Books·How I Wrote It

How Aida Edemariam turned her grandmother's stories into a biography about 97 years in Ethiopia

The journalist chronicles the story of her grandmother's life in Ethiopia in The Wife's Tale.
Aida Edemariam is a senior feature writer and editor for the Guardian. (David Levene, Knopf Canada)

In The Wife's TaleAida Edemariam records her grandmother Yetemegnu's long and storied life in Ethiopia. Yetemegnu was born in Gondar, married to an ambitious man before the age of 10 and grew into a spiritual and resilient woman. Over the stretch of her 97 years, Yetemegnu raised a family through violent fascist regimes, civil war and revolution.

Edemariam, who studied at the University of Toronto, is now a journalist with the Guardian. Below, she shares the process of writing The Wife's Tale.

The Wife's Tale is a finalist for the Governor General's Literary Award for nonfiction.

Stories over coffee

"I loved listening to my grandmother's stories. They have a vividness and verve. It wasn't even necessarily about what she said, although that was often very interesting. Because she comes from an oral culture, the idea of telling a story well is a very high priority. Listening to the way the language [Amharic] worked, I wondered if I could somehow do that in English.

"Sometimes I just left my tape recorder on just to see. I was much more focused when I actually started writing the book but before that I'd just turn it on. The first stuff I got on tape I actually did in Newfoundland. She came to Canada for some medical treatment and stayed with my parents and I came home and I saw her there. The first bit of recorded stuff I got was from 1997 while drinking coffee."

Two voices in one book

"I did a lot of transcribing and then I started writing it. I wrote it through in my own words and then went back to check stuff. I [realized] that if I did [a direct translation], the stories were much more interesting than what I was saying. Then I thought, 'I'm going to be as literal as I possibly can.' I'd look up words very specifically in the dictionary and try and find as accurate a translation as I could. I think if I were writing something completely in my own voice, you'd end up with a very different piece. But there are two voices simultaneously in this book."

Recreating journeys in Ethiopia

"I [travelled by horseback] to a hamlet just outside of Gondar. [My grandmother's] husband was the vicar of that church as well as the main church in Gondar... Some of the tithes from that land came to them, so they went quite often. You can see it from Gondar. It's down a valley, then you can go into a river valley and up. There's lots of farmland in the river valley, but it's quite steep like loads of places in Ethiopia because there's a lot of very high mountains and then this plateau has often been runelled by the rivers. Once you get up there, it's this extraordinary flat-topped area where you could see through to the horizon. It was amazing. It was very vivid. I folded in what I saw in terms of the flora and fauna and the way that the ground feels and looks and smells."

Aida Edemariam's comments have been edited and condensed.


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