Mihret: When I came up with “Between Silence and Noise,” I was not going to provide you with what’s in-between, but I am interested in what’s happening in-between. I don’t know if you are familiar with my silence project, how I came to the idea of it. Just to give you a background, we (in Ethiopia) had an emperor in the late 19th century, Menelik. He sent his secret police to investigate what was going on among the people. When people were in complete silence, and when there were no verbal complaints, Menelik said, “Now it’s the real danger.” And he started negotiating with the people. I’m referring to that, and also the silence that we are experiencing in our country now, at this very moment. Because we are in complete silence. But the silence is a forced silence, people are not allowed to speak out; there is no freedom of speech. I was trying to compare that historical silence to the silence of my generation. Do we need to add more silence to bring change, or do we need to add more noise?
So that’s the question I’m interested in. And I’m also interested in what’s happening on this side (of the globe), because there are a lot of noises that are happening. Hui wants me to talk about noise. People are protesting on the street about different issues. I’ve heard a lot about Black Lives Matter here. There are a lot of noises here. But there are still problems here. When there is silence, there is a problem; when there are noises, there is a problem. What do we need to do to bring change for a better life for all of us?
Hui: Is poetry a kind of noise? I’m asking this because in addition to talking about and performing about silence, you also read poetry, such beautiful noises that you make.
Mihret: Ah the noise that is poetry. My colleagues and I have been running a poetic jazz program; we found it in 2008. It’s been running every month for some years now. It’s a very popular event. Every time over 1000 people come to attend. We start our program at six and people come at three to buy tickets. We have a diversified audience: scholars, officials, students, journalists, artists. We have all these people from different walks of life. It’s a very crucial stage for the community. It’s a kind of a breathing stage for everyone. Officials come to spy on our programs. Our programs have been banned three times. Once they came to record our two-hour program straight through. They just suddenly appeared and recorded us. We had to improvise our presentation and change the content of the entire program. Thanks to God we’re artists and musicians! We know how to improvise. We are always able to find a way to escape, to create, to find another kind of expression to resist.
Hui: So your generation is not completely silenced.
Mihret: Yeah, I know. But … the noise I was talking about is an art form. We are not going out to the public to protest, but we’re trying to find a way to be heard. That’s jazz and poetry. And we have a very unique form of expression in our poetry, that’s called kene. Wax and gold expressions are very deep. The main meaning is covered by the immediate meaning; the wax is the first meaning that you get when you listen to the poem, but there is also another layer of meaning. You have to listen between the lines, to the irony.
HUSBANDS OF MY DEAR COUNTRY
by Mihret Kebede
Let me have a polite conversation with my country
Let me write a poem to benefit my country
even if I’m not able to write a poem for my country like the wise poets write
even if I’m not the legal husband of my country or a leader
let me still water the dry land with planted sweat
let me slip in by the fence as a lover
By the front by the top by the upper upper door
they closed the gate but the gate never fits
it never fitted you probably it never properly
fit the bowl
[and the opening doesn’t open and doesn’t let anyone in
through the place where things don’t fit anyway an opening
either way either way…]
I don’t want to ask you to marry … Instead let me write you a poem
Let me fit a poem … to benefit my country
My writing of poetry will never stop … my writing of poetry will never cease
collecting the hill of words
The poetry of the people … is the melody of the people
until I grow vines I will … fit you with my poetry
until I twist lines here I will … build a rhyming house here for you
Because the lid doesn’t fit and the leaders don’t fit
and they always leave the door open
and they always leave the lid of the pot open
so people can scoop things out and scoop things out and scoop things out…
transl. by Eric Ellingsen, Jorga Mesfin and Uljana Wolf
Hui: So who are the husbands of your country?
Mihret: We’re getting literal here. Let them enjoy the poem. I think there are people on top who are not fit, and who do not benefit us. When I talk about marriage in relation to my country, I really want to ask my country for a chance to contribute, because in my country it’s very difficult for my generation to get involved in the development process, what they call the transformation process. People who are involved in this process are people who are close to the political system. It’s very unproductive. So my generation is standing aside and watching what’s going on. I’m asking to be part of this process so that we can contribute. So that’s the kind of call I’m trying to make. Let me slip in as a lover by the backdoor, just to contribute something.
Hui: I met you in Ethiopia two years ago and now had the privilege to get to know you a bit more. I’ve heard you say a number of times, and I’ve observed you do this, too: “just being” is an art of resistance. I want to talk more about that. To me, your life itself is an art of resistance. I say resistance because you disrupt society’s expectations every day, just by being yourself. You do not want to be labeled, and we talked about how labeling and naming are a category of noise as well, that is necessary at times, but not always. And your work is about resistance. And I say art of resistance not only because of your use of art — poetry, paintings, performance art — for change, but also because of the joy and vibrant energy you emit while doing this difficult, even dangerous work. I wonder how you do it. I loved it when you said “I love to make my mother laugh.” This reminds me of what I heard in Atlanta a week ago, at the Women’s College Coalition conference, from Pearl Cleage, a noted African American author. She said, “There is still the need for magic in our age of momentum,” and the last line of her presentation was “Imagine, the sound of my laughter.” I want you to talk about the relationship between being and doing. How do you make this work? How do you stay alive, and remain a whole human being while doing this work of resistance?
Mihret: For me, being and doing are similar, because what I’m doing is based on my being, what I’m feeling. What I think I want to share. I don’t want to separate them. I grew up like that. My father was very supportive of whatever I came up with. I usually didn’t want to stay at home for long. I did whatever there is for me to do at home; after that, I went out and played soccer. I used to love to go to the forest. I didn’t like the city. My dad was very much supportive of what I wanted to do. That freedom helped me a lot, to be myself. That’s the kind of energy that’s involved here. I never did anything that I didn’t like to do. I feel that I’m productive because what I’m doing is what I like doing. I’m very happy with the work that I do, with the things that I’m engaged in.
I used to make shoes. I grew up in another city, not in Addis Ababa. After high school, I came to Addis Ababa to join the Arts School. Before joining the arts school, I was studying at private art schools. But since my relatives in Addis Ababa are engaged in business, shoe factories and shoe shops, I went there and for two years, I studied how to make shoes. So I know how to make shoes. Many people are connecting that history with the work I’m doing with shoelaces now. I love working with shoelaces. I can show you pictures of my studio so you can understand what I’m talking about.
Hui: So you are given freedom by your family to do what you’d like to?
Mihret: Yes, my brothers and my sisters are all very supportive of me, to be whoever I want to.
Hui: Because we’re at a women’s university, sitting in the Center for Women, and I’m the Mission Chair for Women’s Education, I am going to ask you some “women”-related questions. You’ve travelled a lot. You worked in Ethiopia, in Germany, Scotland, Austria and many countries in Africa. What does it mean to you to be a woman in these different places? How do women negotiate different spaces—social, political, and cultural—in Ethiopia and elsewhere?
Mihret: I think it’s an alternative way of expression for us. We give it much attention when problems arise. When something happens to me, when I encounter something, and I start to think of me as a woman, but I occupy this world as a human being first. And then when I see things happen, I start to think “being a woman” as opposed to someone being a man. The problem we’re facing as human beings, makes us recognize who we are. It’s not just being a woman, but also being raised in Ethiopia, in a very conservative culture, a religious family, all these coming together. I don’t want to say more about being a woman, we all know whether here or there, being a woman is difficult. Because this world is made of and for men.
What I usually say is “please don’t stand in our way, so that we can do the work.” As a woman, I always say, “Don’t stand in my way. Let me do my work, as a person, you know.” … I know how to do things. I grew up in a supportive family. In the fine arts school, I was the only woman in the painting department. And I was the only one who graduated with distinction from my department. I was the cultural and social officer of the University student affairs. Right after my graduation, we found our arts collective. There were eleven of us, I was the only woman in the group, and I was also the director of the collective. I was the one who created the idea of combining poetry and jazz in 2008. I was the founding manager of that group. I believe in myself; I believe in doing things, if no one is standing in my way.
Hui: But you’re navigating a very male space in your work.
Mihret: Yes of course.
Hui: So how do you deal with that? The men you work with, they’re probably not used to being bossed around by a woman.
Mihret: Oh, there are stories! Yes! Yeah, sometimes they just don’t believe it, you know. But I’m giving myself the freedom of being myself, and believing in my power since high school, from my family. I would do whatever I like to do outside. I used to carry wood, chop wood, all kinds of things. I used to play football for my university. I have a gold medal and a silver medal. I did all kinds of things. So I learned from my experience, that things are possible, if no one is standing in my way. I have trust in that.
Carol Chase: I’m kind of curious because you say you came from a conventional family, or conservative I should say. When did the switch turn on to find your own way, and not just choose your family’s way? You know some artists are misfits and have very independent ways of thinking. I’m kind of curious if that happens in art school or before that, or is it just your personality?
Mihret: I think I was born as a resistance. So I just let that happen to my life. And during my childhood, I was very resistant to what my mom told me to do as a woman. I know it was out of caring, because she wants me to follow all the disciplines, in a very good way. I know from the bottom of her heart she is caring for me. I understand that; I love my family, I love my mom, very much. As I grew up, I was always resisting. But in high school, I was into art. I think I started doing sketches since I was two. I always had a pen or pencil in my hand. Whenever I wanted to communicate with my dad, to ask for something to buy, like a bike, I would draw it and put it in his room. After high school, when I said I wanted to study art, nobody complained, because they’d seen me doing it all my life.