Conversation with Timnet T. Gedar

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Question: By way of an introduction, please tell me briefly about yourself (where do you live, your professional and/or academic background, etc.)?

 Answer: I am a PhD candidate in African History in the process of completing my dissertation. I also recently completed a graduate certificate in Museum Studies. I was born in Sudan and my family and I came to the United States as refugees while I was an infant. Prior to my doctoral education, I completed a master’s in Social Development Practice in London, UK and also worked as a teacher in Chicago, my hometown. I am an educator at heart and my interest in research is about the process of learning with and for my community.

Question: You have been recently elected as the Secretary of PEN Eritrea. What are your expectations of the next three years with regard to your role and contribution in the association (of writers, artists, poets, etc.)?

Answer: I was humbled by the nomination and I welcomed the opportunity to serve such a wonderful group of writers. My expectation for the next three years is that the association will grow both in quality of our work and in the quantity of members – particularly women members. I would love to see the work of the various writers within the group be amplified and to have a wider impact. I see my role as primarily administrative but also collaborative and representative, especially viz-a-viz other PEN Centers in the PEN International network. In terms of my personal writing, I study Eritrean newspapers from the 1940s and am interested in analyzing the history and style of print culture in Eritrea. I will endeavor to make my contribution impactful in relation to all of the above interests and goals.

Question: As much as we want to see active participation of our diaspora-born compatriots in our grassroots initiatives, associations etc., their engagement doesn’t seem to be encouraging (broadly speaking). We see the trend changing gradually. But, in your view, what is the main reason hindering them from active engagement?

Answer: It is not easy to expect active engagement among groups that have not collaborated as a community in the past. Although there are many Eritrean grassroots initiatives and associations in Europe or North America, they are being established at a time when our diaspora communities are not as unified and cohesive as they used to be in the late 70s – 90s. As a result, I think that many diaspora-born Eritreans have less contact with Eritrean community associations and new initiatives (in my experience, at least).

In addition to this, there is the glaring language barrier. Many Eritreans, regardless of place of birth, may be familiar with both English and Tigrinya. However, the ease of communication in each language varies based on education and experience, and language also carries culture. This linguistic and cultural barrier makes it hard for people to collaborate even if they share the same political goals. I think the solution to this will require more understanding and grace among one another in regard to our language skills and cultural differences, as well as an intentional effort to network and even form friendships with diaspora-born Eritreans. We have a lot to learn from one another and we all have a stake in building a new Eritrea.

 Question: In terms of one of the long-term objectives of PEN Eritrea, that of promoting the creation a political environment that upholds the right to freedom of expression in Eritrea, how far do you think we are from achieving that goal and what do you think needs to be done in expediting the attainment of that objective (the first step of which is defeating the prevailing tyrannical order in Eritrea)?

Answer: Freedom of expression is key to the creation of the kind of Eritrean society that many of us want to see: free, creative, dynamic, innovative, diverse, peaceful, and politically robust. I want Eritreans to experience this no matter where we live, but especially at home in Eritrea. I cannot comment on how exactly to defeat the current regime (I will leave that to the political strategists), but I know that we can learn to practice the political values of the kind of society that we want to see even now, among fellow Eritreans wherever we reside and in our online communities. This will prepare us to live in and to protect a new political environment with freedom of expression in the future. If we are not prepared, we will not be able to sustain it. For this, we don’t need to look much further than our own past. We have both cautionary tales and valuable models to learn from in our historic journalistic and literary activists like Ato Woldeab Woldemariam and others. I believe PEN Eritrea and its members are well-positioned to help shape a global community of Eritreans that promote and model freedom of expression and in so doing, make its manifestation in Eritrea easier to imagine, sooner in coming, and ready to be protected for years to come.