Ayele Kebede Roba: In Defence of the Liminal Voices-Literary Minority as a Form of Resistance
Arguably, because of the colonial model of state formation that the Ethiopian rulers adopted in the second half of the 19th century, imposing Amharic as the only language of administration and (limited) public education, more than eighty languages in the country have been unable to establish the literary tradition of their own up to recent times. Rather these languages have been subjected to an unnecessary disparagement. For example, the British historian Edward Ullendorff infamously wrote that only two Semitic languages, Ge’ez and Amharic, were “the virtually exclusive carriers of Ethiopian civilization, literature and intellectual prestige” (1960, p. 116). In mainstream Ethiopian literary studies, the marginalization of literary traditions and practices of Ethiopian languages other than Amharic continues to date. This has created a centre-periphery duality in Ethiopian literary studies in which literature in Amharic is considered “national” whereas those in other languages are “local”. Several non-Amharic speakers have written in Amharic: some have embraced the language and followed the principle of monolingual paradigm, but a few writers have used it to subvert the narrative of domination that manifests itself through linguistic homogenization and literary monologism. Arguably, the literary works by the latter group form a kind of “minor literature”. This paper mainly focuses on the Amharic historical novel, Yeburqa Zimita (2000), written by Tesfaye Gebreab and other important issues related to the literary minority in the Ethiopian context. The paper seeks to answer the following questions: What does literary minority / smallness mean in the Ethiopia context? Is literary minority a historically given phenomenon, and is it usually meant to be overcome? Or is it a desirable literary practice? What strategies does Yeburqa Zimita employ to minorize the dominant language so as to help us think beyond the centre-periphery / major-minor dichotomies that characterize current mainstream Ethiopian literary studies? How is literary minority used as a form of resistance against the narrative of domination that is reflected through linguistic homogenization and literary monologism? To address these questions, I draw on the approach of “multilingual locals” of Francesca Orsini along with Mikhail Bakhtini’s notions of “dialogism” and “heteroglossia.”
Ayele Kebede Roba is currently a PhD candidate at the Centre for Cultural, Literary and Postcolonial Studies at SOAS, University of London, UK. He has a BA from Ambo University and an MA from Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia. His doctoral thesis, provisionally titled “Voices in/from the margins: Resistance and marginalization in novels in Oromo and Amharic (Ethiopia)”, is one of the first comprehensive comparisons between Ethiopian novels in Oromo and in Amharic. Prior to joining SOAS, Ayele worked for six years as a Lecturer in English Language and Literature at the University of Bule Hora, Ethiopia. At Bule Hora, he was the recipient of a number of research grants to study the oral literature, sociolinguistics, and cultural traditions of the Guji Oromo in Southern Ethiopia. His PhD is funded by the European Research Council within the project “Multilingual Local and Significant Geographies” (MULOSIGE) led by Professor Francesca Orsini. Ayele contributes to the MULOSIGE website, where he published a short story in Oromo as well as a report of his fieldwork experience in Ethiopia. For MULOSIGE, he is also co-organising an international conference to be held in Ethiopia in December 2019.