Native Intellectuals in the Contact Zone: African Responses to Italian Colonialism in Tigrinya Literature

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Written African literature evolved out of the colonization of Africa by Europe. In a nutshell, the canonical formations of African literature of the last hundred years or so are primarily made up of anticolonial and postcolonial texts produced by African writers, who mainly, though not exclusively, wrote in European languages. As has often been pointed out by African(ist) critics and creative writers alike, the determination of African authors to write predominantly in the former colonizers' languages was necessary for various ideological and pragmatic reasons, including a keenness to counter effectively through literature--to use Chinua Achebe's formulation--long-held colonial "Western psychology [which] set Africa up as a foil to Europe" (3). Because the literatures in European languages constitute the core of the African literary system, in most literary history textbooks dealing with African literature(s), the main foci are thus African texts written in European languages, and chiefly in English and French. At the same time, although the African literatures produced in African languages are out there in the physical and imagined literary space of Africa, their assumed "subalternity" or "peripherality within the periphery" itself, as opposed to the "imperial" and/ or "global" claims made for Europhone African literatures, undermines their visibility in the academy and mainstream publishing economy. I make these contrasting preliminary statements at the beginning of this essay not to rigidly dichotomize the different categories of African literature, but to illuminate to readers the special significance of the two autobiographical and/or fictional works considered here for analysis and evaluation. These pieces are important for the following pertinent reasons. First, as outstanding examples of prose narratives written in Tigrinya, an important literary language of the Horn of Africa spoken in Eritrea and Ethiopia, (1) they make accessible "an insider's" critique of European colonialism in an African language--an opportunity which is scarcely available otherwise. Second, these works have the added importance that they are among the earliest specimens of written literature existing about the Italian colonial era in Eritrea, and as such serve as archival sites from which the responses of the native intellectuals in Eritrea and Ethiopia vis-a-vis European colonial rule in Africa can be studied and interpreted.

The two texts are About the Author's Journey from Ethiopia to Italy and the Impressions Made on Him by His Stay in that Country, in Tigrinya (henceforth The Author's Journey), written by Fesseha Giyorgis in 1895, and The Story of the Conscript (henceforth The Conscript), a novel written by Ghebreyesus Hailu initially in 1927, and later published in 1950. (2) These two pieces of writing that I have brought together under the present title were written and published in Tigrinya in different times, spaces, and phases of Italian colonialism in Eritrea and Ethiopia, and as such reveal striking similarities as well as differences. The Author's Journey is a 16-page-long account of Giyorgis's travel from Africa to Europe, which he wrote and published when he lived in Italy. This piece is generally considered as the beginning of modern Ethiopian and Eritrean literature. Hailu's The Conscript is the first novel written in the Tigrinya language. Written and printed for Pietro Silla Printing Press in Asmara, Eritrea, and also largely based on the travel recollections of its author, the novel metonymizes Italian colonization and Italian war campaigns in Libya and Eritrea. In addition to the apparent thematic resemblances of travel and colonial encounter that The Author's Journey and The Conscript share, the works connect intertextually through formal qualities such as the juxtaposition of the autobiographical and the collective, as well as the use of indigenous oral tradition, which both authors effectively employ as a vehicle to tell lived and imagined experiences. …