‘Make Space’ in conversation with Daniel Mekonnen
'Right now, I’m an ICORN guest writer in Lucerne, Switzerland. I’m hosted by the Swiss German PEN centre, taking part in a fellowship arranged in collaboration with ICORN. I'll treasure what these organisations have done for me for the rest of my life.
I’m a lawyer by formal training - a human rights lawyer - but I also write poetry. I write in my language - Tigrinya - and if everything goes well, we're planning to have an anthology of Tigrinya poems with simultaneous translation into German as a result of my fellowship.
I left Eritrea at a time when there was a very vibrant free press; the period between 1997 and 2001 represents the Eritrean "spring" of free expression. There was a great promotion of literature, with many young writers emerging, because we had a dozen privately owned free newspapers, all of which were shut down in 2001. So I was very strongly influenced by the writers of the day, like Emmanuel Asrat, who is one of the finest poets in Eritrea, and other poets who were writing, sharing, and publishing their poems in the private media. It was so inspiring for me. They shaped me a lot and that’s when I realised my own potential to write poetry.
The literary tradition in Eritrea has been very much shaped and influenced by era of the early 1990s. There's a saying in Eritrea, 'we didn’t defeat our enemies only through the barrel of the gun; we fought them through our pen as well'.. the mighty pen. There was a lot of literature, and a lot of music, coming out of this period. We didn’t care about any other music that was coming out at the time; we were all listening to these revolutionary songs & we were all very much influenced by that.
Most of my poems are about injustice, or about abuse by the government. Sometimes I write about nature, love, or other aspects of society, but mostly my poems reflect the situation in Eritrea. I don’t know how much you know about Eritrea, but it’s a country right now whose government is officially accused by the UN of committing crimes against humanity. Crimes against humanity are among the three top major crimes of International Law, punishable by the international court in the Hague and - as far as I know, as we speak now - Eritrea is the only country in Africa whose government is officially accused of crimes against humanity by the UN, and this is happening - mind you - in the absence of armed conflict.
I started to write about Eritrea 16 years ago when I left for South Africa to do my graduate studies. I'd had a feeling, a tendency, or an inclination towards poetry for a long time before, but I really only got motivated to invest more time in it when I was feeling the sense of injustice that was meted out by the Eritrean government against the Eritrean people in 2001.
Eritrea does not have a constitution, or a parliament. It does not have a single privately owned newspaper or media outlet; I left Eritrea in 2001 and all of these newspapers were shut down, just one moth and 2 weeks after the crackdown. This engulfs me so much; it really touches me so deeply that I sometimes want to reflect on my emotions at a deeper level, and that’s why I started writing poetry. So I really had all this sense of energy and emotion deep inside me, and then I started writing poems whilst I did my Masters & my PHD in human rights law & international law.
Still, I never imagined I would be, or remain in exile. It’s been 16 years now since I left home. And initially I went because I was given a scholarship to study in South Africa, but while I was studying I was involved in activities - I co-founded an activist youth movement, for example - that was deemed hostile by the Eritrean government & it became evident I couldn’t go back home. So when I left in November 2001, I thought I was leaving for two years. But then I became a target of the Eritrean government; my citizenship was cut off; and the Embassy were not willing to renew my passport. I became Stateless, and things became complicated. So I haven’t seen many of my friends and family in 16 years and it’s very painful.
Not only as a poet, but as a human being, when you're displaced, you feel detached from your roots. There are times when you really feel that you want to go back home, to visit the place you were born, to refresh your childhood memories, to meet with the people who grew up with you in the same environment. That’s very difficult; it’s tough. It’s what keeps me doing what I am doing now though, because at the end there will be a time when I’ll go back home. But the experience is very challenging.
For me, safety is the most important thing that defines home. Personal, physical safety. But beyond that, home is something that will never be compensated wherever I go. Home is where your mind, and your spirit, and your heart is, and that is Eritrea in my case. And there will never be any other place on this planet that can replace that.
I see myself in the future; I see myself overcoming all these challenges. One day I will surely find myself in a stable position; I am confident about that. I don’t see myself as one of the greatest people in this world, but if you look into the history and biographies of the greatest people there've been, they have to go through difficulties, and there is no way to greatness without passing through challeneges. But sometimes it does really break whatever strength you have.
But for now, we - at the Eritrean PEN Centre in Exile - really believe literature can play a role in changing things, and will work hard in this way so that our work can play a part in ending impunity in Eritrean society. Literature changes people’s attitudes. It plays a role, because storytelling can be a way of truth-telling. This is true within creative writing, and also writing that simply tells the reality as it is. It's a way of showing the world the truth.'