AKO Caine Prize Winner Meron Hadero on Language, Musicality, and How “Writing Asks for Empathy”

“If we are to make our characters feel human and real, they require our care,” she says of her story “The Street Sweep.”
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Meron Hadero. Credit: Meron Hadero.

Meron Hadero. Credit: Meron Hadero.

Meron Hadero won the AKO Caine Prize in July, becoming the £10,000 award’s first Ethiopian recipient. Her story “The Street Sweep” was published in ZYZZYVA in 2018. She was previously shortlisted for the prize in 2019, for her story “The Wall.”

Hadero was born in Addis Ababa and came to the US via Germany as a young child. She is the winner of the 2020 Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing. Her short stories have been published in ZYZZYVA, Ploughshares, Addis Ababa Noir, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, The Iowa Review, The Missouri ReviewNew England ReviewBest American Short Stories, among others. Her writing has also been in The New York Times Book ReviewThe Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives, and will appear in the forthcoming anthology Letter to a Stranger: Essays to the Ones Who Haunt Us.

Hadero is an alum of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where she worked as a research analyst for the President of Global Development, and holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan, a JD from Yale, and a BA in history from Princeton with a certificate in American Studies. A 2019-2020 Steinbeck Fellow at San Jose State University, she’s been a fellow at Yaddo, Ragdale, and MacDowell, and her writing has been supported by the International Institute at the University of Michigan, the Elizabeth George Foundation, and Artist Trust.

Here, she discusses “The Street Sweep,” her forthcoming collection A Down Home Meal for These Difficult Times, her writing process, her favourite writers, and what her work means in light of her country’s ongoing war.

How long did it take to write “The Street Sweep” and in what form did its first spur of inspiration come?

I find that writing keeps its own time. The writing process is long—there’s the thinking/planning, the first draft, and also all the many revisions that follow. I thought a lot about the story before writing, then sat down to work on the first draft, which came together quite smoothly, but revisions after that were the longest part of the process.

As for inspiration, Getu inspired me. He feels real to me, his struggle and determination moved me, his savvy interested me. Though he’s a creation, he was also my inspiration, along with the ingenuity he brings to the circumstances he strives to rise above.

In the story, Getu is trying to knot a tie and fails multiple times, and eventually decides to do without it. I wonder if that’s a stylistic move, to foreshadow what eventually happens to him in the story. Is there a social context to how important the tie was?

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I find this question and interpretation very interesting, but I don’t want to answer this for a reader. I’ll say that it was important to me to have Getu confronting himself in the mirror in the opening, examining his identity, what limitations he fears he’ll face because of it, what he thinks it means to others, and so on. 

Jeff Johnson, another character in the story, is a worker for an NGO, and Getu’s mother can’t bring herself to trust him. Of course, the short story is about what’s left out as much as it is about the written narrative. One senses a deeper, peculiar anguish from Getu’s mother. Why is this so?

That’s very well put about short stories as a form. She has her own story and experience, and what I enjoy is that despite the anguish that his mother feels, she also has a glimmer of hope that we see when she mends Getu’s clothes, though with hesitation. She might have lost faith in a larger system, but deep down she believes in her son, and I’ll let a reader decide if that might help us understand where Getu’s sense of hope and optimism comes from.

The Caine Prize described “The Street Sweep” as a tale for the “young, ingenuous generation determined to push open the doors previously closed to them.” What are these doors; are they still closed today? And has your life, or anyone’s you know, intersected with this larger struggle?

I’ll share something about my background to answer this question. Thinking of those I know who have beat the odds, pushed open doors that seemed closed at first (and that may still be closed for many in general), I can’t help but think of my parents.

My father was born in a small village in Ethiopia and is incredibly brilliant, and he defied every expectation and followed his dreams to become a successful physician practicing medicine first in Ethiopia and then went on to become a double-board specialized doctor after we came to the U.S.

My mother was the only woman in her class in medical school in Addis Ababa, and she has her own story of beating the odds, eventually co-founding the Pediatric Sleep Center at Seattle Children’s Hospital at the University of Washington having earned three board certifications within the field of medicine. I think it’s important that my mother decided to become a doctor when she saw a female doctor for the first time in her childhood (and that woman likely defied expectations of her own).  

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I think a lot of us might know inspirational people in our lives who stay hopeful and struggle against various odds in ways big and small, all meaningful.

Your language has been called “superbly crafted and fluid.” How do you achieve clarity in your writing? How much does a story influence its language?

Language springs up from a story, so the story will give you the language to use. To be receptive to what the story needs, I try to step back and almost hear what the story sounds like from a reader’s point of view. I think of music, which I love, and my sister is a musician so I have a lot of music in my life. There can be something very musical about a story when it comes together. Even the words we use to describe it—the voice of the piece, the tone of the story, the pacing of the narrative—can feel musical, too. I had an editor once suggest reading a story aloud, I think partly as a way to slow down to really see each word, but maybe also to try to hear the piece, hear the music of the story. I try to do that with my stories, hear the music of the language.

When did you begin writing and why was it necessary for you?

I loved to read ever since I was a little kid, and I think my love of writing came from that. I adore that writing is both analytical and imaginative, which I find fulfilling. I also love that writing asks for and creates empathy, and it embraces great compassion because if we are to make our characters feel human and real, they require our care. Because of that, writers have the great privilege of putting ourselves in the shoes of others, understanding and appreciating other lives, and if we are able to fully embody other characters, living many lives as well.

Who are your favorite authors and what, as regards discipline and technique, did you learn from them?

I love authors who are surprising and stretch our thinking, and who bring a sense of wonder and awe and joy to a story. An example of this is What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah, who won the AKO Caine Prize in 2019. Italo Calvino is another favorite who brings an incredibly expansive imagination to his storytelling. It’s motivating to see such heightened creativity at work and at play, and it makes you want to push your own writing further, to be more adventurous on the page.

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Which relatively unknown African writers do you think that people should be reading?

I’d refer to the book Addis Ababa Noir, which brings together a group of writers with connections to Ethiopia who contributed stories set in Addis Ababa (I contributed a story to that anthology as well). That book is full of wonderful writers, some well-known, but also others who are not as widely recognized as their talent would warrant. I encourage readers to explore that book to discover exciting voices coming out of Ethiopia.

What are you currently working on?

I’m currently getting ready for the March 2022 publication of my debut short story collection A Down Home Meal for These Difficult Times. The collection includes “The Street Sweep” and my 2019 AKO Caine Prize shortlisted story “The Wall.” It’s about characters who are immigrants, refugees, or those facing the risk of displacement, and I wanted to center those voices in my book. I’m also working on a novel, and that’s given me an opportunity to look at some of the same themes in another form and discover new possibilities for my writing.

You are the first Caine Prize winner from Ethiopia, a country full of literary talent. How does it feel to achieve this milestone, considering that you’ve been shortlisted before, but now in light of the war in your country?

It’s a huge honor for me, and hopefully it may inspire others from Ethiopia to write their own stories. I mentioned my mother before who decided to become a doctor after seeing a female doctor for the first time as a child. I think representation is important, and the more diversity the better—the more impact it can have, the more connection it can make.

Regarding what my writing means today in light of heartbreaking events in Ethiopia, what feels most important is that Getu is a character who never loses hope and who demonstrates the enduring resilience of the spirit, and that message feels especially important to me now.

Emmanuel Esomnofu
Emmanuel Esomnofu is a staff writer at Open Country Mag. He is a culture journalist and has written extensively on Nigerian music and on several moving parts of popular culture. His writing appears online in Native Mag, Okay Africa, Kalahari Review, Praxis Magazine, and elsewhere. He was published in print in The Muse, the oldest student journal in West Africa. In December 2020, he worked on "Fuji: A Opera" as a copywriter, creating informative and exciting stories from Fuji's rich history.

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