If one of literature’s great themes is the exploration of origin and identity, Queen of Flowers and Pearls addresses the task admirably. The fact that the work’s voice is that of a young woman removed from her place of birth makes it timely for Irish readers too at the present time.
Born in Addis Ababa in 1965, but partially raised as European in Italy, Gabriella Ghermandi’s debut novel focuses on the legacy of colonialism, racial identity and the cultural richness that is born out of a history as complex as that of Ethiopia.
Queen of Flowers and Pearls, a largely autobiographical tome, is part memoir, part novel and a classic coming of age tale. It recounts with fascinating detail a child’s encounters with her country’s history starting with the tales of a family elder who fought in the Italo-Ethiopian war of 1935-36. The narrator, Mahlet, feels that she has been chosen to tell her people’s stories, and so continues to explore family and community lore throughout her teenage years.
We read tales of resistance to colonial oppression, wartime heroism and descriptions of victory both in Ethiopia’s mountains and countryside and in the cities of Addis Ababa and Debre Zeit. We read the testimonies of underground heroes, rebels disguised as monks or nurses and most movingly, of the narrator’s immediate family. “When you tell the story,” one says, “don’t forget any of the details. Every detail is essential to the understanding of those times.”
This is particularly true when it comes to some of the most interesting writing: the first hand account she provides on Ethiopian life under Italian colonial rule, and subsequently Ethiopia’s own, very brutal communist Derg régime.
In addition to first hand accounts of events, however, we learn of Ethiopian cultural traditions, folkloric tales and legends, and encounter the long-standing spiritual traditions of the country where, to this day, the Ark of the Covenant is rumoured to rest in the sacred city of Axum.
As Mahlet moves to Italy to study, she reflects on how many of her family and circle find themselves in exile, whether in Sweden, London or Canada, and how as an adult, the notion of race and identity come into sharp focus for her. She juxtaposes her Western education with her beloved country of origin, and always comes back to the heart of her identity: Ethiopia.
These themes also make up part of the author’s work as a storyteller and performance artist, where she brings her material to life onstage with voice, movement, song and colour. Ghermandi is on the board of El-Ghibli, an online journal of migration literature, and founded the Atse Tewodros Project, which fuses traditional Ethiopian music with jazz and other Western musical forms.
Originally published in Italy, Queen of Pearls and Flowers is available now for the first time in English from Indiana University Press, and can be purchased in Ireland at Hodges Figgis Books in Dawson Street. Readers outside Dublin or Ireland will find it for sale on Amazon. A fascinating read for anyone interested in contemporary Ethiopian fiction.