Can one woman in disguise unite a spiritually divided nation? Meet Tobbya, defiant founder of an Ethiopian Empire

This blog post is among the winners of the Department of Comparative Literatures’s 2020-2021 Blog Award for the module 6ABA0013 ‘Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa in Global Cultural Studies’. Congratulations to Paige Harris for winning the award!

Who was Afewark Gebre Iyasus?

Born in 1868, Afewark was religiously educated before his introduction to the Ethiopian political sphere. He was part of a new wave of Ethiopian intellectuals who received a European education, studying both in Switzerland and Italy, where he later taught Amharic.  

In 1908, Afewark published Lebb Wallad Tarik, later re-titled as Tobbya. Literally translated as ‘a story born out of the heart’ this timeless fictionalised history of Ethiopia marked the advent of a new historical genre. As one of the first printed pieces of Amharic literature, what can Tobbya teach us?

Afewark’s novel twists and turns with disguise, misrecognition and dead-end solutions- will chance- encounters re-unite this unlucky family?

The novel centres upon the fates of a Christian family whose homeland comes under threat from ‘Pagan’ invasion: Dajazamach, his wife, and their twin children, Wahed and Tobbya.

The novel begins with the capture of Dajazamach; the pursuit of his ransom fee forces Wahed out of the familial home and into the company of a generous merchant. This merchant pays for Dajazamach’s release, and Wahed’s desire to repay his debt of gratitude sparks the first of many interwoven quests which divide the family. The themes of separation and reunion are key, as the reader’s attention is continually shifted to a new focal point.

These shifts occur through repeatedly frustrated journeys and the need to give thanks. Afewark reflects upon the diversity of human character, against the backdrop of the unforgiving Ethiopian landscape and small rural communities. Both Dajazamach and Wahed suffer cruelty at the hands of the people they meet on their journeys, including beatings, torture and slavery. However, Afewark balances this misfortune against serendipitous chance encounters.

One such encounter brings Dajazamach, Tobbya and the invading ‘Pagan’ King together. The King’s character, religious views and actions are surprising as Afewark presents him sympathetically, constructing a balanced view of this alternative religious group. After travelling with her father in male clothes Tobbya lifts her disguise, capturing the heart of the King. Tobbya’s commitment to her to her faith and pursuit of peace for her people radically changes both the invasion and the fate of her nation. Afewark uses their union to weave his moral ambition into his textual structure, he brings disparate textual strands together to unite his characters under the umbrella of Christianity. Afewark’s narrative journeys teach his characters the importance of family and virtue for both individuals and the nation.

The First Born of Amharic Literature- A Contentious Title: The Critical debate

Tobbya’s status as the first Amharic novel is a highly contested one- is it simply a primitive folktale?

Primitivism assumes literature had a linear evolution, from fables and folktales to the culmination of literary success- the realist novel. This evolution locates the novel in the West, which later filtered out to the peripheries in a diffusionist model of cultural development.

The idea of dominant Western influence and non-Western compromise is articulated by Franco Moretti’s Laws of Literature; especially his wave model, in which the novel was exported from France and Britain to locally rooted, passive recipients.

The intra-national Ethiopian debate- Simple fable vs. moral novel: Tolossa vs. Admassu Fikre Tolossa: ‘Realism and Amharic Literature’

  • Fikre argues that the Amharic literary tradition followed a linear path of development which had its origins in fables and folktales, following a diffusionist mode of cultural progression.
  • He states that Tobbya cannot constitute a novel as it lacks the necessary realist details, including a specific and rooted time or place. It is also missing physical and psychological elements; this means it is ‘nothing but a folktale.’ (P.62)
  • Fikre surveys Amharic literature through this realist lens and works from a Communist perspective, arguing that the culmination of realist writing will serve a socialist political agenda.

Yonas Admassu: ‘The First-Born of Amharic Fiction: A Revaluation of Afework Gabraysus’ T’obbiya’

  • Yonas explains that we must understand a literary tradition for what it is, rather than dictating what it should be- it does not matter whether Tobbya is realistic or not.
  • He believes that a critical contextualisation of a text within its social moment is key, and in this context-sensitive framework all the elements used by Afewark belong in the cultural code he operates in.
  • A critic must not be prescriptive and should attempt to understand the building blocks crafted by the author; Tobbya’s formal structure furthers Afewark’s moral goal of assimilation to unite a Christian Ethiopian Empire.
  • Tobbya is a hybrid novel as its complex moral and political themes require the reader’s interpretative participation. (p. 94)

More than just a folktale- travel as a motif for moral development

An illustration of how a hero’s physical journey combines with their inner psychological developments- in Tobbya for example, Wahed encounters a lion, prompting a psychological rebirth in his quest to maturation 

Travel is one literary structure that furthers Afewark’s moral and religious ambitions.

For Rebecca Jones, travel informs the reader about collective and individual experiences. In her article on ‘Translation and Transformation: Travel and Intranational Encounter in the Yoruba novel’ Jones explains how the physical journey undertaken by a traveller externalises their internal psychological development.

The intra-national encounters Tobbya, Wahed and Dajazamach have teach them about Ethiopian struggles and their places as national subjects. For Tobbya, her actualisation as a mature Ethiopian subject changes both her place within the nation, and Ethiopia itself.

Underpinning all these journeys is a strong religious ideology; piety helps the family to endure hardship. The marriage of the Ethiopian monarchy to Christian values unites a divided Ethiopian nation under the umbrella of Christianity.

So what has Afewark achieved?

Tobbya is more than a fable as the moral lessons it teaches are embedded in a complex story of familial unity. Afewark lyrically constructs an emotionally realistic and three-dimensional picture of the journey from childhood to maturation, and highlights the importance of understanding and fulfilling the role of an engaged national subject. Adopting Admassu’s framework allows us to understand this personal, religious and political story through the lens of Ethiopia’s struggle for religious unity.

Through Afewark’s carefully crafted tale of separation and re-union Tobbya has not only earnt its place as the first Amharic novel, but also reflects upon the internal journeys we all undertake.


Want to discover more?

Read: Ethiopia’s Enduring Cultural Heritage

Watch: African Renaissance: When Art Meets Power- Ethiopia

Bibliography:

Admassu, Yonas, ‘The First-born of Amharic Fiction’ in Silence is Not Golden: A Critical Anthology of Ethiopian Literature, Eds. Taddesse Adera and Ali Jimale Ahmed, (Lawrenceville (NJ): Red Sea Press, 1995), pp. 93-110

Afewark Gebre Iyasus, ‘Ləbb Wälläd Tarik’ (‘Tobbya’) [1908], Trans. Tadesse Tamrat, The Ethiopian Observer, 8.3 (1964), pp. 242-266

Jones, Rebecca, ‘Translation and Transformation: Travel and Intra-national Encounter in the Yoruba Novel’, Journal of African Cultural Studies, 27.3 (2015), pp. 98-113

I am a third-year Liberal Arts student from London, majoring in Comparative Literature and minoring in Classics. My academic interests centre on the spread of syncretic transnational social and cultural forms, most recently including anti-colonial and black liberationist movements and the development of Ethio-Jazz and UK Grime. Whilst in sixth form I won the Mary Turner award, given to female students for their academic achievements and contributions to the wider school community. For my dissertation, I am analysing 20th c. Anglophone Caribbean authors’ use of Classical Graeco-Roman texts in order to reframe their post-colonial identities. I am particularly interested in the use of English within the colonial project as a culturally destructive tool and the feelings of rupture that this has engendered. I also teach as a part-time Swimming and Lifesaving instructor and wish to continue working with children in developmental settings in the future.

Modernity and the West : How Ideas Travel

This blog post is among the winners of the Department of Comparative Literatures’s 2020-2021 Blog Award for the module 6ABA0013 ‘Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa in Global Cultural Studies’. Congratulations to Tyfene Jelstrup for winning the award!

What good has western imperialism done for the world? I asked this question to an acquaintance after she suggested I was maybe exaggerating the ‘evils of Western civilization’. I didn’t expect a reply, but to my surprise, I was given one. It helped spread modernity, said my acquaintance with confidence. The answer made me pause despite myself. I wanted to refute it categorically, but I doubted. Did modernity really come from the West? And even if it did, was its global spread even a positive thing?

What is modernity? It is probably the first question one should answer to understand such a problem. Modernity could mean many things in many different domains. Scientific advances maybe. A new artistic movement, going beyond the pre-establishment. Modernity is what is claimed to come after a revolution, a breakthrough. Calling a thing modern is welcoming the change it has brought to the world. In philosophy, modernity is a concept of the Enlightenment, that came after the decision to privilege rational investigation over superstition and religious dogma. Western society is often referred to as modern precisely because it has supposedly turned away from the ‘old ways’ and welcomed the age of reason.

Did modernity come from the West, then? It is a common Western belief that Modernity was born in Europe in the era of the Enlightenment, and spread to the other continents via colonization and the subsequent agenda to push forward the cultural authority of the West.
This idea is referred to as the theory of diffusionism. It implies that imperialism was a
necessary evil, which we should condemn for its violence but praise its result as ultimately positive for the other civilizations ‘blessed’ by the modern European ways. But although it is
commonly thought that the spread of modernity was of a diffusionist nature, born of some particularity Western brains possess then graciously shared with the rest of the world, this fact has been disputed, and even disproven. A more popular belief would have modernity be
a co-constituted phenomenon. Different ideas would have been born simultaneously in
different places and affected each other. Because evidently, not only Europeans travelled. A
proof of this can be found in Africa and the very existence of the African Enlightenment. For
instance, Zera Yaqob, the Abyssinian philosopher, has as much claim to the title of father of the Enlightenment as René Descartes. Zera Yaqob had never read Descartes, but one can still see similarity between the points discussed in his Hatata and the French philosopher’s preoccupations. They both see faith as something that needs to be reinforced through critical thought and understand the world as equally comprehensible through reason. There are of course differences in their philosophies -Descartes’ attachment to catholicism being one of them, in opposition to Yaqob’s faith in the Ethiopian tradition of orthodox christianity -, but they ought to be compared. It should be noted that it would even be impossible to claim that Yaqob had read Descartes and been inspired by him, considering the Hatata preceded him. It would therefore be more accurate to say that some modern ideas come from the West, but it shouldn’t be praised as the sole birthplace of modernity.

And is the spread of modernity even a good thing? The spread of modernity, whether it
comes from Europe or not, was accompanied by the spread of capitalism, increased industrialization and exploitation. It also allowed a part of the world population to grow richer, and for their lives to become more comfortable, but at the expanse of the more marginalized communities and the environment. Some have even theorized beyond the original modern ideas, as postmodernism can attest. Modernity is questioned in many ways by contemporary scholars and society as a whole, as we look back on history and find that is often accompanied by violence and destruction. Thus, we can conclude that if western imperialism has done the world any good, the gift of modernity is certainly not part of it.

Bibliography
Sebastian Conrad 2012, ‘Enlightenment in Global History: A Historiographical Critique’. The
American Historical Review, vol. 117, no. 4, pp. 999–1027.
Zära Yaḳob 1667, Hatäta (‘Inquiry’). Trans. Claude Sumner 1976, Ethiopian Philosophy, vol. II: The Treatise of Zara Yacob and Walda Hewat, Text and Authorship. Addis Ababa: Commercial Printing Press.


Tyfene Jelstrup is a Third year Comparative Literature student at King’s College London. Born in Madagascar and raised in France, she comes from a mixed background which has prompted her interest in post-colonial theory and the literature derived from it. She is currently working on her dissertation on post-colonial adaptations of Sophocles’ Antigone, combining her love for the classics with her academic and personal interest in the studies of racism and imperialism.

Rethinking modernity and cultural authenticity

This blog post is among the winners of the Department of Comparative Literatures’s 2020-2021 Blog Award for the module 6ABA0013 ‘Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa in Global Cultural Studies’. Congratulations to Tonje Beisland for winning the award!

Who can claim ownership of modernity? Today, we see clearly the global impact of the technological, social and scientific progresses that characterise modernity. Examples of such development include education, democracy and public and private law. These developments are primarily taught as the emergence of European schools of philosophy that spread to other regions during the Enlightenment period – itself the very ‘sign of the modern’ (Conrad, 999). However, modernity is not necessarily the European invention we are often taught it is. Rather, modernity and the Enlightenment were global phenomena where thinkers from all over the globe were responding to the same new modes of interaction and socio-economic conditions, such as cross-border communication and the movement of global capital (1008–1009).

Conceptualising modernity

The origins of modernity can be approached through the theoretical frameworks of ‘diffusionism’ and ‘co-constitution’. The diffusionist model understands modernity as a process which was invented in Europe and then spread to other locations across the globe (1026). These peripheries can only receive modernity; not influence it. Consequently, some of the processes that often characterise our perception of modernity and our understanding of ‘progress’ – whether they be technological inventions, civil freedoms or industrialisation – are portrayed as intrinsically European. Despite its universal significance and global impact, modernity could originate in ‘Western civilization only’ (Weber, xxviii). Diffusionism sees concepts such as modernity to be developing in self-enclosed environments without outside influence. In light of this, the true and authentic modernity is presented as inherently European. Consequently, the diffusionist model demands an essentialist view of identity, where any deviation from this ‘essence’ means alienation from the ‘true’ cultural identity.

The co-constitution model argues that modernity is a global phenomenon. Modernity was co-produced across national, cultural and linguistic borders, and is global in its very nature. This approach argues that modernity came into existence through mutual influence and change, not from a definite centre. It is defined through relationships between different geographic locations. As global interactions increased, largely fuelled by colonialism and other travels, the foundation for exchange of ideas grew and thus opened up for the global development of modernity (Conrad, 1027). With the mutual influence and subsequent gradual changes, there is no inherent essence to return to. The co-constitution model therefore sees identity as something that changes and is not bound to a fixed understanding.

The insistence on cultural authenticity in contemporary debates

These concepts often seem primarily related to scholarly contexts. Nevertheless, we still see the issues the prevalence of the diffusionist approach in many contemporary debates in the media. We often see cultural clashes where people are adamant that there is only one true way to showcase belonging and be culturally authentic. Communication across cultural borders is often perceived as a threat to traditional customs that ‘predate’ the modern era, where many attempts at combining different cultural products are met with criticism that implies alienation from both cultures. This assumption of a fixed and essential identity mirrors the diffusionist approach to understanding our world.

An example of such normative affirmation of cultural traditions happened in Norway in 2016 when politician Sahfana M. Ali posted a photo of herself on Facebook in her new ‘bunad’. The Norwegian national costume has immense symbolic value. It is perhaps the most traditional symbol which is still widely used in a modern lifestyle. The bunad is often connected to someone’s local heritage as well as national identity and has deep sentimental value to many. When Ali posted the photo of her bunad, many people reacted to a hijab she had custom-made to fit the bunad’s traditional embroidery. The photo faced a public backlash, with many claiming that the hijab and the bunad should not be paired. The hijab lacked a historical connection to the bunad while also indicating a connection to other historical and cultural values. However, as was later pointed out by the Norwegian Institute for Bunad and National Costumes, the hijab does not differ very much from other traditional headdresses paired with the bunad. In fact, both the Norwegian headscarf and the hijab share the same origin from the Middle East 3000 years ago and have both been closely connected to religious identity and marriage throughout history. The combination of the costumes can instead be considered a symbol of successful integration where two traditional garments are united as they create a new costume more fitting for modern multicultural society.

This claim to the bunad’s cultural authenticity demonstrates how the diffusionist approach to modern history attempts to paint certain cultural traits as timeless. However, claims to such essentialised identities conceal the larger structures of global interactions ‘that brought about the modern world’ (1008). The fact that the hijab and the bunad’s headscarf have a shared cultural and geographical origin demonstrates the falsity of a narrative which depicts the bunad as inherently Norwegian. To insist on such cultural authenticity would be to deny the intricate processes of engagement across the globe that brought about modernity and our contemporary world – not as a European invention, but as a phenomenon that through mutual global influence gradually developed.

Bibliography

Conrad, Sebastian. (2012). Enlightenment in Global History: A Historiographical Critique. American Historical Review, 117(4), pp. 999–1027.

Weber, Max. (1905). ‘Authors introduction’, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (pp. xxviii–xlii). London and New York: Routledge.

Tonje Beisland is a Norwegian third-year Liberal Arts student majoring in Comparative Literature and minoring in English literature. She is the sub-editor of the independent online publication NUET which offers a wide range of topics centred on self-expression, art and sustainability. She received ‘Garborgprisen’ and the first prize in the Humanities section of ‘Young Scientists’ hosted by the Research Council of Norway for her research on feminism, intersectionality and patriarchy. After starting her BA at King’s College London, her most recent interests have extended to the postcolonial and transnational context of the Caribbean. She is currently working on the application of Greek and Norse mythology in contemporary Caribbean and Norwegian literature for her dissertation and intends to enter the publishing industry after graduating.

Seeking good faith: Afäwärq Gäbrä-Iyyäsus and his novel Ṭobbya or Ləbb Wälläd Tarik (1908) – a story born from the heart

This blog post is among the winners of the Department of Comparative Literatures’s 2020-2021 Blog Award for the module 6ABA0013 ‘Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa in Global Cultural Studies’. Congratulations to Nina Hanna for winning the award!

If writing that was used to teach English grammar had made up the foundational texts of English literature then no one would bother studying it. But Ləbb Wälläd Tarik, now known as Tobbya, was written by Afäwärq Gäbrä-Iyyäsus when he was exiled in Italy as part of a selection of writing he used to educate his students on the Ethiopian language of Amharic. Tobbya is now famous for being the first novel written in the language – so much so that its original name Ləbb Wälläd Tarik, which can be translated as ‘a story from the heart’, is now the Amharic term for novel.

Tobbya is an enchanting tale which uses seemingly serendipitous moments to unfold its plot. That is to say, everything that happens appears to be totally dependent on chance or fate. This makes the story incredibly engaging as we follow each character’s greatest moments of luck in life as well as their unfortunate misadventures. This atmosphere of luck, chance and even destiny is added to by the central characters, Tobbya and Wahid, being highly connected as twins; meaning any luck or misfortune that occurs in the life of one deeply affects the other – foregrounding the idea of fate as having widespread consequences.  

The story follows a close Christian family unit – the twins Tobbya and Wahid along with their parents. Their  father serves as one of four Dejazmach (Christian generals) defending his people against incoming Pagan invasions. By chance, he is the only one who does not lose his life in battle and is instead sold into slavery. Luckily, his master learns of his noble past and offers him freedom for a ransom. The Dejazmach’s family work hard to make the money but, again, it is by fate that Wahid meets a benevolent merchant who anonymously sends the ransom to free his father. Wahid is so desperate to thank this merchant that he sets out on an unfortunate journey to locate him and, instead, he is ironically captured and sold into slavery himself. Tobbya disguises herself as a boy for protection and sets off with her father to search for her lost brother. They are caught in yet another Pagan invasion and, though her father feels their fate is sealed, Tobbya uses her faith to stay hopeful. She says to her father: ‘do you think that Christ does not do miracles more than once?’. With this question, Tobbya transforms the motifs of fate and chance of the story into the destiny of God’s will. The pair are saved by what seems to be divine intervention – as the Pagan army marching past fail to explore the hill they are hiding on. They are later discovered by the Pagan king himself who, despite heading a pillaging army, declares they must not be harmed. The king eventually falls in love with Tobbya after discovering she is not a boy and his cousin, who has fallen in love with the disguised Tobbya, then falls in love with Wahid – who the king saves from slavery. In order for the novel to end with a joyous double marriage, the king and his followers convert from Paganism to Christianity – uniting the nation and providing salvation for all. 

The chance encounters of the novel now all seem to have been in accordance with God’s will and Tobbya is ‘happy … because god … used her [to] convert the great Pagan king’. But the narrator does not fail to see how this was all contingent on mere chance. The novel ends by noting: ‘all were saved because of a merchant. All believed in Christ because of a woman. The whole of Christian Ethiopia was established because of the words of a king’. Afäwärq Gäbrä-Iyyäsus was possibly hoping that by writing Tobbya, which celebrates the ancient history of Christianity in Ethiopia, luck would also favour him. It was published alongside his Chronicle of Menelik II, (the emperor remembered for defeating Italy and preventing the European colonisation of Ethiopia), with which Afäwärq Gäbrä-Iyyäsus sought to regain favour after having collaborated with the Italians Menelik II managed to fight off. In this way, Tobbya is both a story which celebrates ancient Ethiopian Christian heritage and one with which the author is seeking good faith in order to return back to his national homeland. The depiction of the understanding king of his novel is perhaps most revealing aspect of the author’s intention to flatter his own king. 

However, Tobbya is a beguiling read even for those unversed in Ethiopian history or Christianity as the chance, fate and destiny written into its plot cannot help but delight and provide a wonderful reading experience. 


Bibliography 

Afäwärḳ Gäbrä-Iyyäsus, Ləbb Wälläd Tarik (1908),Trans. Tadesse Tamrat 1964, ‘Tobbya’. Ethiopian Observer, vol. 8, no. 3 pp. 242-266. 

Hyperlinks

1) ‘Ethiopian language of Amharic’ – Omniglot, Amharic (ኣማርኛ) <https://omniglot.com/writing/amharic.htm> [accessed Nov 10 2020].

2) ‘Pagan’ – BBC Religions, Paganism <https://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/paganism/> [accessed 2 Nov 2020].

3) ‘(the emperor remembered for defeating Italy and preventing the European colonisation of Ethiopia)’ – Anchi Hoh, Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia and the Battle of Adwa: A Pictorial History in The Library of Congress, International Collections <https://blogs.loc.gov/international-collections/2020/03/emperor-menelik-ii-of-ethiopia-and-the-battle-of-adwa-a-pictorial-history/> [accessed 2 Nov 2020]. 

4) ‘UNESCO world heritage site’ – UNESCO World Heritage Centre, Rock-Hewn Churches, Lalibela <https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/18/>  [accessed 2 Nov 2020].


Nina is a final year comparative literature student from London. Her research interests include post-colonial literature and the environmental humanities, but she has specifically loved studying Ethiopian literature, history, and culture at King’s. 

Afäwärḳ Gäbrä-Iyyäsus’s Tobbaya: The Girl Whose Stubborn Faith Helped Unite Ethiopia

This blog post is among the winners of the Department of Comparative Literatures’s 2020-2021 Blog Award for the module 6ABA0013 ‘Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa in Global Cultural Studies’. Congratulations to Molly Spears for winning the award!

Have you ever read a novel originally written in Amharic? Have you ever consumed any fiction about nation-building in an African country? Have you ever imagined that a text that falls under both of these umbrellas could feature an empowered female protagonist? Welcome to Tobbaya, Ethiopia’s first novel in the Amharic language, published in 1908 under its original title Lebb Wälläd Tarik, which gracefully translates to ‘Story Born Out of the Heart.’

When first reading this text, you will lulled by what has been described as its ‘tale-like simplicity,’ and struck by its ornate, fascinating style of Amharic prose. Gäbrä-Iyyäsus’s stunning writing vividly follows a twisting plot encompassing the separate yet entwined adventures of Wahid, Tobbaya, and their father during the pagan invasion and occupation of their country after the death of the Christian king. The father, a Christian general, is captured into slavery and miraculously ransomed by a benevolent merchant in the first section. The second part of the novel follows Wahid, who ventures away from home intending to thank the merchant for his service to his family. A twist of fate results in Wahid becoming enslaved, triggering the third part and final quest, during which Tobbaya and her father endeavour to recover Wahid from whatever harm they suspect he has fallen prey to.

A helpful companion to Tobbaya, as a novel written in a language and context which you
may be unfamiliar with, is Yonas Admassu’s critical review on the text. Admassu helps to direct the reader towards the most compelling themes and points of the narrative. As readers we are presented with characters who encounter heroism and personal growth through their experiences of travel and
adventure, most powerfully exemplified by Wahid. Despite the hardships he experiences, and the bouts of fear and doubt that strike him throughout, he does not cede to the offer of luxury at the king’s court, and insists he must still ‘look for him [the merchant] until either I succeed in finding him or die. I cannot choose comfort and happiness at Your Majesty’s palace and forget my friend.’ Indeed, Admassu stresses the centrality of these ‘rites of passage’ and ‘initiation[s] into manhood’ in the plot of Tobbaya.


Next, Admassu also suggests that the reader take notice of the prominence of strong
religious faith as the plot unfolds and develops. Tobbaya as a protagonist is admirable predominately due to her resilient loyalty to the Christian God. She refuses the hand of the surprisingly generous and tolerant pagan king, as she concludes that such a choice would be ‘tantamount to denying her religion and would mean that she preferred the comforts and pleasures of this transient world to the happiness and eternal glory of the world to come.’

Admassu goes on to emphasise the importance of Tobbaya’s religious values, and this one relatively small personal action made by a young girl triggers the spiritual conversion and thus the salvation of the entire nation. The king’s respect of and yearning for Tobbaya as a partner in life causes him to ‘embrace the Christian religion,’ and to allow ‘Jesus Christ’ to ‘open [his] heart.’ Gäbrä-Iyyäsus’s closing sentences of the text cement this sentiment, proclaiming that ‘[a]ll were saved because of a merchant. All believed in Christ because of a woman. The whole of Christian Ethiopia was established because of the words of a king.’


The reason that this novel goes under the radar among Western readership is, paradoxically ,
both complex and incredibly simple. The fact that the text reads as fable-like causes Anglophone scholars to assume that Tobbaya does not hold any notable literary quality or social commentary. This, however, is a dire under-reading of the novel, and is a lazy ignorance of the true value this text offers not just to Ethiopian and other African readers, but to the world’s literary community in general.


Writing off this book as naïve simply because it does not present itself as realist prose is a
gross loss to casual readers and critics alike. Admassu laments this reception of Tobbaya, claiming that the ‘significance of the work in its social context seems to have been either little understood, or simply considered not worth the serious interpretive effort it really deserves.’


Like Admassu, I warmly encourage you to quieten any presumptions or apprehensions you may hold concerning the first Ethiopian novel. Give yourself the opportunity to broaden your literary horizons, and immerse yourself in a novel that is both lyrical, political, and adventurous in both plot and presentation.


Citations and Further Reading
Admassu, Yonas ‘The First-born of Amharic Fiction’, in Taddesse Adera & Ali Jimale
Ahmed (eds.), Silence Is Not Golden: A Critical Anthology of Ethiopian Literature. (Lawrenceville (NJ): Red Sea Press, 1995)


Gebre-Iyasus, Afewark, Lebb Welled Tarik (“Story of the Heart”), (Rome, 1908.) (Translated into English by Taddesse Tamrat, “Tobbya”, Ethiopian Observer VIII, 1964, pp. 242-267)

Molly Spears is an aspiring poet/novelist and a third-year student in the Comparative Literature department at King’s College London. She is currently working on her dissertation which is concerned with queer writers’ artistic purposes, their intended audience, the revision and publication
process, and reader-response theory. Molly plans to progress with her studies to an MA, during which she hopes to focus upon the developing representations of female psychological and physical health in 19th and 20th century fiction.