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Author Chat with Rebecca Haile

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Transcript of Live Chat
June 23, 2008

miriam: Good evening, everyone. I’m Miriam Tuliao of The New York Public Library, and it is my pleasure to welcome you to this very special Summer Reading program. Rebecca Haile, author of Held at a Distance: My Rediscovery of Ethiopia, is joining us tonight for a live online discussion. Rebecca’s book is one of the eleven fascinating non-fiction reads featured on this year’s Summer Reading booklist for adults, Metamorphosis @ Your Library.

Rebecca_Haile: Thank you Miriam. I've been looking forward to this discussion.

larry: Hello

aloum: Hi Miriam,

picturegoers: Hello!

jcmarie: Hi from Los Angeles!

miriam: And welcome, audience.

miriam: Held at a Distance: My Rediscovery of Ethiopia has received much critical acclaim. Vanessa Bush of Booklist considers Rebecca’s book, “a riveting personal look at a nation still in turmoil.” And Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. wrote, "Part travelogue, part history, part memoir, Rebecca Haile's Held at a Distance shines a bright and unique light on Ethiopia, a country in whose fortunes we as Americans and Westerners have been concerned for some time, but which remains in large part a mystery to many of us. . . It's an important and beautifully written volume."

miriam: Rebecca, throughout your book, your profile key members of your family. And in an early chapter, you pay homage to your grandmother. How has she influenced you?

Rebecca_Haile: My grandmother is a strong, independent woman, and I hope that I've inherited some of her strength and spirit. And on a broader level, my grandmother is symbolic of one of the most fundamental elements of what it means to me to be Ethiopian: to be connected to family and community in an intergenerational way; to understand one's place in relation to those who've come before and come after. This is both an empowering and humbling realization.

miriam: Do any of the members of tonight’s program have any questions for Rebecca?

larry: if you're grandmother symbolized the fundamental elements of what is Ethiopian, what does your uncle engineer represent to you?

Rebecca_Haile: Hi Larry, I'll take this one next because it follows the previous question (and might lead into the next.) Tadesse represents the complexity of Ethiopia - in his case he is the maverick, the irreverent, the irrepressible and the unexpected. He is unexpected because I do not think people think of enterpreunerial, philanthropic businessmen when they think of Ethiopia. And he is unexpected because he just is -- his personality would have him stand out in any country. He represents a dimension of country that is not associated with tradition. But what he does have in common with my grandmother is independence.

kibei: Hi Miriam. My name is Kathy. I do a lot of work in East Africa but will make my first visit to Ethiopia in July. What are the top three things that Americans misunderstand or misconstrue about Ethiopia, its people and culture?

Rebecca_Haile: Hi Kathy, Continuing on the notion of complexity, I think the tendency that all of us have to fall into generalizations in unfamiliar circumstances is that much more pronounced when it comes to Africa. I think we have to be open to nuances, to allow people to exist in their full complexity. As to the specific three misunderstood things, I'm not sure. I seem to come across people who know very little, and people who are making an effort to learn as much as they can. Not too many fall in the middle.

janet: what does home mean to you? and how has the meaning changed for you as an ethiopian living in america?

Rebecca_Haile: This is a hard question. Maybe because I've had to manage losing my first home, I am at peace with the idea that home is where you can make a life that makes sense, whatever that is for you. For me, home means work and family and friends and civic participation in New York, a city I love for its diversity and energy. And yet I still have moments when i feel incredibly alone - though of course I might have felt that way even if I'd never left Ethiopia.

janet: thank you for your frank and thoughtful reply.

aloum: Rebecca, you might have been too young to remember the regime of Haile Selassie. From recounts of your parents and what you have discovered through your own research, how do you compare Ethiopia under Emperor Haile Selassie and the subsequent military juntas that ruled Ethiopia

Rebecca_Haile: Hello aloum, I know that it is important to understand history to move forward, and yet this is a comparison/discussion I choose to avoid. One reason is that all of these events are still so recent, and people still carry serious personal burdens and visceral reactions, so often the discussions cannot be fruitful. It is clear to me that Ethiopia has never had an open government in which the interests of most rather than a few come first. There is so much work to do to move forward that I prefer not to get bogged down with questions the answers to which may not matter so much.

picturegoers: Do you feel yourself to be a person of "faith and determination," as you writre of your parents?

Rebecca_Haile: I'd like to think I am a person of determination, or at least I try to be. But I am not a person of faith.

kibei: thanks rebecca. what role does spirituality play for your family members, particularly the female members?

Rebecca_Haile: In my parents’ generation, virtually everyone is religious. In my generation, it seems to be about 50-50. Most of my cousins live outside Ethiopia; perhaps that has something to do with it. But again, I think most of us behave in ways that reflect the other values with which we were all raised.

larry: do other members of your family view home differently?

Rebecca_Haile: Yes. For my father, home can only be Ethiopia, end of story, even if he is grateful for everything the United States has allowed my family. I think (but do not know for certain) others may have negative feelings - they may not be able to separate country from government, as my father has always done.

picturegoers: Do you think that it is still the case that Ethiopia "is a country where adults fret over children's feelings"?

Rebecca_Haile: I believe I wrote that it is a country where adults do "not" fret over children. It has been a long time since I've lived in the Ethiopia, but I think it is fair to say that children's feelings are taken more into account in the families I've come to know in New York now that I am a mother than the families I knew growing up or even the Ethiopian families living in the United States. But the good news from my perspective is that this is a first generation phenomenon - this does not seem to be the approach my generation is taking. It is a little joke among my generation to watch an American born Ethiopian child having a meltdown or whatever and to say " Imagine how Emama (or other relative) would have reacted to this nonsense! one summer in Ethiopia...... that'd take care of this"!

picturegoers: Yes, that is what you wrote - typed too quickly!

picturegoers: If you had not gone to ACS in Ethiopia, do you think you'd be a different kind of adult?

Rebecca_Haile: I don't know if I'd be fundamentally different, and I actually don't think of ACS as having had that much impact on me. However, I'm sure that my early experiences in the US would have been very different -- much harder -- if I hadn't been fluent in English and hadn't had some expose to Western culture when we arrived.

jcmarie: Hi Rebecca, I loved your book. If you had to describe Ethiopia in just a few words, what would they be? Would these be the same words you would use to describe the Ethiopia of your childhood?

Rebecca_Haile: I've been putting off answering thsi question because it is so hard to distill. Ethiopia has so much history and beauty and culture, and yet all of that is undermined by the natural forces and political actors that have ravaged the country and its people. It is home for me, so I feel the connection to family and place that leaves me feeling uplifted after a visit. And yet I worry about the future - it is a country at a crossroads. I did not appreciate all this complexity as a child.

picturegoers: What are your thoughts about the vastness of America?

Rebecca_Haile: Too big! My sister lives in LA and that is just too far. The size, btw, and the fact that family members do not see each other regularly, is a serious problem for m newly arrived Ethiopians.

miriam: This concludes tonight’s program. Thank you all so very much for this rich discussion--and a very special thank you, Rebecca, for joining us. If you enjoyed you tonight’s program, we hope that you will join us on Monday, July 28th at 6:30 PM for a live chat with A. M. Homes, author of This Book Will Save Your Life.

jcmarie: Thank You Rebecca.

Rebecca_Haile: Thank you Miriam, and to everyone who participated.