Meron Hadero is an Ethiopian-American who was born in Addis Ababa and came to the U.S. 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 shortlisted for the 2019 Caine Prize for African Writing and published in Zyzzyva, Ploughshares, Addis Ababa Noir, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, The Iowa Review, The Missouri Review, New England Review, Best American Short Stories, among others. Her writing has also been in The New York Times Book Review, The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives, and will appear in the forthcoming anthology Letter to a Stranger: Essays to the Ones Who Haunt Us.
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. Meron 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.
BY SALIHA HADDAD
This conversation took place between the US and Algeria, via email.
Saliha: Hello, Meron. Congratulations for being shortlisted for the AKO Caine Prize for African Writing. It’s your second time being shortlisted for the prize, which is an outstanding achievement. Is there a difference between how you felt when you were shortlisted for the first time and this time? Have your hopes and aspirations of being shortlisted the first time been fulfilled?
Meron: Thank you. It’s a huge honor to be shortlisted, and still feels as thrilling and humbling this time as it did the first. The main difference now is really that the pandemic has meant our cohort hasn’t had the chance to meet yet in person, though I hope to one day. My fellow finalists are all brilliant and exciting writers, and hopefully we’ll forge a lasting bond despite the constraints we face.
Saliha: I enjoyed reading “The Street Sweep” a lot. It’s somehow suspended my breath multiple times though it’s not a thriller or a horror story. I wanted so badly for the main character, Getu, to be safe in a way as if he was chased by a monster or a serial killer. Do these feelings I had while reading the short story bear weight to the fact that the problems that are consuming our African societies like poverty, lack of prospects, and bureaucracy can be as much or even exceeding in horror and horrific scenes as we traditionally know them?
Meron: I’m glad to hear that the stakes in the story felt high and palpable. Yes, what Getu faces here is a real threat to his safety and security, and his future. He is in a precarious situation when the story starts, and so he’s driven to take action at a point when he has nothing to lose.
Saliha: I understand that the story is part of a collection of short stories about immigrants, refugees and those facing displacement. This is later the challenge facing the main character and his mother. The fact that an already underprivileged family—like many others in their situation—have to abandon their homes, cities, memories and big parts of their lives and be obliged to find somewhere else to live, even if it’s in the same city or country, sounds horrifying and depressing as when people have to flee their countries because of war, poverty or other pressing causes. How were you able to capture this kind of displacement? Was there a particular real life situation that inspired you to write “The Street Sweep”?
“My family left Ethiopia and came to the U.S. via Germany in my childhood, so the immigrant and refugee experience, and the experiences of those facing displacement, are personal to me. I wrote my book centering these stories in a very organic way.”
Meron: My family left Ethiopia and came to the U.S. via Germany in my childhood, so the immigrant and refugee experience, and the experiences of those facing displacement, are personal to me. I wrote my book centering these stories in a very organic way. It really wasn’t a choice, it was just what I was drawn to naturally. These are stories I feel close to, stories I want to share and explore.
Saliha: I would describe your writing style for this short story as being beautifully brutal, with dialogue lines like this ‘“Eighteen here is like seventy-five anywhere else,” he rebutted.’ Uttered by characters that are not turning around on their feet to say or before saying what they are thinking about. How would you describe your style for this story and in general? Is it the urgency of the situation facing the characters that dictated its style? Which African writer’s style amazes you the most and maybe makes you want to write like them?
Meron: Thank you so much for saying this about writing style. It’s a high aspiration to write in a way that evokes layered emotions—that bittersweet line, or that ecstatic and devastating moment, for example.
To answer the last part of your questions, I remember reading Dinaw Mengestu’s The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, and it was such a gorgeous and moving book, and what I really respected was the way he was able to allude to the horrors of the Derg in Ethiopia not by focusing on it, but by showing us the effect on the character. I’ve described it before as demonstrating the gravity of the Derg in the same way that a black hole is understood by looking at the slant of the light around it and not the darkness itself. He wrote about lives skewed by that history in order to reveal the weight of the darkness. I thought that was brilliant—how you can use absence and silence to tell a story.
Saliha: I read your short story, “Swearing In”, in The Normal School Literary Magazine about the election of Barack Obama and the time he was sworn into office, published originally I think in 2009 then republished in 2015. There is a fragile hope emanating from the story for immigrants and refugees especially from Africa, but it is still Hope. Years later Donald Trump was elected. Does the election of Donald Trump justify now, retrospectively, the fragility of the hope in the story? Did you think at the time it happened of writing a story about maybe the same character or another character witnessing Trump being sworn into office, and the feelings they had during it too?
Meron: To take this question in a more general direction, I think stories change over time. They are evolving, and their meaning evolves with different contexts. You’re very right that this story is one that feels like it’s evolved since it was published in 2015, and I’m revising it for my collection as a result of that. As for these specific questions, I’d like to leave those to a reader to answer. I appreciate that you’ve raised them because it’s my hope that readers ask exactly these sorts of questions and come to their own understanding.
Saliha: Returning to the collection of short stories you are working on. And taking into consideration the situation Ethiopia is in right now and the displacements it leads to. Are the present events troubling you and making you anxious in your writing as they are happening in the now instead of the past? How would you describe their effect on you, your writing and present-future works—especially having to watch from a distance?
Meron: It’s heartbreaking. I’m heartbroken.
Saliha: Reading this story was very pleasant, not in the sense of the happenings of course but because of your direct writing style, the imagery and juxtapositions in the story and the strong vivid characters. I would love to know what you are working on in addition to the collection of short stories, as am sure many readers of “The Street Sweep” would love to know as well.
Meron: I’m focusing now on my forthcoming story collection A Down Home Meal for These Difficult Times, which will be released in spring of 2022. I’m also working on a novel-in-progress, but that is a conversation for another day.
Saliha: Meron, thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. I wish you the best of luck for the AKO Caine Prize.
This conversation was conducted prior to the announcement of the winner of the 2021 AKO Caine Prize for African Writing. Congratulations to Meron Hadero.
Saliha Haddad is an Algerian part-time teacher of English at university. She graduated in the field of Anglophone Literature and Civilization in 2015. She is an Interviewer for Fiction at the online magazine, Africa in Dialogue. She has written about cultural subjects for the Algerian online platform Dzair World and for the printed and online magazine Ineffable Art and Culture. Her debut creative nonfiction piece has appeared in the African magazine Agbowó.