Aaron Berhane, an award-winning journalist and publisher, is the recipient of the 2019 PEN Canada-Humber College Writers-in-Exile Scholarship and acting Chair of PEN Canada’s Writers in Exile Committee. He was co-founder and editor-in-chief of Setit, Eritrea’s first and largest independent newspaper, until September 2001 when it was shut down during a government crackdown. Berhane lived in hiding for more than three months before escaping to Sudan and finding political asylum in Canada. Berhane was interviewed by PEN’s Communications Intern, Kayla Chhin.
Kayla Chhin: How has the Humber course changed your writing process?
Aaron Berhane: I’ve never had a course that’s so practical. You can apply the tips you get from your mentor right away. I’m close to mastering the ABCs of writing a book: storytelling, structuring and seeing my work critically. I was really fortunate to be mentored by the award-winning author David Bezmozgis. He went above and beyond to give me in-depth feedback by going through my writing line by line, and by understanding the culture and the issues I was writing about. He challenged me to go deep. Because of his straightforward, immediate and encouraging help, my confidence grew through the first draft of my book.
KC: How as moving to Canada affected your writing?
AB: All my life I’ve written in Tigrigna. I used to have a large audience in Eritrea. Once I fled, I lost that audience and it affected my writing. The transition to another language hasn’t been easy, nor has finding a new audience. But I never slowed down. I started a community newspaper that publishes in Tigrigna, and English, and I created a website to reach a wider audience. I hope the book I’m writing will help me to reach more English speakers. So, moving to Canada has affected my writing positively, and I’m very grateful for that.
KC: As a child of refugees, I know the weight of being separated from home. I often feel guilty for being here when others can’t leave. Do you feel this burden?
AB: I couldn’t agree more. I was one of the few journalists that escaped. Eleven of my colleagues were arrested in 2001 and seven have died in prison. I don’t know how many of the others are still alive. I always feel the burden of exile, of not being able to help them out of jail, or force the hand of the Eritrean government to release them. I do my best to raise awareness of their situation with the help of Amnesty International, CJFE, CPJ, PEN, RSF, and other human rights groups. But we can’t set them free and I feel guilty for being here without being able to end their misery.
KC: Is Canada’s stance towards Eritrea the right one? If not, what would you change?
AB: No, it isn’t. It doesn’t fit with Canada’s values. The government website says: “Canada’s interests in Eritrea center on promoting human rights, particularly with regard to respect for democracy and the rule of law, civil liberties, and freedom of the press and association.” None of those exist in Eritrea. So I wonder how Canada is promoting human rights in Eritrea.
There is no freedom of speech there: the independent presses were shut down and their editors have been jailed for more than 18 years. There is no freedom of movement: people are not allowed to travel freely from one city to the other, let alone outside of the country. The Eritrean parliament has not met since 2002; the Eritrean constitution which was ratified in 1997 has never been implemented, and the country has been run without a constitution. There is no rule of law either, arbitrary arrest and disappearances are very common.
You may ask, does the government website represent Canada’s interests fairly? If so, why doesn’t our government put more pressure on Eritrea to align with Canada’s values? Is it because of the gold mining lobby, or something else? If you look at how the Eritrean consulate in Canada dictates, intimidates and harasses Eritrean Canadians, which undermines Canadian law, it’s not hard to see that Canada doesn’t have the right stance.
KC: If you could give advice to your younger self in regards to writing, what would it be?
AB: I would say, read a book every week and write every day.
KC: Has writing in a second language changed your perspective on language?
AB: We all know that learning a second language, especially English, is crucial. But I wasn’t aware of how much it would change my perspective on the culture, history and the way of life. It has revolutionized my thinking and writing. It has helped me to understand Canadian culture and reach a wider audience.
KC: What you are working on?
AB: I’m writing a memoir about co-founding Eritrea’s first independent newspaper: the harassment I and my colleagues faced when doing our work; the closure of the paper, and the difficulties my family faced. I’m trying to capture the birth and death of our independent press.
KC: When did you know you wanted to write? When did you first identify as a writer?
AB: I’ve enjoyed reading since my childhood, but I didn’t have a platform to practice my writing. Once Eritrea got its independence and I observed the lousy administration of the government, I began to write letters to the only newspaper we had which was government-owned. They never published my letters because they were too critical, so I decided to become a writer and influence more people by starting my own newspaper.
KC: Which three books would you take to a desert island?
AB: Giday by Biniam Yosief (written in Tigrigna). This charts the disintegration of a family during the colonial period through the eyes of a young boy. It’s funny, enlightening and inspiring. I’d love to read it again and again.
Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey. This wouldn’t only entertain and instruct me about unique types of trees, animals, and nature in general, it would remind me of the presence of other creatures in my surroundings and teach me to treat them like friends.
Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. This is a brief history of humankind which made me question so many things I had believed all my life. It opened my eyes in so many ways. I’d love to read it again, to digest the complex ideas that Harari presents so simply.
KC: As an author, would you say the Internet and social media are friends or foes?
AB: I think both. They help you research and reach people easily, so a friend. But if you want people to read more books, actual literary work rather than time-wasting chit-chat, then a foe. Social media robs us of many readers in this way.
KC: Speaking of the Internet, where can we find your work?
AB: People can access some of my work by going to www.meftih.ca
KC: Congratulations on becoming the acting chair of the Writers in Exile Committee! What does this committee mean to you, and what are your plans moving forward?
AB: I have been a member of the writers in exile committee for years. I have benefitted a lot from it – It helped me to connect with newcomers like me and found comfort. Someone took a lead to make that happen. Now, it is my turn to give back. So, it is a privilege for me to be in such a position. Besides the monthly meet-up we have been doing in the past, I have a plan to organize workshops four times a year regarding writing and trauma; connect our members with mentors with the help of PEN Canada and encourage my fellow exile writers to tell their stories to the Canadian public.