthcoming book was published here on Warscapes

Solomon Deressa was born in the highlands of Western Ethiopia (Wollagga) during the Italo-Ethiopian war that covered the years 1935—1941. He missed being born in the then muddy little village that was Addis Ababa by 1.4142… years and was born in the much littler hamlet of the more magical name of Chutta. Addis Ababa means New Flower. Good luck. Solomon claims, “Since plastic flowers were, alas! not yet available, and Monet’s Water Lilies were not yet painted, and if they had been, were not yet known to Abyssinians, the name of the Ethiopian capital, owed and still owes, its double-barreled ostentation more to arrogance than to the almost non-existent Ethiopian’s predilection for euphony or proclivity for descriptive accuracy.” Solomon says that the fore-going statement applies only to Ethiopian poetry. As proof of the accuracy of his claim, he challenges you to pick up the CD Gigi and listen. If you understand Amharic, Gigi will blow your mind. Solomon is a contentious 75 years old who stays out of trouble by keeping humans and territorial dogs at a distance. He has a hard time taking the poems he writes seriously. Anyway, his secret ambition was to participate in the creation of an Ethiopian media (at the time radio and television) that would be worthy of any worthy nation that speaks dozens of language not to write poems. He took refuge in America when he realized that his Marxist age-mates and the military could not be trusted farther than he could then toss a shot-put. 38 years later, he still feels certain that he made the right decision. There is a river that flows into a large body of seeming water that esoteric geographers call Anguish. Solomon thinks that the little boat, the land of his birth, aka Ethiopia/Eritrea, has been and still is blithely riding the high waves to Anguish. He does not like reading poetry; he enjoys being read to because it tends to douse anguish.

Charles Cantalupo is Distinguished Professor of English, Comparative Literature, and African Studies at Penn State University. His latest book is a memoir, Joining Africa – From Anthills to Asmara, (Michigan State University Press, 2012). His translations include three book of Eritrean poetry, We Have Our Voice: Selected Poetry of Reesom Haile (Red Sea Press, 2000), which is also available on CD (, We Invented the Wheel (Red Sea Press, 2002), and Who Needs a Story? – Contemporary Eritrean Poetry in Tigrinya, Tigre and Arabic (Hdri Publishers, 2006). A monograph, War and Peace in Contemporary Eritrean Poetry (Mkuki na Nyota, 2009) is based on the poetry in Who Needs a Story?  With major grants from the Ford and Rockefeller foundations, the World Bank, and the Norwegian Agency for Development, Cantalupo co-chaired Against All Odds: African Languages and Literatures into the 21st Century, a seven-day conference and festival devoted to the presentation and critical discussion of the languages and literatures of all of Africa, held in Asmara, Eritrea, in January 2000. He is the writer and director of the documentary Against All Odds (African Books Collective, 2007). He is also a co-author of the historic “Asmara Declaration on African Languages and Literatures."

Surafel Wondimu was born in 1974 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He obtained a degree in English Literature from Addis Ababa University in 2006 and got an MA in contemporary cultural studies at the Institute of Ethiopian Studies at AAU in 2010. Currently, he serves at the Faculty of Humanities of AAU as a lecturer and assistant dean. He also owns a private media organization called Aesop Communication and runs a 19-hour radio program on FM 97.1 Monday through Saturday. The scholarly work that he pursued in the fields of literature, performing arts and cultural studies is organically linked with his career as a playwright, poet, actor, director, and literary critic for the last fifteen years or so. In his academic and artistic endeavors, Surafel grapples with questions that stem from the very locale that he lives in and relates it to his daily life experience in this constantly mutating world. His central question is ‘what it means to be human?’ for a ‘citizen’ of this divided world, an African, and Ethiopian. In his scholarly, theatrical and media practices at Addis Ababa University, Ethiopian National Theater and Ethiopian Radio and Television Agency, he has strived to work through questions of power and subjectivity as reflected in Ethiopian cultural and literary productions.

Surafel Wondimu’s poetry will be read by Anna Moschovakis who is the author of two books of poetry, You and Three Others Are Approaching a Lake and I Have Not Been Able to Get Through to Everyone, and the translator of several novels from the French, most recently The Jokers by Albert Cossery. She is a longtime member of the Brooklyn-based publishing collective Ugly Duckling Presse.

Maaza Mengiste was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and lived in Nigeria and Kenya before settling in the United States. Her debut novel, the critically acclaimed Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, has been translated into several languages and appeared on several “Best of 2010” lists, including Publishers Weekly, Christian Science Monitor and Barnes and Noble. She is a Fulbright Scholar as well as the Runner-up for the 2011 Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and a finalist for a Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize, an NAACP Image Award, and an Indies Choice Book of the Year Award in Adult Debut. Among other places, her work has appeared in The New York Times, Granta, Callaloo Journal, The Granta Anthology of the African Short Story, Lettre Internationale, and can soon be heard on BBC Radio 4. She has received fellowships from the Emily Harvey Foundation, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Prague Summer Program, and Yaddo. She currently lives in New York City.

Co-sponsored by the Africa World Press/Red Sea Press