The renowned Ethiopian poet, screenwriter, journalist and essayist, Solomon Deressa, who settled in the United States in the early 1980’s, died on Thursday in Minnesota, his family announced. He was 80.
Solomon, born in Wollogga, western Ethiopia, has come to be recognized as one of the most influential figures of the Ethiopian literature with his refined, innovative poems. Sometimes called a surrealist poet, Solomon has produced two collection of Amharic poems, L’Jinnet (1970) and Zebet Ilfitu: Walotat (1999), which have been lyrical delight for lovers of modern and contemporary verses. Africa: an Encyclopedia of Culture and Society (3 volumes) (2015), wrote that Solomon, though frugal in production, was highly philosophical because he was arguably the most well-read Ethiopian of his generation. “As seen in his collection of poems published under the name Lijinet (childhood) his poetry is characterized by the substitution of different measures to break up a rhythm. Solomon happens to be one of the very few poets recognized enough to have his poetry chosen among the best of Africa and published in the collection of works of Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka.”
“Solomon Deressa’s concern at this juncture of history is not to reclaim/espouse a specific heritage/source,” wrote critic Taddesse Adera. “On the contrary, he transcends ethnic, national and geographic boundaries. His call goes beyond Ethiopia; his is a call for the collective harnessing of the Horn’s communal treasuries, including poetry,”
Solomon’s poems, at times, served as kind of litmus test for readers, many finding his work willfully difficult and self-indulgent. He has rather made his reputation in his lively articles in the excellent yet short-lived magazine, Addis Reporter in the mid- 1960s. Through his writing he has voiced the challenges of living in different cultures as the “Hyphenated-Ethiopian,” a term he and Gedamu Abraha popularized in the late sixties. The educated Ethiopian’ they said at the outset of their artilce, ‘is Ethiopian in transition’. ‘Passing from the annual harvest to the monthly salary and from the homestead to the apartment, we have exchanged communal security for individual destinies’
Among other Solomon’s memorable essays in the Addis Reporter were “The Dime Novel”, a scathing critique of the ephemeral Amharic novels that were flourishing at the time and profile of a waiter, in which he said “a waiter’s life is a dog’s life. Yet it can be a lordly life also. The hours are long and most customers obnoxious. But you address them all as “Getoch” and by conferring honor and dignity on all and sundry, you become honourable-a lord.”
In 1972 Solomon attended the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa and the result was of further collection of poems, twelve of which were published in Topics, the United States Information Service. One of these is a piercing and prophetic comment, in the words of literary critic Albert S. Gérard, emanating from the decade which had just ended, and is appropriately entitled “Abyssinian Sixties.”
What an age!
Mature beyond its future
Departures that forego aspirations
Morning glories and Job’s tears
lilies and roses.
Buds clamp on their inner selves
as the storm approaches.
Darkness shall soak us
in accumulated pains,
and names explode like flowers in summer.
Will the heroes be maimed
our dreams congested
dragging their buttocks
along the same asphalt that buried the flowers,
and lovers stand aside
to watch the tight fornication of tradition?
Solomon’s collection of poems in English and French were also published in the reputed African Art, a quarterly devoted to the graphic, plastic, performing and literary arts of Africa in 1969, one of which under the title , Shifting Gears.
I who swim
In the stealth of a dream
Listening to the minds of insane silence scream,
Because of colour lack
I shall paint your loving face
In the colourles breath,
With grapnel-fingers in an empty colour rack,
Beneath the quiet curve of your lashes
Two simple awesome dots in black,
You whose love never wavered
Towards whom I forever crack
On the tip of my parched tongue.
Solomon Deressa was born in the little hamlet Chutta, near the town of Gimbi in Wollogga during the Italo-Ethiopian war to his mother Yeshiembet Deressa and his father Danki Lanki. He took the name Deressa from his maternal grandfather, whom he said “himself sung privately to his grandchildren for hours on end, in both Oromo and Amharic, of Ethiopian heroes. He also declaimed Oromo poems in honor of his ancestors to the 20th generation.”
He left his native village and came to Addis Ababa at the tender age of four. He studied at Teferi Mekonen school and at the General Wingate School. After attending class at the Addis Ababa University for some time and working as a news broadcaster for Radio Ethiopia, he headed to France and joined the University of Toulouse on a government scholarship in 1959. “I had to be the first one who failed entrance examination three times to join the university. Then French became easier for me. ……. I was not attending class most of the time. We had exams only once a year. I was going around Europe. I would go back to the University some three months before the exams. And the three months were enough for me to study and pass the exam,” he said in an interview.
“I was steeped in French literature. I wrote French poems, of which some of them were published. I lost much of my French through disuse. What I’m left with are Amharic, English and Afaan Oromo, though I haven’t written anything in the latter yet. It wasn’t exactly the French literature but it was my stay in Paris that made a deep impression on me. I was only twenty when I arrived there. So much fun and freedom. The aura of freedom in Paris was such that I felt that I was given its key by the mayor. There were many great literary, musical and artistic figures there. And I sat around with them. And even an owner of a certain avant-garde gallery took me for an art expert. And there were painters that I had chosen that later became renowned. I don’t mean Ethiopians, of course. It was staying amidst those giants that had an indelible mark on me,” Solomon said.
While in Paris, Solomon was closely associated with Africa-Americans, especially with the jazz artists and authors.
“I narrowly missed meeting Richard Wright. It was the year that he died that I set foot on Paris. Hanging around with the likes of Chester Himes, James Baldwin and others whose name I had forgotten made me feel that I was a writer. It was from them, not from the French University, that I gained knowledge of art, literature and music. I used to go to the museum, library, theatre and concerts with my Ethiopian friends. I didn’t have much money. I used to earn my keep off-loading vegetables from the lorry.But I was living like a millionaire.I consider Paris as my home next to Addis.’
Returning home in 1963 after finishing his studies in law and economics, Solomon Deressa embarked on the budding broadcasting, serving as director of programs at Radio Ethiopia from 1969 to 1971 and deputy general manager of the Ethiopian Broadcasting Service (radio and television) from 1971 to 72. During those years he wrote, produced, directed, narrated, hosted radio and television programs on such topics as Ethiopian history, literature, art, American writers, the fight for freedom in southern Africa.
Solomon said that, while he was working as an official of Radio Ethiopia, he was already beginning to question “what the devil I was doing there…….the fact that there was a certain amount of censorship and holding back the news was so depressing; because it always meant that we, those of us presented the news, knew what was good and not good for the listener; which a tremendously big assumption, to me it is mind-blowing when I think back now, that I was then to sit there and decide that this may be harmful to so and so-this may not be good for him.”
Discussing the problems of the Ethiopian writer operating under government censorship, he noted that the censor were “full-time employees, paid to do this, and in a way they are a kind of super-editorial board for the whole country, and whatever they think is offensive, other politically or socially or from the religious point of view or erotically banned.”
After the dawn of the 1974 revolution, Solomon took refuge in the United States where he took different posts such as an instructor of philosophy at Metropolitan State University and language instructor, language tape producer, translator, University of California. He also worked on film and television scripts for Blaze Productions, a film and video company then headquartered in Minneapolis. His poems had been reviewed in such publications as The Village Voice, and the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry, and the Encyclopedia of World Literature. He described those years of “loitering in the sloughs of western universities, more to survive than to be edified,”
Solomon was married to Nan Raker, an American national who immigrated to Ethiopia in the early 1970’s and the two lived together unit their 1975 exodus from the revolutionary regime of Mengistu Hailemariam. They have a daughter Galanne Deressa, who has growing into a lovely lady and now working as a Programme Specialist at the UNFPA, in Bangkok Metropolitan Area, Thailand.
Solomon is also survived by his younger brother Berhane Deressa, a prominent person in his own right. Berhane held diplomatic postions for a number of years, including working as head of the American section of the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry, the deputy chief of the Government’s Relief and Rehabilitation Commission before seeking political asylum in the United States in the early 1980’s. Returning to Ethiopia in two decades later, he also served as a caretaker mayor of Addis Ababa from 2006 until 2008.
A memorial service will be held on Saturday 5 November, 2017 at 2 pm at the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, 900 Mount Curve Avenue, Minneapolis.