From Ethiopia to Canada: A Life Full of Stories

20/11/2012 21:11

Saturday afternoon, Library of the Department of English and American Studies at Gondova 2. During the 6th International Conference of Central European Canadianists that took place at the Faculty of Arts from 12 - 14 October 2012 I went ahead and talked to one of the keynote lecturers of the event. My mission? A story behind the life of Daniel Coleman, a professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. Initially I did not have the slightest idea what the outcome of such an unusual interview would be. You can bet that I did not expect it all to leave such a strong impression on me. I did not stay the same afterwards. It turned out that we both had a date with ideas. Will you let yourself be inspired as well?

Photo source: Wendy Coleman, University of Alberta Press

Perspectives (P): Let me start with a conventional warm-up question: Have you ever been to Slovakia or is this your first time? How do you like it here?

Daniel Coleman (D): No, I have never been to this part of Europe before. This is all new to me and I have to say it is very beautiful. Although I am here only for three days, so far it has been exciting. It is very pleasant; I wish I had more time to enjoy your beautiful country… maybe next time when I come.

 

P: You delivered the keynote speech “A Conversation that Never Happened: Copway, Traill and the Failure of Indigenous-Settler Dialogue” in the morning. I have to say it was outstanding. Can you tell us a bit more about your own impressions from the conference?

D: Thank you. I have been to conferences of different associations of Canadian studies before and what I really like is the broad interdisciplinary feeling. It is all very lively. I especially enjoy the cross-fertilization that comes from the people who pursue different areas and speak together about a wide range of topics. I also like seeing the activities that the Central European Association for Canadian Studies is doing.

 

P: You grew up in Ethiopia. It was surely difficult, yet extraordinary at the same time. Your childhood must have influenced you a lot… Can you tell us more about it? What is the story behind the great Daniel Coleman?

D: My parents were Canadians who worked overseas as missionaries. I was born in Ethiopia together with my elder brother and two sisters. We lived in the countryside. I grew up speaking English and two Ethiopian languages - Amharic and Oromiffa. I can still speak Amharic, but unfortunately I forgot most of the Oromiffa because it is a regional language. However, we used English most of the time, partly due to the fact that we were all sent to boarding schools in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia at the age of 6.

 

P: Have you ever considered staying in Ethiopia? Why did you finally decide to move back to Canada?

D: Well, we were not Ethiopian citizens and the government was strongly anti-western at that time. That was the pattern – as soon as we all finished secondary school we went back to Canada, where we lived with our relatives.

 

P: What about your parents?

D: They went to Ethiopia in 1949 and stayed there for 45 years. They both had close ties with the Ethiopian country and the culture. My mother still speaks Amharic perfectly, she even taught it at school in Ethiopia. However, when my parents retired, they went back to Canada, so we now live in the same country. Unfortunately, we cannot see each other very often, as we live 2,000 miles apart.

 

P: Have you always wanted to become a university lecturer? How did a boy from Ethiopia become a professor at McMaster University?

D: When I went to Canada, I told my family I was never going to attend school again. I wanted to go to work, so I found a job in a factory, where I cleaned vegetables and fish at first and later also sold the fish. After one year in the factory I decided that school was not that bad. My family is still laughing at it: “After saying you will never go to school, look, you have spent your whole life there!” I started to study Physical Education teaching, but ended up having good grades in English and bad grades in Sports. I realized that I should change my subject, so I started taking classes in TEFL and got a job in Saskatchewan, Canada. I taught English as a second language at university for 4 years. After that experience, I felt worn out. I wanted to speak about ideas, not just grammar and punctuation. So I took my Master’s degree and then a PhD. I was the first child in my family to go to university, so it was all new. I had no vision from my youth. My path unfolded rather gradually.

 

P: I am sure your childhood has had a huge impact on your personality. What role do your memories play in your life? What does Ethiopia mean to you?

D: Ethiopia made me the person who I am today. Everything comes out of that experience: my dignity, democracy, and diversity, like the themes of this conference (laughter). I got everything from my childhood in Ethiopia. I can illustrate it using one nice metaphor. Ethiopians are among the top long-distance runners in the world, because the country is at such a high altitude. To run there makes tough lungs, because the oxygen is very thin. I used to run long distances in Ethiopia, but not seriously. Everybody ran, so I ran too. Nevertheless, when I moved back to Canada, I came in first place with no exercise whatsoever, thanks to those lungs.

 

P: However, I am sure it was not only positive...

D: Surely. I was the only “white“ kid in the neighbourhood. People used to play with my hair: “How did you get this?” I was aware of my whiteness and I understood what it means to be pointed at. However, this is a very good experience as well. My interest in race relations comes out of this.

Anyway, difficulties came mainly after the revolution. People from western countries were constantly under suspicion. Particularly during my teenage years, my friendship was dangerous to my Ethiopian friends so they had to stay away. It was like living in an island and that was very sad to me. To live freely was not really possible because of the political system. I experienced shooting in the streets and things like that…

However, I am very grateful for this childhood because I did not have a chance to be naïve about the world. I had to face strong conflicts and that is not pleasant, but it is a gift. I am lucky in some ways. This experience has been very important for everything I have done afterwards.

 

P: You believe that not only do people write books, but that books have a role in writing people. What role do books play in your life?

D: I started reading seriously only at university when I encountered literature classes. Surely, I read a lot when I was a kid, but that reading was just for entertainment and escape. However, reading is still the most incredible experience for me. Especially the process of writing itself seems magical to me. Reading requires a lot of activity of the mind and that is a huge gift. If you can read, you can do anything. Due to the fact that I saw what the lack of literacy can do, I feel passion about reading. Look at me, reading gave me my life: I am teaching at university, I cannot believe it. Reading gives you social access and a cosmopolitan sensibility. It is both deeply personal and social at the same time. It is not only about knowing who you are, but also about knowing the world in which you live.

 

P: What is your favourite book?

D: I like reading poetry just for pleasure. I like to challenge myself because poetry is so slow and you have to take your time. Actually, I often do not have enough time to read the newspapers because I have these poems to read. However, I think that the poems are the news in some way as well.

And what I like to discuss professionally is e.g. the novel Obasan by Joy Kogawa. It was published in 1979 and it tells about how one novel can reflect a society… and at the same time how a society can be changed by that reflection. The book describes the imprisonment of Canadian citizens of Japanese ancestry in Canada during the Second World War. This system of racism reflected in the novel changed the way we behave and understand the world now. That is the power of literature.

 

P: Your views are also reflected in your most recent book In Bed With the Word. Can you tell us more about it? I am sure there is a story behind such an unusual title, too…

D: I hope that in my work I can bridge the gap between the ivory tower of university and the broader readership. I think sometimes we in the academy are to blame. We use a language that is so complex and difficult to understand. I do not want to write scholarly material that comes from a completely detached social figure.

And the next thing is the story. As we are all from a deeply religious family, we were used to our parents’ morning prayers. They spent the time reading the Bible. We all witnessed this; in fact I think that my love for reading comes from watching them at home.

When my elder brother was 6, he went to a boarding school. The second day, when all the kids were already at class, my brother was still in bed, in his pyjamas, holding a big Bible in his lap. He could not read yet… When the dorm supervisor came, she asked him, “Johnny, what are you doing in bed?” And he answered: “Oh, I thought I’d spent a day in bed with a word.“ It was the Word of God that he meant, trying to reach something familiar that he knew from my parents at home.

I think many of us are in bed with the word. And why do so many people like reading in bed? It is the sense of intimacy, privacy and the comfort of that action. It is not escape; rather engaging with the world. However, when reading, we need some privacy for reflection.

 

P: Tell us more about your recent projects...

D: I will tell you about a class called Voicing Hamilton. It is a small class for people outside the university community that is free. It is for people who would face barriers to education. I am teaching it for the second year. There are people from the ages of 20 to 70 and every background. Some of them have physical disabilities... These are all people who have had a hard time in their lives and each Saturday we get together and we basically discuss all sorts of things. We work on different projects, some people did oil paintings, others did video projects and interviews, they wrote poems... I could not believe the sophistication and beauty that these people have made. It made me feel that sometimes we forget a very basic fact about humanities education, which is human dignity. The participation is giving those people enthusiasm for their own lives, the sense of dignity as a human being. It is so amazing because that is what truly matters in the end...

 

Daniel Coleman, a professor at McMaster University, teaches and carries out research on diversity in the Canadian literatures, the literary and cultural production of categories of privilege such as whiteness, masculinity and Britishness, and the spiritual and cultural politics of reading. He has published six books and has co-edited nine scholarly volumes. His most recent book, In Bed With the Word: Reading, Spirituality and Cultural Politics was published in March 2009.

Martina Bednáriková

 

Comments:

Date: 21/04/2016

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Date: 21/04/2016

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Subject: To go to Canada for Work

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