The History of a Difficult Child: A Novel
“Mihret Sibhat’s command of language, her sense of humor, and her love for Ethiopia combine to stir the memories of any who have encountered this culture and people.”
Mihret Sibhat, the authorof The History of a Difficult Child, was born in the town of Yayo in the Ethiopian province of Illubabor in the coffee producing region of southwest Ethiopia. At 17 she relocated to California where she got her undergraduate degree at California State University-Northridge. She then earned her MFA at the University of Minnesota and was awarded a fellowship and artist initiative grant in 2019. This is her first novel.
The setting is a small town in Southwestern Ethiopia during the late 1970s and 1980s. The child is Selam Asmelash, daughter of Asmelash and Degitu, their sixth child and third daughter. It is the voice of Selam that drives the narrative with a few others providing details of the family and community history.
Difficulty stems from many other sources beyond the child. The national and local governments, friends and neighbors, town gossip, and the weather—all contribute to what could be called the misery index. Mihret Sibhat has created a family story, a community story, a political critique, and a very funny rollicking novel in which the voice of a child is both sophisticated and naïve at one and the same time. Selam also tries to make sense of what seems a senseless world.
From the start, it is clear that this is not an ordinary story. The first chapter is titled “The Beginning,” and the next chapter is “The Real Beginning.” The first is an account by Salem of being caught in a downpour during the rainy season. The second is an account of the vaginal bleeding that has afflicted Degitu, the cause of which is not known. It is the subject of a conversation and speculation by a group of town women gathered for a customary afternoon coffee and bread. In both of these “Beginnings,” the reality of the revolutionary government is described. In both, the biting humor that is an important part of the novel is unleashed.
Selam is not an ordinary child. The circumstance of her conception is not conventional and indeed the subject of considerable conjecture and gossip at the afternoon coffee gatherings among the women of the town. Prior to her birth, or indeed her mother’s pregnancy, a local fortune teller predicts the signs that will occur on her arrival and the consequences that are not entirely fortuitous.
The story of Degitu, her husband, and their children is told by Selam as they try to cope with the revolutionary regime and pursue their separate but intertwined lives. Aside from Selam, Degitu is the centerpiece for much of the story, although her husband and each of her children are subject to considerable scrutiny by Salem’s critical eye. The local representatives of the revolutionary government such as Comrade Rectangle-Head are lampooned and cursed.
Religion is deconstructed by Salem. The Orthodox Church and Evangelical Protestantism are critiqued as Salem finds them ludicrous and ridiculous in ritual and meaning. Salem’s description of her own baptism is one of the best examples of her views on these subjects. More biting are Salem’s views on the spell that Protestant evangelists cast over her mother.
The climax of Salem’s quarrel with the religions of her world comes in her conversation with God, which is the subject of one chapter late in the novel when Selam meets an old man who might be God. In discussing the need for the existence of evil, God explains to Salem the significance of love, death, and freedom and their interdependence. Upon reflection, this may well be the heartbeat of this extraordinary tale.
Over the course of Salem’s story, Mihret Sibhat captures many of the elements of Ethiopian life and culture. The sights and smells of daily life especially those involving food are detailed: Injera (type of bread) and Wat (various sauces), Tibs (beef), and coffee, always the coffee, with dabo (bread roll), tej (honey wine), and tella (a type of beer). Basic elements in much of Ethiopian cooking are the spices contained in berbere and kibe (spiced clarified butter). Food and drink are at the center of social life and conversation.
Folk beliefs and cures, superstitions, fortune tellers—all make an appearance. These touch upon beliefs surrounding physical and mental health. In short, some of the central characteristics of Ethiopian culture are on display for better or for worse.
Through it all, this young girl who is ten years old by the end of the story, is a magnificent guide to this ancient and enduring culture. Mihret Sibhat’s command of language, her sense of humor, and her love for Ethiopia combine to stir the memories of any who have encountered this culture and people.
For others less familiar with Ethiopia, The History of a Difficult Child provides a very nice introduction to this country that boasts of “Thirteen Months of Sunshine” and being the cradle of human existence.