Alemayehu Gelagay’s books are known for highlighting the least visible members of society: the poor, the elderly, criminals; lifestyles he himself witnessed growing up. Now, with the release of his book “Meleyayet Mot New,” Alemayehu is turning his attention to the national level, encouraging people to look to what unites them, instead of what divides. EBR’s Ashenafi Endale sat down with the author to discuss his views on art, life, and unity.
Inside an old house in Kazanchis, located in Kirkos District, everything from the latest Amharic novels to works by the world’s great writers and philosophers are neatly ordered on shelves. Outside the door of the small house, just steps from the main road, residents chat loudly. In the midst of the noise, Alemayehu Gelagay, a renowned novelist, writes silently on a single table in a room.
Even after his eleventh book, Meleyayet Mot New (literally translated as ‘separation is death’), which has been reprinted four times in the last two months, nothing has changed. Alemayehu’s lifestyle echoes that of the late Sebhat Gebre-Egziabher, a renowned writer who led a simple life. In fact, Sebhat was like a mentor to Alemayehu.
“He gave me the basic ingredients needed to become a writer,” Alemayehu tells EBR. “When I was young, I tried to gain as much wisdom from the old writers but they were hardly available, except for him.”
Before turning to writing, Alemayahu was a journalist working in print media. “When I was journalist, I read artistic books more than professional books. If your dream is to be a writer, journalism tricks you. You think you are writing but you are not really. I was lucky to switch to literature when I did,” he explains.
In just ten years, he published 11 books. Alemayehu’s first work, which was a biography of Sebhat, gained popular acceptance and was reprinted nine years after its first publication in 2007. Most of Alemayehu’s books deal with unjust governance and deteriorating social values. Almost all of his books are centered on how such deterioration makes people see deprivation as normal.
Born in 1967 in a place known as Basha Wolde, a densely populated slum area located at the back of Arat Kilo in Arada District, Alemayehu’s work mirrors this influence.“In my area, everybody lives the same difficult life. My work reflects this reality.”
One of his masterpiece novels, Werrisa, which portrays the lives of children, teenagers and elders who live arduous lives, is an example. “Alemayehu looks at the more powerful characters in this book through the eyes of those who live an ‘inferior’ life, the looters and thieves,” explains Yetagesu Getinet, who is presently undertaking his PhD study and did his master’s thesis on Werrisa. “This technique is known as parody in literature, which is slightly different from satire. It seems like caricature but it is founded on solid ground.”
Yetagesu, who is also an author of Tikur Netib, Dej Yadere Lib and Yedemena Menged says people are somewhat confused by the techniques Alemayehu used while writing Werrisa. “Only the late Abe Gubegna tried it before. Parody is a technique chosen to portray big and complex ideas from a different angle. In Werrisa, people read the whole history of Ethiopia, all the big rulers in the past, religion and other major issues, from the perspective of looters and thieves. It uses parody techniques successfully, which is difficult for most writers.”
“He is a voice for the marginalized. He shares his heart only with the marginalised; thieves and prostitutes,” says Yetagesu. “There are no wealthy people in Alemayehu’s books. He looks at the soul, not the external happiness. He also uses the language of the current generation. He has really created his own distinguished style of writing.”
Although Alemayehu had already established a respected reputation in modern literature, especially after Werrisa and Be Fikir Sim were published in 2014 and 2015, respectively, his latest book Meleyayet Mot New has the values his characters praise the most: love, unity and justice. This book is his most intimate, baring his personal reflections on the current political situation of the country.
The author believes that it is difficult to keep all of the old Ethiopian values. “Had the politics not been orchestrated along ethnic lines, all Ethiopians could have lived united, but this is not the case at the moment. I have the responsibility to nurture the love and affection Ethiopia used to share. It was clear from the beginning that we would end up at this point. I almost gave up on ‘Ethiopianism’. But I see that still there is a population that is willing to unite, if the leadership would encourage it.”
Alemayehu is among the few writers who distinctly touches and reflects the current generation. “You have to go in line with the choice of the current generation, which has no time to read long books. Nor they can afford to read on the Internet for a long period time. So the paragraphs must be as brief as possible. That way, people can read while waiting for taxis, and finish it in a few days.”
Many people argue that the golden age of books, especially longer novels, ended after the advent of the Internet and social media, but Alemayehu believes the opposite. “If we can use it effectively, social media is a great tool for writers to reach large audiences. There are good writers contributing short, brief, and fitting works on Facebook. The way they captures the attention of the youth is amazing.”
It is not only social media that can reach readers, but traditional media as well. For Alemayehu, media and literature have the capacity to bring politics and society to new ideas and keep them on the right track. One of those media is film.
According to Alemayehu, a number of movie makers are now trying to make Yebirhan Feleg, Atbiya and Werrisa into films. Additionally, he is working on a trilogy. The first of the series, Be Fikir Sim, has already been published. Be Ewnet Sim and Be Emnet Sim will be published next year.
His success, however, has not been without challenges. “Art cannot be done part time, but there is no income. So you must sacrifice some of your needs and live on small expenses. I can keep living, if I am less extravagant,” he says.
Unlike his previous books, Meleyayet Mot New was self-published. Alemayehu asserts that the printing industry is controlled by very few publishers, although there are over 400 printing companies registered by the government. “Giving your work to publishers is not a good option in Ethiopia. We repeatedly witness unjust price increases,” he says, citing his experience with Meleyayet Mot New. The book had an initial price tag of ETB21. But within a month, the printing company increased the price to ETB30. “No other industry is as unregulated as publishing,” he remarks.“There is no competition, so they increase prices however they want. The government has never tried to regulate it. “
6th Year . March 16 – April 15 2018 . No.59