Desta is a British-Eritrean singer, writer, and educator. She is the founder and creative director of Languages through Music, an innovative online language school, and co-founder of Sisters Only Language Summit. In 2020, she won To Speak Europe in Different Languages, a hybrid and collective writing competition run by Specimen, Babel Review of Translations, and Asmara-Addis Literary Festival (In Exile). Desta hopes to publish her first book soon.
BY CHISOM OKWARA
This conversation took place over the course of two weeks, between Kigali and London, through voice and text chats.
Chisom: Congratulations again on making the shortlist for the 2021 Afritondo Short Story Prize. How did you feel about getting shortlisted? The theme for the 2021 prize was “identity”. Did that factor into your submission for the prize? You won the 2020 “To Speak Europe in Different Languages” award, double congratulations! Does it get easier with time (and experience) – the anticipation while awaiting a winner announcement?
Desta: Thank you! I felt very surprised and happy. Yes, “identity” was the guiding theme for the prize, and for my submission. I have long been interested in this small community of Ethio-Cubanos, so I wanted to create a story using the little I knew about their history, meanwhile taking a look at other times in my life that Habesha and Cuban culture have met. Thank you for the double congratulations! I still don’t feel like an experienced writer since last year was the first time I entered a writing competition. I think I pretty much forget about the submission once I enter it and move on to other things. I have no expectations so I’m not disappointed if I don’t hear anything… so any good news is a bonus!
Chisom: I can relate. Every now and then, I throw my pebbles to the sea and dart off to play in the sand. If it ripples, it ripples.
Your shortlisted story, Ethio-Cubano, was a teaching piece. You mention it was sparked by your interest in the history of a small community of Ethio-Cubanos. How did this interest spring forth and take up a life of its own to form the thread for the narrative? Did it feel like nurturing a seed of enlightenment or something of that sort, while you were writing the piece?
Desta: It was just the first idea that came to mind when I read about the competition, as it is a part of history I have wondered about for a long time. I don’t actually know too many details about it, besides what can be found online (not much)—and I don’t want to pry—so the piece leans heavily on other personal experiences where Ethiopian culture encountered Cuban culture (mostly true, some imaginary, some a blend of both).
Chisom: What better way to dig into our curiosities than to write our way through them? I must say: Ethio-Cubano isn’t a one-time read, at least to me. I’ve read it at least three times. The second time, I scroll-moved the pieces and read through the years in chronological order (laughs). Overall, it read like an august montage, its setting over a wide timeline, across places and legends, alternating narrators, different languages. What was the writing process like? How did you wrap your mind (and space, if that’s of the essence in your process) around it all?
Desta: Thanks for reading and re-reading! The writing process was kind of trancelike, and there was a looming deadline. I didn’t have a lot of time to work on it, so I just wrote anything that came to mind really, around the theme of identity & Ethio-Cubanidad!
Chisom: You mention in the Afritondo interview that it took you three days to write it. What was that like – did you have to clear out your calendar to concentrate, was it late nights? Was there pressure of some sort? You probably have the writing process to die for! What was the best part about writing Ethio-Cubano?
Desta: I wouldn’t say that I have a real, established writing process yet, as this is just the second writing competition I have entered. I wrote this submission very quickly, but I have been working on a book for years, maybe a decade on and off. I think the writing process is quite unpredictable. Sulaimon Addonia, the Ethiopian-Eritrean writer, made a post recently about how his last book, Silence is My Mother Tongue, took him ten years but his latest book, The Seers was done in three months or so. I think the process is unpredictable depending on the mood of the book or the piece, I guess.
The best part about writing about Ethio-Cubano, because I had such little time to submit, was that there was zero overthinking. I just wrote, and wrote, and wrote and sent it. I don’t think I got a confirmation that it had been accepted so I just forgot about it like I’d earlier mentioned. So, yeah, there was no particular process. If I could always write that quickly, then the book I have been working on for years, Black Beauty Model Agency, wouldn’t be taking so long. But I am trying to learn as I go.
“I think the writing process is quite unpredictable. . . . I think the process is unpredictable depending on the mood of the book or the piece.“
Chisom: Ethio-Cubano explored history and artistic expression, as well as spirituality. What inspired the element of spirituality? And the artistic expression, mostly of dance?
Desta: Spirituality is very present in Cuban culture, music, dance in its practice of Santeria, Regla de Ocha. I was first introduced to Cuban music, dance and spirituality when I was about 16-17, through a Afro-Cuban dance class in Brussels taught by a wonderful artist called El Goyo, described briefly in the piece. El Goyo was an incredible dancer, singer and percussionist. He co-founded Havana’s Conjunto Folklórico Nacional, he was also the leader of a Santería music ensemble, Grupo Oba-Ilú.
Chisom: There’s a scene in Ethio-Cubano, set in Moscow, where we see a main character laying claim to the Habesha identity of Pushkin, the famed literati, while being disputed by a friend of hers and dismissed with the retort, “You guys, always trying to claim everybody.” I chuckled at that scene. It brought memories of the many times I have indulged Hollywood cast lists and film credits wondering if I would see a name that spells like mine (Igbo) or seems Nigerian or African; or like the time I found out that Stromae was Rwandan, that Emeli Sandé was Zambian, or more recently that Regé-Jean Page, Lord of post-Bridgerton fantasies, is Zimbabwean. I guess there’s something about identity that craves connection… Being a Bangkok-born British-Eritrean, does your sense of connection extend over the ‘country’ to the ‘continent’? If so, that would be nearly half the world. What is that like – the feeling and living of it?
Desta: I think I might take this part out when I edit before publishing, since it ties in tenuously with the Ethio-Cubano theme, but it was a funny memory and a reference of how so many cultural connections are often hidden, unknown, made-up, disputed. Not sure if I’ll keep it yet though!
No, I wouldn’t say being connected to England, Thailand or Eritrean necessarily equals connecting to entire continents. For me it’s a mix of the places my family is from, the countries I’ve lived in and spent time in, I believe… I love to travel and can’t wait to explore new places once that is more possible.
Chisom: What new places are top on the list? This one’s random – what does “home” mean to you?
Desta: I really want to go to new places, places I’ve never been before, since I’ve pretty much been at home for a year. I would really want to travel more in Africa. I think I’ve only been to maybe eleven, twelve countries in Africa and there’s so many more to visit. I can’t wait for that to happen!
Home to me, means somewhere peaceful, somewhere safe, somewhere I can rest and reset, somewhere I can be myself. My mother has a funny way of looking at home, which I never forgot—soul, body, clothes and house/apartment—independent of actual geographical location! I guess everyone has a different definition.
Chisom: Around the conclusion of Ethio-Cubano, precisely the scene with little Dahlia who saw a reflection of herself in Desta, a main character, I saw a beautiful feat of consolidation, like tying-up cornrows into a simple knot after braiding, like finishing off an amazing race and heading back home light and full all at once… Considering the winding arc of the plot, how did you know when you’d reached a conclusion? Did you feel like it was an end? Or is this the type of story that’s bound to birth a longer narrative?
Desta: Thanks. I guess it felt like the right place to end since the moment itself felt like such a deep farewell even though we’d only known each other for a plane ride! Connections don’t need to take place for a long time in order to be meaningful, I think. Sometimes you just know when someone feels like home.
Chisom: What makes for a meaningful connection, in your perspective?
Desta: I guess it’s honesty, accepting the other, being seen by the other, seeing the other, hearing the other, an understanding and care that is made present and clear.
Chisom: Between York to Tehran from “To Speak Europe in Different Languages” and the forthcoming Black Beauty Model Agency, you’ve dug through aspects of history, with detail, insight, and lyric, from the launchpad of the experience of family members. You walk an interesting path where the personal inherently contains and reflects the general, such that diaries of your aunt’s travels and recounts of your dad’s modeling speak to migration and feminine freedom as well as Black integration in the modeling industry respectively. In exploring such histories, do you feel a sense of responsibility to also document the present and the contemporary (for the sake of those to come); maintain the ‘rhythm’, so to speak? You’ve kept a diary since 6. How have you kept it going? A while back, I started David Sedaris’ Theft by Finding, which compiles his diary entries from 1977 to 2002. I was struck by the sheer consistency. It’s incredible. Do you plan to make something out of your diaries sometime in the future?
Desta: Thanks. Yes, I do feel some kind of responsibility to help preserve and share these stories. I find them inspiring and beautiful.
I enjoy keeping a diary and feel it keeps me somewhat sane and my life more-or-less together. It’s nice to save the occasional photo or concert ticket or poem in there too. David Sedaris is very funny! I haven’t read Theft by Finding, but his Me Talk Pretty One Day is hysterical, especially for language learners.
Chisom: Really interesting to hear about your diary. I plan to read Me Talk Pretty One Day one of these days. Outside of writing, you are a vocalist, language consultant and creative educator, running Languages through Music (LTM) to help people learn languages by discovering its music. How cool is that! And how relatable! I remember feeling ‘catered for’ when I first learned of LTM ahead of our dialogue. I love languages and music in almost equal measure, and revere teaching, having been a teacher myself a couple of years ago. Recently, you shared a LinkedIn post that traced the trajectory leading up to your current work with the BOZAR Afropolitan Forum (Congratulations on the grant for LTM). Thanks to the grant, LTM has designed and launched an online programme for learning Kinyarwanda, Lingala and Swahili (looks like I’m late for the Kinyarwanda pilot). Isn’t it all so exciting! How do you feel about this point in your journey with LTM? Looks like you have your hands full. How do you keep your different interests rolling? I’d guess the merger you’ve got with LTM shines through as a tip here.
Desta: Thanks, I’m glad Languages through Music resonates with you. Music really has helped me learn languages more quickly and easily than traditional classes did at school. I feel LTM is going to keep me busy for the rest of my life! There is enough music and enough languages to last forever. Combining so many of my favourite things into one project/business (music, languages, culture, travel, people, education…) is a joy. You can sign up for Kinyarwanda through Music here. On my podcast I focus on a different African language every month (but the interviews are usually in English).
Chisom: Thanks for the Kinyarwanda link. LTM sounds like the most exciting project! Glad to see the spotlight on African languages too. Are you learning new languages at the moment?
Desta: My language learning schedule is hectic and wonderful. I take Turkish, Thai, Arabic, Swahili and Tigrinya lessons.
Chisom: Nice! What are some of your hopes for your writing? With the growing recognition of your writing as well as the steady growth of LTM, do you have plans for keeping writing going alongside LTM?
Desta: Two books I’m writing immediately come to mind: Black Beauty Model Agency, and another one. I’ve been working on them for a few years. I would love to publish both of those, and would love to find an agent to work with.
Future hopes for LTM: just to keep going, and exploring, especially in terms of African languages, because I feel there’s not enough material and courses on African languages.That’s what I am doing now, and my weekly podcast focuses on interviewing an educator or creative who speaks a specific African language, so focusing on one African language per month and creating materials around that.
Maybe in the near future, I would like to pursue a Doctorate that would explore in greater depth the links between music and language learning. There’s a book I really enjoyed recently, The African Imagination in Music by Dr Kofi Agawu, and it is all about the links between African languages and music from around the continent.
For my writing, I will keep on keeping on! I enjoy it. It’s good for me, and I just want to become a better writer and share stories that should be heard, stories I am fascinated by, stories about people I think should be better known; just keeping learning and improving is the plan!
Chisom: We’ll be here to read your works as you grow in your craft. Thanks for making time for this dialogue, Desta. It has been a pleasure.
Desta: Thank you, Chisom!
This conversation was conducted prior to the announcement of the winner of the 2021 Afritondo Short Story Prize. Congratulations to Desta Haile.
Chisom Okwara is a Nigerian writer and interviewer. She writes essays and travelogues (with publications in the Question Marker, Thrive Global and Popula) and hopes to get back to writing fiction soon. She participated in British Council’s Future News Worldwide Conference for young student journalists in 2019. Currently, she is a full-time Project Coordinator at SoCha LLC.