Rebecca Fisseha’s debut novel Daughters of Silence was recently featured on CBC Books’ 34 Works of Canadian Fiction to Watch for this Fall, which is no small feat, particularly for a first novel. (Incidentally, her publisher, New Brunswick’s Goose Lane Editions has two entries on this list, the other being Different Beasts by J.R. McConvey. Not a few of the books on the list are from independent, small press publishers. Hooray!)
The title of Ms. Fisseha’s novel has a few meanings since there are daughters, granddaughters, and sisters who have all been too silent on issues and events that have occurred in Dessie’s life. Dessie is the narrator, and this is her story of a fractured life growing up in Ethiopia, Vienna and Toronto, she being the daughter of a diplomat mother and a father who is a university professor. Her mother’s name Zimita is Amharic for “silence” so there’s a double meaning at play as well. Dessie is back in Ethiopia, not by choice but due to a trail of ash in the jetstream from an Icelandic volcano. This actually happened on April 2010. Dessie is an airline attendant and her plane is diverted to Addis Abbaba. Dessie’s mother died less than forty days ago, in Toronto, and she knows she is obligated to visit her mother’s father while she is here, rather than in a hotel with the other crew members.
I am in Ethiopia again, all of a sudden, as an adult, on my own. I feel panicky, as if there’s a bowl of liquid trembling inside me, threatening to spill over. Am I now to just show up at my grandfather’s house nineteen years after I told him that I would be gone only for four? Worse, let him believe that I am here intentionally, to grieve Ema with him, as would a good granddaughter?
A volcano thousands of miles away has changed Dessie’s life in an instant. She must now visit her grandfather’s house, which is a house of mourning by Ethiopian tradition until the “forty day” when her mother’s spirit is free. Coming face to face with her Grandfather (“Babbaye”) after so many years make Dessie ponder:
“There’s the business of living, and then there’s this, coming face-to-face with your origin, which makes everything go quiet, as if the years you’ve been apart never happened, or they mean nothing.”
A transcendent thought and it is the stepping stone into life in Ethiopia as seen through someone familiar with it from the memories of younger days, yet having to face the present. It is familiar, yet a different place, the relatives and friends older.
I really liked Daughters of Silence for the different setting and as an introduction to the history and customs of the Ethiopian people. A few times I had to resort to an Internet search to get a little insight into the places and history covered in the book. It’s always a bonus to learn about new cultures when one reads.
The character of Dessie I immediately liked perhaps because she is a flight attendant, one of those careers that I have the utmost respect for. From that introduction, the feeling stayed, and once she discloses more of her young life and her mistreatment (interference) at the hands of her malevolent older half-brother Le’ul, one really feels for her. Babbaye I pittied, an old man who loves his country (and even fought for it) but is irrevocably bound to his culture and it’s belief systems. For instance, he wants his daughter’s remains to be flown to Ethiopia to be buried on Ethiopian soil. It was not her final wish, and neither is it the wish of her husband either. He has buried her in a Scarborough cemetery with a large monument and sent pictures back to Babbaye, hoping that will suffice. Which of course, it doesn’t. Dessie’s being there only reinforces the point that his daughter’s remains are not.
As a first novel, Daughters of Silence is an excellent debut. It is precisely one of those debuts that makes you anticipate the author’s subsequent effort. As such, I am adding Daughters of Silence to the 2020 longlist for “The Very Best!” Awards in the Best First Book (Fiction) category.
Daughters of Silence by Rebecca Fisseha
Goose Lane Editions