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

Ethiopia: the good life

We humans seem to like and need hooks to hang our brains on.  Since moving to Kansas nine years ago, I’ve found out what people in other states think about Kansas, for instance, and it mostly has to do with The Wizard of Oz although a surprising number of people comment on Kansas as being such a cold state.  I tell those people I moved down the Great Plains from North Dakota to balmy Kansas.  The year we lived in a FEMA trailer in Grand Forks, ND, a layer of frost built up so thick it was hard to get the door to stay closed.  I remember house windows almost covered with frost feathers, only a small hole in the middle left open.

I’ve generally liked living in states where other people think they wouldn’t want to live.  How will it be to live in Oregon aka the We-Love-Dreamers state?

I talked to a flat-lander recently who tried it and said, “I never got used to the mountains and trees crowding in on me.”

What will it be like to live mere blocks away from my mom and four of my siblings and their children and grandchildren and dogs?

I haven’t lived so close to so many of them since I left Ethiopia for Monmouth College when I was seventeen years old, and it’s a startling thought.  Lovely.  But startling.

When we drove into Wyoming, I glanced at the sign by the side of the highway.  A cowboy flashed by and the words, Forever West.  Exactly what I would have thought.

 Nebraska surprised and interested me, though.

The good life.

At first, the good life appeared to be one with a whole lot of solitude.  An ocean of grass and some of those interesting lumps I commented on seeing in other states.  The occasional windmill.  Fitting for the Home of Arbor Day, I eventually saw a whole lot of trees, and trees are always good.

What is the good life?

As humans, we can’t seem to help but equate it with comfort and ease, which almost always leads us to equate it with lots and lots of money.  No matter how much evidence we see that lots and lots of money doesn’t lead to lots and lots of happiness, we can’t help ourselves.  Someone wisely pointed out that what we crave when we think we’re craving money might often be interesting sensations, interesting experiences.  So travelers to Ethiopia comment on the heartbreaking poverty–but also on the amazing sensations.  The immense beauty of land and animals and people.  The food.  The bubbling joy and determination of survival.

It was always a painful thing of my childhood to visit the United States and find the image of Ethiopia so fixed.





Like many an Ethiopian-American today, I bristled at having to explain the land of my childhood.  Eventually, I didn’t want to try.  But my feelings of being a child in Ethiopia weave through everything I write, including the story of an American Girl, Lanie, longing to be outside.

Even today, I struggle when a young reader at an author visit asks, “What was it like growing up in Ethiopia?”

I want to say, “Read my books.”

Often their faces are open and curious, and I want to try.   I love having my pictures to show during my presentations. But it’s still hard to find the words.

My voice comes through my writing.

The complex, gorgeous, magical, heart-breaking world of Ethiopia has never been easy to explain.  Maybe I could just adopt Nebraska’s slogan.  Ethiopia: the good life.  In spite of the pain, in some ways it would be the truth.

What I know is that almost everyone who visits Ethiopia has an experience that jars and complicates their images forever.

Many of them come back as mute as I felt when I was a child, struggling to find the words for their experiences.

Many, many of them fall in love.


5 thoughts on “Ethiopia: the good life”

  1. Yes. Just that. We do read your books, because they do speak of that place that I’ve fallen in love with. And also because they are lovely. Thanks for this post.

  2. loved this post. I just put down Cutting for Stone, loved the book, and often wondered what you think of it. We’ve never met, but I know and admire your work!


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