Journalist Aida Edemariam on her 20-year quest to share her grandmother's story

The author of the biography The Wife’s Tale reflects on the lives of many women through the life of her grandmother.
Aida Edemariam is a senior feature writer and editor for the Guardian. (Penguin Random House Canada/David Levene)
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Aida Edemariam's grandmother lived through a century of tumultuous Ethiopian history. As the world around her changed beyond recognition, she also experienced tremendous personal change. In telling the story of her grandmother's life, Edemariam also tells the story of the Ethiopian nation. The memoir is called The Wife's Tale

Looking back

"The Wife's Tale is a biography of my grandmother. She was married early to a priest that was many years her senior. She had her first baby in her mid-teens and had 10 pregnancies by the time she was in her mid-30s — this was not unusual in the daily, largely unrecorded life of millions of Ethiopian women and of women all over the world. She witnessed the country change into something very different and that's what I've tried to capture."

Standing back

"I started taping my grandmother 20 years ago. I think I did it partly because I loved listening to the stories, which were so different to my experience growing up. She was a great storyteller — a charismatic and emotionally mercurial person. She also had a command of language; partly because it is an oral culture that prized how you tell a story. She talked about her childhood and other vivid episodes. What I had to do later was try to get the narrative together. If you were going to write about it, you had to be able to work out how to stand outside without looking like you're standing outside. I had to try to give the reader enough of a sense of place without getting in the way and describing what that place is."

Aida Edemariam's comments have been edited and condensed.