Diaspora in discussion: Rebecca Fisseha comes to Vancouver

Prepare to explore the depths of the female experience with Incite: The Secret Lives of Women. This event, in partnership with the Vancouver Writers Fest, will showcase female authors and the strong fictional women they create.

Marjorie Celona (How a Woman Becomes a Lake), Rebecca Fisseha (Daughters of Silence), and Mallary Tater (The Birth Yard) will be reading their works at UBC Robson Square on March 18.

Fisseha is an author and playwright with a variety of inspiring female heroines to choose from. Now Toronto-based, she moved from Ethiopia 20 years ago. Since then, Fisseha has been awarded a Chalmers Arts Fellowship from the Ontario Arts Council and has short stories published in the Creative Writing AnthologyThe Rusty Toque and the Maple Tree Literary Supplement among many others.

Cultural identity in a new country

Rebecca Fisseha, author and playwright. |

Fisseha’s work focuses on the Ethiopian diaspora and the tribulations of adjusting to a new country and cultural experience. Her debut novel, Daughters of Silence, centers around Dessie, a Canadian flight attendant who has to go back to Ethiopia after the death of her mother. Dessie not only has to confront grief and the loss of her mother but reacquaint herself with her ancestral country and culture. Fisseha draws from her own experiences in re-visiting her home country of Ethiopia and living as a person straddling two disparate worlds.

“For Dessie, it’s really more a case of exercising never-used or neglected cultural muscles when she suddenly and unexpectedly finds herself in Addis Ababa. This is even more heightened because the situation she walks into is one of extreme, prolonged grief. There are certain codes of behaviour, gestures, even ways to spend the day that she is totally unfamiliar with and that she has to learn when she would really rather do anything else,” says Fisseha. “For me, landing in a similar situation of mourning, although not unexpectedly, had been equally as jarring. I found myself quite bewildered and just trying to not mess it up and stick to the shadows.”

The universality of grief and mourning

Fisseha’s work focuses on the Ethiopian diaspora.

Grief plays heavily into Daughters of Silence. Fisseha brings the reader on a journey with Dessie and the different ways in which her family in Addis Ababa cope with loss.

“In general, the [death] rituals are very community-focused, even to the point of there being a community fund that people contribute to, which is then drawn upon when a member has funeral costs to cover,” she says. “The emphasis is on keeping the bereaved company, on ‘distracting’ them, so to speak, by staying with them for many days afterwards, just sitting, talking or being silent, crying or reminiscing, taking care of everything that needs to be taken care of so that the person can just be. The community really shows up for the family, at least traditionally.”

Fisseha’s novel lets the reader travel to Ethiopia and experience life there for themselves. She does not want to be a cultural ambassador to her home country but possibly to introduce readers to a country that they may not be familiar with.

“Check out [Ethiopian culture] for yourself, I say, or don’t, it’s up to you. Well, I’ll say one thing: pride,” says Fisseha, “No matter which ethnic or faith group in Ethiopia we’re talking about, a fierce pride in their history and traditions, whether they are elevated or suppressed by the dominant culture or faith, is something all share in common. Fierce pride. Pride to a fault, I might even say.”

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