The Wife’s Tale

The Walrus - - WALRUS READS - by aida ede­mariam

the past has too of­ten been tied to the so-called great men of his­tory. In The Wife’s Tale, Aida Ede­mariam binds Ethiopia’s tu­mul­tuous twentieth cen­tury not to fa­mous em­peror Haile Se­lassie but to her own grand­mother, Yètèmegn Mèkon­nèn. Yètèmegn’s story be­ings in 1916 and sees her mar­ried, at eight, to alo­cal priest. Ethiopia, ruled by royal fam­ily and the church, soon goes through a process of “mod­ern­iza­tion” af­ter the in­va­sion by fas­cist Italy. In Yètèmegn’s city, these for­eign­ers build a cin­ema, ho­tels, and new roads — but solely for the ben­e­fit of the Ital­ians: “Be­low that, where the city con­tin­ues into the Satur­day mar­ket and the bluffs over­look­ing the Qeha, ev­ery­thing was still bare earth. Elec­tric­ity stopped there too, and piped wa­ter,” Ede­mariam writes. The Ital­ians are even­tu­ally forced out, but a few decades later, a van­guard of Marx­ists, bear­ing guns and the slo­gan “Ety­opya tiqdèm. Ethiopia First,” take over.

The book, grounded in Yètèmegn’s decades as ma­tri­arch to a grow­ing fam­ily, doesn’t fo­cus on the lead­ers ush­er­ing in these up­heavals but rather on the peo­ple forced to live through them. With a keen at­ten­tion to the senses — the smell of mint in a gar­den, the pings of rain off a metal roof — Ede­mariam laces to­gether the his­tory of woman and coun­try in such a way as to make one in­dis­pens­able to the other.

— Daniel Vi­ola

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