The Power of One Writer
Back Yards, Ethiopia and Children's Books

Are you Ethiopian or American?

Every time I spend a few days at home in Lawrence, I miss Jonathan and Hiwot and Ellemae and Noh.  Last month, I got to see them (and Lanie) in their new home.  It was sweet to roast marshmallows on the deck and watch Ellemae and a friend build a house for butterflies on the bush where butterflies hover–and watch Noh valiantly run so Ellemae could get to kindergarten on time.

They’ve gotten a lot from the move.  A house where they can have space for their creative games vs. a cramped apartment in married student housing.  A job for Jonathan (and in photojournalism, yet).  YAY.  A NEW Ethiopia adoption community we got to meet at a picnic in one of the parks.  Better winter weather, I think.  But with every move comes loss and confusion–like the question over which football team…when all we really know about is the Jayhawks!

It made me think about those strange, awkward occasional years when we would leave Ethiopia and visit in the U.S.  I was seven when my dad sat us down and explained that we’d be going “home” for the year.  For my mom and dad, it was home: returning to their families and the sounds and smells of America, and the sweet taste of a Brown Cow, which Dad rhapsodized about.  We, their kids, felt more sense of home around real brown cows.  When an elevator operator in NYC asked the four of us girls where we were from, we had to whisper together about what we should say.  Finally, one of us said, “We’re from America.”

But it didn’t feel like we were from America.

And kids in America didn’t know how to ask us about Ethiopia, so those two homes had a chasm between them that I often dangled in–uncomfortably–and never managed to build any bridge across until I started to find ways to write about Ethiopia.

Characters in kids’ books are always endlessly trying to get home.  Maybe that’s why I love those books.  Maybe that’s why I love the monarch butterflies and their heroic 3000-mile journey.  I was always trying to find the right updraft as I fluttered along.  Always trying to figure out what to say when kids asked, “Are you Ethiopian or American?” and I didn’t think I was probably really either one.

Last week, I was back in North Dakota, where my kids went to school, where I once wrote a book about a community cleaning up after flood–how the machines had names like Cat and Deere.  I’ve been in Kansas for eight years, now, but North Dakota still feels awfully much like home.  It’s also where people first started raising money for Ethiopia Reads, writing by-laws, dreaming about sharing books with kids in Ethiopia.  No wonder a big chunk of my heart is there.

Today, I leave for Portland, where I was born and where my brain cells first took in information about what the world was like–a world of rain, a world of berries, a world of two sisters, a world of stories told and read.  This summer, I plan to move there and cozy up to some of those sisters (and my mom and brother).  For me, it will be one more time of losing home.  Gaining home.

I have another home.  Later this month, I’ll be in the Boston area, where Lanie’s home is.  Every year, I get together with writer friends and we write and read and talk and dream together for a week.  The writing community–no matter where I find them–from Vermont to international schools to the Boston retreat–gives me a sense of belonging that I don’t find anywhere else. 

While I was in Alabama, I got to see the sweetest sight: my granddaughter sounding out words in a book.  Whew!  Words gave me something strong to hang onto when I was dangling over the chasm feeling empty and sad.

Just like me, she’ll always be split between Ethiopia and America.  I hope words and sentences and stories will be the rope when she needs to hang on.

2 thoughts on “Are you Ethiopian or American?”

  1. this is so poignant and makes me swallow hard about your grand daughter feeling like she is in the space in between. i hope my children will feel this is home and that Ethiopia is a very special place in their world and in their hearts. realistically, i know they will be part of two worlds too and i hope as their parents we can make them feel at home and proud of both places.

  2. As someone whose childhood was a series of unexpected and traumatic moves (my father was a chronic “greener patures” guy) I grew up with the insecurity of always being “the new kid” and never trusting that friendships would last. Until I read your words I didn’t realize how much I, too, took comfort in words and stories. Your thoughtful post resonates deeply.


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