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Ahead of the publication of her new book in the UK, this most anticipated, award-winning American Ethiopian immigrant writer, examines various meanings of ‘home’ across 15 short stories. It is a destination, an emotion, a location and more. Hadero considers what it means to be lost and displaced, with human currency and agency ignored and if one was to draw a mind map, I’d say this is the exact collection of stories you’d get. Shuffling the order in which the stories were read to produce an honest review, I wonder if reading them in order would have made a difference.
Appearing in the US at a time where there is a war in the Ukraine, generating thousands of refugees elsewhere in the world, history is being replayed. There is a cost of living crisis in the UK in which everything is stretched leaving bare shelves and empty cupboards – even food banks are struggling to provide and charity shops are unable to fill the void. Difficult Times.
Hadero presents this difficult time in her own unique writing voice, interwoven through personal memoir, a tale told or heard, a story fictionalised or re-imagined. It is all based on truth, experience, reality and history. 100% heartfelt throughout.
Ethiopia is steeped in its own relevant history, but the underlying themes are often global, whether suffering has been on a local scale, national, regional, across one border or across several. Meron Hadero made her way to America from Addis Ababa via Germany so unsurprisingly there are references in her accounts, narrated in the first or third person. She has experimented creatively with form with some of these stories which has made the reading of them all the more curious. In “The Case Of The Missing,” thick bold black blocks of missing text disturb and shock. One can imagine the words that are designated for these gaps and indeed, there are so many blocks on the page, instantly drawing the eye to them, that the poignancy of the message is often highlighted. The story is written in letter form, and is deeply political about race and the fight for justice. It appears written with rage.
Within the book comes a new kind of vocabulary for today’s times; “racial awakenings,” “huddled masses,” “orient us.” As a refugee trying to find her place, Hedro has produced a collection of ‘firsts’: first breaths and steps on new soil, first meals, first roofs over heads, first sleeps, first conversations, foods, and journeys. She gives us first purchases, first interactions, first thoughts and emotions, not to mention first actions, reactions and freedoms (whether at point of departure or point of arrival). I am left asking whether the US is viewed with a different set of eyes as an immigrant, anyway.
Hadero’s writing is so integral to life as a refugee, as an immigrant or a settler (whether first or second generation), that it is easy to pick up on common themes and poignant quotes that accurately fit the messages contained within her down-to-earth telling. Literally, within the 210 pages of the book, there is something to be taken away from every page. The concluding part of “The Elders” gives us this message – albeit in summary – for moving forward: “Be kinder than before, to bury the fear. Be stronger and more resilient, to bury the anger. Be giving, to bury this injustice.”
Some events crop up more than once throughout the book, so there are links to be found in the lives of the characters, who are full and rounded never two dimensional or flat. The stories that particularly spring to mind here are “Street Sweep” and “A Down Home Meal For These Difficult Time” and “The Suitcase”which is the story of a family vying for space so as not to offend. This particular story makes use of the vernacular and fabulous metaphors to evoke unease and discomfort, imposter syndrome and lateral thinking. The book includes analogies and imagery throughout.
What struck me is not only the bravery with which these difficult times have been exposed to someone who is perhaps unfamiliar with Ethiopian history, but the insight it provides into non-Ethiopians, non-Americans or non-immigrants. The cleverly chosen words and titles have multiple meanings when you’re not even looking for them. Looking at “Street Sweep” for example, sweep as a noun has two meanings in itself and is also a verb making any number of interpretations possible.
The leading story itself immediately raises thoughts of ‘chicken soup for the soul’, like a cup of tea and a biscuit, or tea and toast, or pizza. It depicts something comforting that soothes the difficult time of border crossings, something that breaks down barriers. It addresses what it is to lose one’s identity to claim another, questioning whether it is worth surviving so much hardship to find your place and acceptance in the world. It examines how slowly, step by step, communities are born and shaped, providing refuge and support, understanding and help.
In this story, you can actually smell and taste the food and feel happy for its recipients. Hadero makes excellent use of the senses. This is how she makes us feel as readers – it is difficult not to be drawn in which surely is the sign of good writing. She also makes excellent use of place and location. In the prize-winning “Street Sweep” one gets a clear sense of the home, of the relationship between mother and son and the importance of family, just as in “The Suitcase,” where the main character is a visitor back home.
Memoirist Rebecca Solnit, in her Recollections of My Non-Existence, says thatyou “write from who you are and what you care about and what true voice is yours” and refers to a “self who will speak, of settling on what values and interests and priorities will shape your path and persona.” Hadero has done just that, focusing on immigration, alerting us to the experiences of herself and fellow Ethiopians in finding a new home in America, and justifiably winning several prizes for doing so. Simply put, she was meant to write this book. Rounding out the characters, she gives them a location and place, giving them soul. Things happen within major events, yet the author has them think and react, all founded on the history of Ethiopia and its escapes, notably referencing “The Derg.”
There are tales of sadness, fighting spirit, loss, goal-achieving, waves of happiness and success, stories that go down different paths. Hadero has truly shaped these paths, the way Solnit suggests. New voices that haven’t been heard before are made heard, places not visited are explored. New people are met along the way, who appear throughout the 210 pages and as a reflection of Hadero herself, any conflicts are well examined.
The thread that runs through these stories like beads on a necklace is the idea of living on the edge, of being close to the edge, close to home – without excluding borders, boundaries and walls. Indeed in “The Wall,” a multitude of meanings evolve and at times little is left to the imagination: “no matter which side you’re on, its shadow is cast on you,” for example, and “as my English improved, other barriers came down too,” offers hope and a sense of trust.
“The Life and Times of the Little Manuscript and Anonymous,” is a wonderful, cleverly constructed meta treatment of creative writing and journalism, proving that this book was written for sharing and passing round. One finds much comfort within its pages, certainly as an immigrant or as second generation. It will resonate with many.
The judges of Hadero’s winning submissions consider these stories to be portraits. It makes me question nevertheless what has been missed, what has been written out (for the protection of others for example) and not included? What details of history and key events, of heritage and provenance, have been elided to make these stories the way they are? Different people, different generations perhaps will see these stories differently as accurate or inaccurate or not enough or indeed too much, but they will recognise and relate, eager to give their version. Hadero must have embarked on a huge selective process, for the stories and book could have ended up much longer, despite the stories’ varying lengths. There are the longer stories that could be more like essays such as “Preludes,” “Medallion,” and previously mentioned “Street Sweep.” Google Books called the collection “kaleidoscopic” and it’s easy to see why. I’d say organic, too.
The difficult times further centre around factors such as health and money, global events, issues, relationships, news reporting – the list goes on. Hadero has exposed actual events that are happening in the real world, now and in the past. We can ask who the difficult times are for, where they happen and why. These are things we see, experience and hear about, but what Hadero has magically done is explore what is happening inside the heads and bodies and minds of these people, and the influences of other people over the self, indeed all the difficult things we don’t see, but certainly feel. Perhaps those who do not see them, cannot feel them and the internal conflicts are experienced as a result of external conflicts but are any of them self-inflicted? Could the situation have been resolved any other way? The book does make us pay attention to our feelings and ponder over how we would be personally affected given the same circumstances. She has dedicated this book to her parents, which comes as no surprise.
I’d like to think the writing flows naturally and isn’t too researched or forced as there’s always a danger of that, especially with a work so historical. This collection was written during the pandemic so there was much time for reflection on many levels and, although Hadero leaves us with an element of surprise at the end of her stories, I felt at times that the ending could have happened sooner or been more subtle.
As in all good short stories however, there needs to be a change in the character or the place, and Hadero illustrates this confidently, whether telling a rags to riches tale like “Street Sweep,” or reclaiming a situation to provide hope, surprise, solutions or a general feelgood factor. Hadero however is a new generation, immigrant writer who has carved a writing career through her own commitment and as such she is well placed to write about these topics. At times it makes for uncomfortable reading but she makes no attempt to shield us from tough issues – there is no room for cardboard characters in Hadero’s world.
This book is deep and rich in content despite its small volume. It balances loneliness and invisibility both individually and as a community in exile, where community could be taken to mean family, neighbours, friends and fellow immigrants. Some of the truths explored provoke particular visceral reactions, like in the murder of George Floyd in the US. The underlying conclusion is that underneath the rubble of emotions and events, preconceived ideas and stereotypes, one strives to feel grounded, as demonstrated by Hadero’s characters who come from all walks of life and feature different spaces such as New York’s Prospect Park and Brooklyn, Florida, Hollywood, as well as Berlin and Addis Ababa for example. And when someone says “I was here, made here, unmade here” (“Kind Stranger”) it makes it all the more poignant.
Within every journey, there are further visible and invisible journeys. This book will remain in your head and your heart for that reason alone.
Maybe home is wherever it is you feel most comfortable in your skin.
We are all just trying to get home.
by Meron Hadero
Restless Books, 220 pages
Barbara has a longstanding passion for language and the written word. A reader who writes, and a writer who reads, she freelanced her way in London for 8 years in PR, writing promotional campaigns, press releases, copy, slogans, etc., within the music and entertainment industry. She last promoted PR packages within the Press Association before full-time motherhood allowed Barbara to pursue her interest in Creative Writing. This creative enthusiasm led to 3 unfinished fiction novels. Now a mum to 3 teens, she has been a student on college and university courses as well as workshops and festivals, independently and online. A move to Devon saw her first flash fiction submission longlisted then shortlisted. Her work has regularly been published on Friday Flash Fiction (which also appears on Twitter) and has appeared on Paragraph Planet and several collections of new writing. In the pursuit of her true writing voice, she concentrates nowadays on Creative Non Fiction, where her experience and portfolio of work steers her organically towards memoir, essay-writing, journalism and reviews. On her writing to do list are more submissions and a blog; her TBR pile is ever-expanding. She is new to social media, but still into music, and a keen photographer, into pre-loved stuff and mental wellbeing, she is proud to have recently become a Litro contributor. Links to stories; http://www.paragraphplanet.com/jan1621.gif https://www.fridayflashfiction.com/longer-stories/birthday-days-by-barbara-wheatley https://www.fridayflashfiction.com/100-word-stories/hand-on-heart-by-barbara-wheatley https://www.fridayflashfiction.com/100-word-stories/on-the-horizon-by-barbara-wheatley https://www.fridayflashfiction.com/100-word-stories/clothesline-by-barbara-wheatley https://www.fridayflashfiction.com/100-word-stories/parking-meter-by-barbara-wheatley https://www.fridayflashfiction.com/100-word-stories/chocolate-box-by-barbara-wheatley https://www.fridayflashfiction.com/100-word-stories/way-to-go-by-barbara-wheatley https://www.fridayflashfiction.com/100-word-stories/potato-cakes-by-barbara-wheatley https://www.fridayflashfiction.com/100-word-stories/about-flash-fiction-by-barbara-wheatley https://www.fridayflashfiction.com/100-word-stories/gone-with-the-wind-by-barbara-wheatley https://www.fridayflashfiction.com/100-word-stories/case-study-body-parts-by-barbara-wheatley https://www.fridayflashfiction.com/100-word-stories/hope-by-barbara-wheatley http://www.paragraphplanet.com/jan1621.gif https://www.fridayflashfiction.com/100-word-stories/postcard-news-by-barbara-wheatley https://www.fridayflashfiction.com/longer-stories/come-home-by-barbara-wheatley https://www.fridayflashfiction.com/longer-stories/oh-potter-by-barbara-wheatley