edemariam the wifes tale cover

Aida Edemariam: Telling Wives’ and Grandmothers’ Tales

Text by Elleke Boehmer

Aida Edemariam is a writer, journalist and biographer of dual Ethiopian and Canadian heritage, who grew up in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, and lives in Britain. Edemariam studied English Literature at Oxford University and the University of Toronto. She has worked as a journalist in New York, Toronto and London, where she is currently a senior feature writer and editor for the Guardian.

Aida Edemariam, ‘Learning to Listen’, at the Oxford Centre for Life Writing, 10 June 2019
Aida Edemariam, The Wife's Tale

Edemariam’s The Wife’s Tale is the story of her long-lived and courageous Ethiopian grandmother. Yetemegnu Mekonnen’s life spanned virtually the whole of the twentieth century and was shaped by her country’s tumultuous history of occupation, revolution and civil war. The book was the winner in 2019 of the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize, given for a book which best evokes a sense of place. Earlier, the book also won the Society’s Jerwood Prize for a non-fiction in progress.

Introducing Edemariam’s talk at the Oxford Centre for Life Writing on 10 June 2019, biographer Hermione Lee described The Wife’s Tale as ‘an astonishingly imaginative recreation of a country, a national history, a religion, a family, a marriage, and above all of a woman who endures and survives to tell her tale through the most challenging and dramatic circumstances. It’s not the kind of life-writing which has letters and diaries and first-hand written accounts to draw on, and it’s all the more remarkable for that: it uses hymns and prayers and fables and oral stories and the recorded reminiscences of her grandmother to build its story.

‘I noticed a striking sentence about a photograph of her grandmother when she was about 23: “Her eyes look out as if from a place of safety somewhere behind her head” (p. 78). That’s what this book does. It takes us into that place and lets us look out through her eyes.’

The Wife’s Tale weaves together worlds that would otherwise be unfamiliar to one another through the interconnecting power of stories and symbols, including from English medieval classics such as the Pearl poem, and ancient Ethiopian Christian texts like The Book of the Praise of Mary. Drawing wisdom from Seamus Heaney and Marina Warner on harnessing myth and legend, and Michael Ondaatje on family history, Edemariam creates a world-mix of influences to give vivid reality to her grandmother’s multi-layered life. 

Cite the text: Boehmer, Elleke. “Aida Edemariam: Telling Wives’ and Grandmothers’ Tales” Postcolonial Writers Make Worlds, 2019, [scf-post-permalink]. Accessed 31 January 2022.