An Open Invitation to Form Eritrean Writers’ Association

The idea of forming EWA will help address three fundamental issues: political, social and artistic.

Given the proliferating numbers of Eritrean websites, the great number of writers that feed these websites and the large amount of material posted every day, it leads one to question as to why so far there has been no organization that formally represents these emerging writers as well as those who have been writing books and articles on professional journals and former and current journalists.
We firmly believe the time has come to remedy this deficiency and positively address the challenge by creating the Eritrean Writer’s Association – EWA.

The idea of forming EWA will help address three fundamental issues: political, social and artistic.

On the political level, we all know how that very brief spring that journalism and other forms of literary expression witnessed in Eritrea came to quick, abrupt and cruel end, with most of the journalists ending up in the prisons of PFDJ, some of them allegedly dead by now. As a result, Eritrea has the unflattering distinction of being the only African nation without an independent media and one that lacks any degree of freedom of expression. This makes it incumbent upon us to struggle to reverse this unacceptable circumstance. That is to say that the Diaspora has become, by default, the unintended defender and champion of this fundamental right and freedom. The emerging and proliferating free media and the diversity of the writers is a testimonial to this new reality.

On the social level, the new Diaspora media and independent writing are contributing to a growing and improving social interaction within the Diaspora community. But so far, this contribution lacks both the urgency and focus that is needed to properly address the myriad social problems that afflict the Diaspora community. In fact, not enough of that vibrant energy is being channeled to meet the increasing demands for all kinds of service within the Diaspora community. And the need for these kinds of service is bound to grow as the number of Eritreans living outside of the country kept increasing, given the large number of influx of refugees. Hence the need for a strong and united voice of the community that meets the double challenge that comes from within and without. The Association could play a vital role in creating this voice.

On the artistic level, the volume of the written material, the rich subject matter, the diverse talent of the writers and the new exposure afforded by the internet all point to the need of fostering artistic excellence. The existential angst that Eritrea is undergoing right now is not only economic and political in its nature, but also cultural and artistic. If the nation is not only to survive but also to thrive in the 21 st century, it will have to find its rightful place in the post-modern era. And writers will be at the forefront in exposing Eritreans to new ideas and progressive cultures that go beyond the nation’s borders, and inject a healthy dosage of cosmopolitanism into the Eritrean society.

As pointed above, the problems that Eritrea will face in the 21 st century are multifaceted. Technologically, it will have to fully plug into the information age. Economically, it will have to find its own niche in the ever-competitive global market. Politically, it will have to shed off its isolationist trappings and begin thinking regionally and globally. But the linchpin that holds all of this together is the cultural one; Eritrea will have to find a way of quickly, wholly and irreversibly joining the family of progressive nations. And this can be done mainly by looking outward for inspiration; the claustrophobic, inward-looking world view has to be discarded. It is the role of artists of all persuasion, in general, and writers, in particular, to act as midwives in such a critical transformation.

The underlining need for free thinking writers, journalists, novelists, poets, etc to do their share to the struggle to bring justice, democracy, human rights and new progressive ideas to the people of Eritrea and to provide the kind of services that are direly lacking to the people in Diaspora underscores the need to create a concerted means. EWA is meant to be such a means. In all of this, its role will be, if not decisive, at least very critical for the democratization of Eritrean politics, culture, literature and social relations, both inside and outside Eritrea. Therefore organizing an Eritrean Writers Association is among one of the most urgent call of the time. It is an unavoidable urgent task.

The benefits of this type of informed and educated gathering will be:

A – Fostering a culture of dialog
Our main goal should be how to foster dialog on the many important issues that each of the writers has been tackling in his or her own individual capacity. A one-way address to one’s audience, one that lacks constructive feedback from fellow writers, does little to foster dialog. It is only in a two-way conversation that one’s ideas get criticized, analyzed, corrected and finally enriched. And such a dialog can only happen between the writers themselves; that is, when one writer addresses the work of another writer in a constructive and systematic way. And given the fact that the Eritrean political situation and the Diaspora Eritreans’ lived experience provides us with so much subject matter that draws so much passion from many sides, many conflicting with one another, it would be here that the Association would be called to foster a culture of dialog where such exchange of ideas would be made to flourish.

B – Providing regular meeting forum
One of the first objectives of the EWA is to provide a meeting forum for the writers to know and talk with one another. It is obvious that without doing this, nothing else can be achieved. It is true that writers need an intellectual climate to thrive. So our first step should be to provide our writers such an informal meeting place, only this time it will have to be mainly a virtual one – call it cyber-café, if you will. First, creating such a medium, where the writers will be constantly in touch with each other, communicating with one another, criticizing each other’s work and learning from one another will be of paramount importance. Whenever it is possible, actual face-to-face meetings should also be arranged by organizing workshops, organizational meetings and possibly retreats. And second, the same internet can also be maximally used in creating an interactive medium between the writers and their audience; expanding the blogosphere being a good example of that.

C – Conducting symposiums
The Association could also do a lot of service to our audience in general and to the Eritrean political dialog in particular if it provides a largerand more structured forum where the most important topics – the role of Eritreans in diaspora, violent versus non-violent resistance, the constitution, the language issue, religious persecution, religious divide, Eritrean identity, the border issue, relation with Ethiopia, etc. – are dealt with in a systematic and exhaustive manner. One way of doing that would be to hold occasional symposiums, cyber or otherwise, where many writers are asked to address the same issues from various angles within a certain range of time. Then those same writers would again be asked to revisit the subject matter, only this time they would be able to criticize and respond to one another. It is only out of these intense confrontations that anything constructive could be made to emerge.

D – Focusing on subject matter
One particular deficiency among the literary community in Diaspora is lack of focus on pertinent subject matter. The Association would help us in remedying this deficiency by occasionally selecting a subject matter and bringing a focus to an issue or a challenge that needs to be studied deeply. The reasons could be of various sort: because the subject matter is timely, urgent, relevant, controversial, under-studied or unresolved. Once a topic is selected, the Association could take various approaches on how to enrich the discussion by identifying interested writers and the method, timing and venue of discussion. For instance, once a subject matter is selected, the Association would float the idea among the writers and sees if there are any takers. In those instances where it believes the subject matter is urgent and must be addressed immediately, it might be of paramount importance to address it quickly before the audience’s interest shifts to another event; it might even push for a particular writer (or writers) – especially if he or she has been dealing with the subject matter before – to address it in timely fashion.

E – Inviting guest-writers
One area where the EWA would be of much help is inviting guest-writers to address specific issues. There are many foreign and Eritrean writers and intellectuals with specializations on diverse subjects that deal with both proper and Diaspora Eritrea: – historians, anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists, economists, doctors, social workers, etc. And the subject matters that they deal with needn’t be explicitly related to Eritrea and Eritreans. Given the global connectedness that permeates everything we do and the universality of human nature, drawing lessons from others experiences is not only unavoidable but also desirable. Think, for instance, of having a black American talk about the black experience in America, a feminist talk about women experience, a doctor talk about the Aids problem, an anthropologist talk about minority issues, a political scientist talk about the American constitution, etc. It is easy to see how lessons drawn from such issues would enrich an Eritrean experience.

F – Focus on Diaspora Eritrea
Little of the subject matter covered by Eritrean writers in Diaspora deal with the day to day lives of Eritreans in Diaspora. Almost all the writing obsessively focuses on the political situation of Eritrea. And this has come at a great expense to the Diaspora community, whose urgent needs are always relegated to secondary status. The Association will devise ways to address the myriad of social issues being faced by the ever-growing Eritrean Diaspora: the refugee problem, the lack of effective communities, the acculturation problem, the race issue, the break-up of families, the generational gap, the drug and gang problem, the lack of cohesion and unity, the dating problem, the education problem, the information deficiency, etc. Thus, the Association will do its utmost to give all the Diaspora issues the proportionate attention they deserve.

G – Focus on art, history and culture
Another victim of our heavily politicized literary culture is the focus on culture in general and on literature, music, movies and other forms of expressive art in particular. There are two particular areas that need attention in this regard. First, with all our focus on Eritrea, there is little knowledge among us when it comes to its diverse history and its multi-layered culture. In this regard, the Association will help by assigning writers to deal with a particular era, geographic area, ethnic group, certain historical figures or any other subject that has been so far neglected. And second, all the topics that deal with art needn’t focus on proper Eritrea only; they could be made to reflect the lived experience of many in diaspora or be universal in their content. And a lot of that will have to be done with both Eritrean and international audiences in mind. Such an approach will help build a globalized perspective with local significance, and vice versa. By introducing Eritrean writers’ ideas and styles to outside audiences, it will help bring Eritrea closer to the rest of the world.

H – Reviewing books and articles
The number of books, articles, poems, movies, music and any other works of art reviewed, Eritrean as well as international, is very limited and far in between. There are many books and articles on Eritrea that keep coming out of the press all the time. Yet, the public seems to know little about them because they are not publicized properly and in due time. And these books to be reviewed needn’t necessarily be on Eritrea. There is a lot of subject matter that directly or indirectly applies to the Eritrean experience in general, but not written primarily with Eritrea in mind. And last, the reviewing needn’t be confined to the literary output only; others forms of art such as movies, plays, paintings and songs ought to be given proper attention. The Association can help facilitate a balanced development of a critic and review format where this glaring deficiency can be corrected in the long run.

I – Focus on translation
We cannot expect local languages to suddenly catch up with the rest of the world, be it in quality or volume, in their literary production. We have neither the resources nor the talent to do that. But we can do the next best thing: the kind of material that writers could translate into local languages is literally limitless. And the fact that Eritreans are to be found in all corners of the world, where many of them are proficient in the languages of their adopted countries makes this endeavor very feasible. It is true that this project will probably have to wait for its full fruition until the totalitarian government is gone, for the beneficiaries of such a task are mainly to be found within the bounds of proper Eritrea. But that doesn’t mean that the seeds of such a grand endeavor cannot be planted now or that there are no beneficiaries outside Eritrea. The Association will identify such a task force and harness their talent to such a purpose.

J – Focus on publication
It is true that a lot of material on Eritrea finds its way to the publishing world. But most of what is written remains confined to the Internet. Although most of that has a casual aspect in it and tends to be not rigorous enough, there is also a lot of material worthy of publication, especially if slightly revised to meet professional criteria. But so far, there has been no concerted effort made to see part of this enormous material get published. This effort though could only be made to materialize if taken by a group. EWA will help in selecting, formalizing and publishing the work of many writers. And when it comes to a specific subject matter, it will solicit articles from individuals and groups (as in symposium). Depending on the quantity and quality of the material it is able to solicit, the Association might even opt to publish a periodic magazine.

K – Recognition of personal merit
The national struggle for independence has been basically a collective effort and as a result individual merit and skill in all fields has been neglected. At a time when Eritrea lost its faith on its most promising generation, its liberators, it is essential to remind the population that not everything is lost and that the nation still has many personalities worthy of mention and respect. At a time when the population has become very cynical, and many in the PFDJ camp have been openly campaigning that no Eritrean can be found to replace Isayas, it is important to give back the people their confidence by highlighting the fact that Eritrea is endowed with talented people, starting from brilliant students in universities all over the world, professionals of all kinds, artists of all sorts, humanitarian advocates and historical figures. The Association can help re-germinate individual voices and the culture of developing and recognizing individual merits and extraordinary contribution in the Eritrean community. This will contribute to the development of appreciation of the individual’s role in our society.

L – Promoting excellence in writing
Most of us who occasionally write in the Eritrean websites are amateurs, and there is no doubt that we would welcome any helping hand that would make us better writers. Analysts need to be more objective; journalists more professional; novelists and poets more exposed to world literature; etc. There are many ways we could do this. Some of them have already been mentioned above. One particular way of promoting excellence in writing is for the written material to get maximum exposure for criticism, feedback and fulfillment purposes. Other means of promoting excellence can also be mentioned: conduct workshops, provide incentives, foster competition, seek out professionals, etc. There is no doubt that the Eritrean writer’s potential, like that of the nation, remains untapped and underdeveloped. Consecutive colonial rule and now homegrown tyranny have been continually throwing formidable obstacles on the path towards literary excellence for decades. One of the most important contributions of the EWA will be to work hard to reverse this dark tradition and advance the cultivation and development of individual excellence as the indispensable fabric of the Eritrean literary culture.

M – Focus on inter-linkage
Unlike many professional organizations, a writers’ association is not “profession-specific,” in the sense that there is no specific subject matter that it is confined to.
A medical association primarily deals with medical field; an engineers’ association primarily deals with engineering field; and so on. But a writers’ association deals with all these fields and more. Writers of various backgrounds could write on, for instance, the HIV spread in Eritrea or the current building moratorium in Asmara. We need to exploit this unique factor in making EWA the node where many other professions could be inter-linked. If properly guided, this might be the link that we need to invigorate the forming of other professional associations. By the mere fact of the extensive scope of subject matter that is available to them – political, social, artistic, etc – writers have the extra burden to link all the threads that make up our social fabric into a holistic bargain that all of us could profit from.

Reversing a dismal literary legacy
Eritrea has been unfortunate in the educational legacy it inherited from its successive rulers for more than a century, beginning from the Italians in the late 19 th century to the PFDJ rulers in the 21 st century. The Italian’s educational policy was intended to provide the natives a bare minimum of practical knowledge that would be needed to make the lowest kind of civil servants out of them. And the renaissance of the 50’s and 60’s that the nation briefly experienced, with few newspapers, a number of books and a vibrant theater to show for it, was soon to be extinguished by Haile Selassie’s Amharanization program. And now, the anti-intellectual culture of the PFDJ has gone out of its way to stamp out the whole environment wherein any intellectual climate could take hold. It is to be noted that the Eritrean government is the only government in the world that has systematically dismantled the nation’s higher learning center, the only university it had, in order to create a culture of conformity that would accommodate its totalitarian aspirations. The totalitarian grip of the Isayas regime knows no bounds: the only university dismantled, colleges turned into boot camps, all high school students handed over to the military, journalists imprisoned and killed, private media banned, and any kind of literary aspiration stifled. That is to say, when it comes to creating a flourishing literary culture, the only Eritrean independent government we have ever had for over a century has turned out to be the worst enemy.

It is with the daunting task of turning a new page in this dismal literary legacy in mind that we are now proposing to form the EWA. It is high time that we lay the groundwork that would once and for all change this sad historical trajectory. By laying the ground work for such an association in Diaspora Eritrea, it will make it much easier for a vibrant media and other forms of literary expression to take hold in post-PFDJ free Eritrea.

Invitation to join the formation process for the Association of Eritrean Writers
By posting this open invitation we are asking all interested to review and analyze our explicitly stated reasons to form EWA and contact us so we can jointly work out the details of how to bring this noble idea into fruition in a nurtured and deliberated manner. Your participation in all aspects of the formation process will help lay a strong foundation that will be deeply appreciated by future and present generation to come.

You can contact us at the following address:

The Ad hoc Committee for initiating the idea for the formation of Eritrean Writers Association

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