Robert Cohen is the author of one story collection and four novels, most recently Amateur Barbarians (Scribner). For VQR’s winter issue, he traveled to Ethiopia to chart the progress of the ancient Axum obelisk, a once-stolen antiquity that has recently been returned to its homeland. In his essay, “Love of Mother, Glory of Crown,” Cohen, an adoptive parent of an Ethiopian girl, considers the problematic qualities of constructing a personal history that spans several nations. Here, he takes a moment to answer a few questions about the essay.
1. How did you come to be preoccupied with Ethiopia in the first place?
I guess like most preoccupations it began more or less randomly, through no special initiative of my own. One day an old friend called and said he was going to Addis Ababa with a group of people looking into new ways of dispensing charitable aid, and sitting there idly at my desk, which was covered in paper, it occurred to me, hey, why not go along? It was just one of those sudden impulses. When I came home and told my wife about it she had a sudden impulse of her own: I wasn’t going, she was. So we argued. Finally she said, “Look, you want to go because you’ll find it interesting. I want to go because I might actually do something.” This seemed all too irrefutable. So I caved in, and she went and did something (in fact she’s in the final stages of setting up an NGO even as I write this), and I stayed home and thought semi-interesting thoughts about not-going, and somehow one thing led to another and we wound up adopting a ten year old AIDS orphan and becoming, in entirely different ways, obsessed with the place. Whether this is because of Ethiopia itself or our own multiply-determined need to expand our personal horizons at this point, I have no idea. I mean, if my friend who called had been going to Senegal, or Lladakh, or Cleveland, my preoccupations would probably be running towards those areas instead.
2. What was it about the Axum Obelisk that originally fascinated you?
The comedy of it, along with the sadness. All those years of fervent negotiation, all that grand patriotic hoopla when the obelisk first came back, and then, literally for years, nothing but difficulties, and of the most banal kind. It just seemed like an irresistible symbol of what happens when you take something out of its cultural framework: how hard it is later to wipe the slate clean. We see this in the museum world, with the repatriation of various treasures, a mess no one seems quite able to untangle. Is it better to empty out the museums, and send all the old treasures home? And are the home countries, for all their righteous protestations, really prepared to deal with that? The truth is that some are, and some aren’t. Most have mixed feelings, I think. It just so happens that mixed feelings and tangled motives and the serio-comedy of futile, intractable projects—this is the sort of thing that interests me. It was the setting and the scale that seemed new.
3. What do you think will happen with the obelisk? What do you think it will mean for Ethiopia if and when it is ceremoniously re-erected?
First of all, it has been ceremoniously re-erected: as of last September, the obelisk is now back in place, more or less where it was—though not how it was. The truth is the granite had been lying around in pieces for centuries by the time the Italians stole it. So even the notion of “restoration” in this case should be taken with a grain of salt. But as for what it means for Ethiopia, that depends who you talk to. To the government and the historians and the media, to the Tigrayan authorities, to everyone involved in getting it back, it means a great deal. For most people I met on the street? Not so much. A lot depends on one’s politics. Meles, the Prime Minister, comes from Tigray, so in other regions they tend to view the re-erection hoopla through that lens, as a native son bringing home some major pork and glory while the rest of the country fights for crumbs. It’s not like Ethiopians do a lot of in-country tourism; almost no one I met in Addis had ever been to Axum. But this may be too cynical for all I know. My sense is when the obelisk first came back, five years ago, the patriotic feeling was genuine, not just something manufactured by the govenment. Then with all the delays that feeling grew attenuated, so by the time of the re-erection the whole thing seemed kind of wan and forced.
4. Some of the underlying tension in this piece has to do with the impossibility of being a respectful, fully engaged Western traveler in the third-poorest country in the world. Do you think there is a way to travel and experience Ethiopia without the problem an imperialist point of view?
No. But I didn’t mean to suggest in the piece that it’s difficult to be respectful and fully engaged when traveling there: in fact it’s super easy. The people are lovely, affectionate, full of warmth; it’s a pleasure to travel among them. What’s impossible, and should be, is to forget for one second that you’re a farenji. The second you arrive you’re in a kind of Heisenbergian dilemma: no matter how low a profile you keep, every time you look out at the people on the street you’re aware of them looking in, at you. Let’s face it: most white people who travel in East Africa are either businessmen, NGO types, missionaries, or extreme travelers. It makes for preconceptions on both sides. There may be personality types who can just ignore this as they go about their business, but I’m not one of them. Then too, every writer who travels is an imperialist of sorts, greedy for some narrative treasure or other to bring back home.
5. You bring up the question of belonging—where do people and things belong, what happens when stolen antiquities are returned to their country of origin—and you relate them to first world/third world adoption. What prompted you to consider this question and do you think all adoptive parents of African children must address these issues?
I’d never presume to say what other people should address. Adoption is a pretty strenuous business all around, and I have nothing but respect for those who involve themselves in it. At the same time, it was weirdly unsettling, having breakfast with our daughter in the Ghion dining room, seeing our happy little tableau through the eyes of the staff. We could have chosen to ignore it, dismiss it as reflexive liberal guilt; probably we should have. But our attitude towards foreign adoption was almost mystically pliant and unformed. That feeling we had in the Ghion seemed to go to the heart of something very complicated, something we weren’t quite prepared for. On some level—and I don’t mean to overstate this, just to state it—you feel like a pirate. You’re going into a poor country and taking this child. It’s not just that, of course, but it’s also that. To pretend that it’s not, that the process is untouched by consumerism, of the kind that sends people to the third world in search of cheap organs, a kidney or a liver or what have you, seems naïve. However selfless your motives, the moment you enter the scene you change it for good. That child will never quite fit back into their country. Why this struck us as surprising is itself a surprise I guess. But it did.
6. Your published work consists mainly of fiction, and in your most recent novel, one of the main characters experiences a crisis and escapes to Ethiopia. How do you approach the processes of writing fiction and non-fiction differently or similarly, especially when it is about the same subject?
The novel was pretty far along already when I first went to Ethiopia, so in some sense there wasn’t much of an overlap. Also the places I sent my protagonist—Dire Dawa, Harar, the Danakil Depression—were places I was never fortunate enough to visit. They were actually easier to write about, it turned out, than the places I did visit: less obligation to empty out the notebooks, get it all down. Essentially the two projects looked through opposite ends of the telescope: the fiction was about stepping away into remoteness, and the nonfiction was about return. But both are haunted by the sense of this stranger wandering out into Otherness, using it and being used by it in turn.
7. What are you working on now? What are you reading now?
You mean, other than this Q&A for you guys? Isn’t this enough?