Penn State professor helps bring Eritrean poetry to global attention

Schuylkill Haven, Pa. -- Endless debates over borders. Rocky road to democracy after decades of war. A deep desire for a normal pace of life, without political tensions.

These feelings are not exclusive to Americans apprehensive over the direction of the current Iraq war and war against terrorism. In fact, powerful images and words reflecting similar feelings make up the first anthology of contemporary poetry ever published from Eritrea, an East African nation which is relatively young politically but stems from one of the oldest civilizations.

Penn State professor Charles Cantalupo and Ghirmai Negash, professor at the University of Asmara, have selected and translated 36 poems into English from three major languages in Eritrea: Tigrinya, Tigre and Arabic. The volume, "Who Needs a Story?" includes work by 22 contemporary writers, scholars, activists, actors, teachers and others -- most of whom fought in the Eritrean war for independence.

"The poets are addressing perennial issues in the Eritrean psyche: the constant presence of war and dispute, first the 30-year war for independence, from 1961 to 1991, and then the 2-year border war, from 1998-2000. Even today, Eritrea and Ethiopia are still wrangling over the border agreement," says Cantalupo, professor of English, comparative literature and African studies at Penn State's Schuylkill Campus in northeastern Pennsylvania.

"Plus, the writers discuss the equally difficult problems and compromises facing a relatively young nation in developing the economy, jobs and an efficient government," he adds.


Excerpt from "Freedom's Colors," by Angesom Isaak
(original in Tigrinya)

Whether my vision has changed
Or if I have become smarter --
Again, I don't know, but I don't see
Freedom in one color only,
As I roll my eyes like a chameleon,
Becoming whatever color I see
To survive.
I experience freedom
As more than one color.
I understand freedom
As more colors than none --
More than I have ever seen,
More than I have ever heard,
And more than I can explain.


Eritrea historically is an ancient country with a tradition of writing going back at least 4,000 years. Located in the horn of Africa on the Red Sea, half Christian and half Muslim, the former Italian colony has nine nationalities, each with its own language.

"Poetry in all African cultures has deep roots in their histories, and this book is the result of a multi-year effort to bring these poets to a global audience," Cantalupo said. "Languages and literature empower people emotionally and spiritually, as well as politically, as seen by the Eastern European poets in the 1970s and the South American poets in the 1960s. "

With support from Penn State, Cantalupo organized a festival including Eritrean writers and poets several years ago and then began working with Negash on selecting poems for a book and working on the translations.

"We have tried to create translations that adhere to the original meanings and emotions while attempting a broader cultural translation," Cantalupo says. "Individual languages, poets and poems have never existed solely unto themselves, but are like bridges across continents and currents moving through oceans."


Excerpt from "Singing Our Way to Victory" by Mohammed Osman Kajerai
(original in Arabic)

Even after I die,
My blood and my fire
Will always glow,
Consuming and drowning
Any invader who tries
To waste our fertile land.
Crouching in its heart
With dawn beside me
And joining the centuries
Of singing our way to victory


In the book, the young poets who have experienced enough nationalism want to embrace their individuality. Their work expresses independence on a personal level, says the Penn State researcher.


Excerpt from "Help Us Agree," by Fortuna Ghebreghiorgis
(original in Tigrinya)

When will my shadow
And I agree?

We live in a tug of war.
Normal slips into weird.
Back or stomach,
Traveler or road,
Field or river --

We're never separate,
But we have opposing views,
And fight like gun and knife
Until neither wins
And I can't get any rest


The book is the first by an Eritrean publisher, Hdri Publishers, and an American distributor, Small Press Distribution of Berkeley, Calif., with an International Standard Book Number, used by publishers and booksellers. This will allow the book to be purchased by schools, libraries and stores worldwide.

June 22 is Martyrs Day for Eritreans, similar to Memorial Day in the United States, reflecting on the near constant state of war characterizing Eritrea's recent history.

"It's important for African countries to produce their own literature and sell it at affordable prices to their own people," Cantalupo said. "Through translation, English can be a key to facilitating global conversations by enabling rather than disabling communication between and among languages. Translations from Latin and Greek and into European vernacular languages were a primary force that brought about the European Renaissance or the early modern period. Translation into and from African languages can be the fuel for an African renaissance.

"Negash and I have tried to represent the healthy diversity of voices of which contemporary Eritrean poetry consists, ranging from pre-independence period, mainstream poetry of resistance to post-independence -- more innovative and critical work by younger fighters and poets of Eritrea," he added.

Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

Last Updated November 18, 2010