Why Rebecca Fisseha wrote about family secrets, trauma and reckoning in her debut novel

The Ontario-based writer of Ethiopian descent spoke with CBC Books about writing Daughters of Silence.
The book cover of a side silhouette in front of a blue background and the author photo a Black woman with short curly dark hair smiling towards the camera
Rebecca Fisseha is the author of Daughters of Silence. (Goose Lane Editions, Chris Frampton)

Rebecca Fisseha is an Ethiopian-born and Toronto-based writer. Fisseha's writing often explores her own heritage and the African diaspora.

Her debut novel, Daughters of Silence, is about Dessie, a Canadian flight attendant of Ethiopian descent. During a transcontinental flight, a volcanic eruption strands Dessie in Addis Ababa, the place where she was born. She takes the opportunity to visit the home of her grandfather and uncovers buried truths about her recently deceased mother.

Fisseha spoke with CBC Books about how she wrote Daughters of Silence.

The permanence of death

"Daughters of Silence was inspired by my late mother being buried abroad and how that made me uncomfortable. I questioned how that decision was made. Considering this is the first experience among my family, as we had never lived outside of Ethiopia before, it had always been my assumption that we would eventually return back there.

"The novel was inspired by the permanence of this situation. I think funerals bring out either the best or the worst in us. I know many families who get into a huge quarrel and then end up not speaking to each other. They dig up a lot of buried resentments, hurts and secrets.

I realized that I wanted to explore the many silences in my family experience, with regards to death and burial practices.- Rebecca Fisseha

"It gave me a lot to ponder and try to work out through writing. My novel fictionalizes aspects of my situation of course. This is a 'What if?' narrative."

The sound of silence

"When I started writing this book I didn't foresee how it would evolve. Initially, it was about a family that was grieving over a family member's death and in the midst of a bicoastal quarrel over where the person should have been buried. I worked with that for a long time. Once I started working a couple of writing mentors and getting feedback, I realized that this story needed more complications and density. 

"Over the next few years, I dug deeper into what subjects moved me, particularly about diasporic life and culture. It was a process of figuring out what the book was really about. I realized that I wanted to explore the many silences in my family experience, with regards to death and burial practices. I had a lot of questions.

"My mentor also detected a lot of silences in the manuscript, which forced me to look at myself and my culture: What I am silent and vocal about? What is my culture silent and vocal about? Exploring these ideas helped make my manuscript more nuanced and complex." 

The processed self

"Daughters of Silence is the story of Dessie, the main character in the book. It's inspired by my own journey but this is entirely her own. I wanted to write about a character learning how to gain back her voice and agency. It's about being a survivor — breaking through the silence and unprocessed feelings. 

I wanted to write about a character learning how to gain back her own voice and agency.- Rebecca Fisseha

"As I grew as a person after my mother's death, I was able to gain perspective on the person that I was back then. That look at my 'unprocessed' self gave me the raw material and building blocks for Dessie. That idea interested me — how does a person ultimately face up to their own demons?

"In the book, I was able to bring Dessie to the point of just starting to make a turn toward getting better."

Rebecca Fisseha's comments have been edited by length and clarity.