Answer me!

“I wrote asking God to take away my native language (Amharic) and to give me the English language; I wanted nothing more than to speak and write English. Good thing God does not answer all of our prayers!”

The Letter as a Medium for what?

SelamawatSIN/GIN: We met through our shared interest in women’s rights, particularly, the area of sexual and reproductive health. I was interested in the way you could use your knowledge about unacceptably high maternal mortality rates in Ethiopia to draw your communities attention to unacceptably high maternal mortality rates in our borough, the Bronx. This global arc in your advocacy for women’s health is admirable, and I see a global arc in your poetry too, as you write about the immigrant child or about the brother who remained at home while his sister left.

I’ve been writing letters since I was a little girl and my parents work sent my family from Lusaka to Dar es Salaam, Quebec, Addis Ababa, Nairobi, Windhoek and then back to Lusaka. I was writing letters before I could write, narrating my observations to someone I loved but who didn’t travel with me to my new experience.

As I read your poems ‘Dear first love’, ‘Dear Brother’ and ‘Making it’ I had the feeling that you also have a special relation with communication through the medium of ‘correspondence’. Your poems are letters and your letters are poems. Your words have to travel over hills, mountains, oceans, deserts, cities, rural homesteads before they are read by the recipient.

What happens to love, longing and passion when they are articulated by ink on paper, sealed in an envelope, stamped and delivered a week or weeks after they leave our hands?

 Selamawit: When it comes to reading, reading letters excite me the most. A letter is the most thoughtful, and personal type of writing. You can sense the writer’s emotion, and listen to his/her voice as you read each sentences in the paragraphs. Letters that are written with ink on paper are letters that capture the writer’s sensibility, because they take more time and energy.

Hand written (as opposed to email for example) letters do have the power to communicate our emotions and hopes. For most people including me, it is important for them to know that someone cares about them as well as values them. A handwritten letter is a good way to show a person that you care enough to take time to write a letter on paper, sealed it in the envelope, and initiate its delivery by sending it off through the post office. The personal touch that a handwritten letter has makes it unique to all the other ways of communications.

 Dear first love

 I use to wonder about you all the time

Wonder about your test

Wonder about your smell

You had me wrapped around your neck

I was holding on to you for a dear life

You took me into paradise

You showed me the possibility of happiness

In this rattan earth

Dear first love

I was caught up in the act of keeping

You my number one forever

But I found out that forever is not a promise that can be kept

While trying to do what is right

Dear first love

Now it is time for me to move on

So unlock the chain

You have wrapped around my heart

Break the spell you have put on me

Dear first love

Remember that you will always be my first love

I will always cherish your memory

You will always be part of my history

But you have to let go of me

You have to set me free

Selamawit Asmeron

Answer me!


SIN/GIN: One of the most beautiful letters I received was from my friend Mamolepa in 2007.

“Hallo Chiz,

I am really complaining. I didn’t know that you could be so quiet, what’s

going on? Have you forgotten about me, or are you too busy to drop me a line

just to say ‘hi’? No, no, I cannot accept this from you of all people. Show

me a sign of life. I still love you and miss you.


When I read this bold declaration of love from my sister I was filled with joy, even as I hurried to start writing her the long overdue letter. There is something  unmistakably demanding about this letter. Perhaps this is true of every letter we receive. The writer expects a response and the recipient is expected to respond. This is why we ask questions in the letter. We don’t only describe our emotional and physical spaces, we expect the recipient to answer to us, or simply to answer us. You ask your dear brother

‘have you been staying up at night because you missed our fight over turning off the light?’ And then you plead outright

‘Dear brother,

please send me a letter,

Tell me…’

SIN/GIN: What do you do when the letters stop coming?

Selamawit: I have never been worried about letters stop coming. My relationships with my friends or family members who are distance from me are not maintained through writing letters. For us, writing letters is just a luxury that we offer to each other when it is convenience for each of us. This does not mean we do not put effort to stay in touch with each other, it just means that we understand each other.

Poetry/Letters as Memory and/of Future Homes

SIN/GIN: There are friends who I have been exchanging letters with for more than a decade. Our lives have taken amazingly similar yet amazingly different twists and turns. The collection of letters between us has in a sense ‘memorialised’ our journeys into adulthood. They are a record that we have grown, broken hearts, had hearts broken, mourned, celebrated, achieved, accumulated possessions and knowledge.

What are your thoughts on letters as ‘record keeping’ or documentation of your life?

Selamawit: In seventh grade, my ESL teacher told me to keep a Journal to help me improve my writing. It was the best advice she could have given me. I kept that journal until high school. What made my journal different from other journal keeping is that I did not write on it every day. I wrote based on my emotion, I wrote about things that I was very sad, disappointed or happy about. Now, when I go through my journal and read the entries, I feel like I am reading someone else’s journal. The entries sound new every time I read them. As I read the entries I can see just how much I have grown, emotionally; how comfortable I have become to be me. Likewise, my writing has improved dramatically. In one of my entries, I wrote asking God to take away my native language (Amharic) and to give me the English language; I wanted nothing more than to speak and write English. Good thing God does not answer all of our prayers! I was the most naïve teen.

SIN/GIN: Reading your poetry I see these words repeated over and over again ‘move on’ ‘looking back’ ‘moving to the future’ ‘let go’ ‘going back’ ‘long for the future’. Reading these words, I recognize them as the lexicon of the dislocated.

Do you ever stop looking forward, and take time to sit still and savor your moment? To congratulate yourself and take stock of the fact that you are Selamawit and victoriously standing on your own two feet?

Selamawit: I tend to look forward to the future; I am what you call a ‘dreamer.’ I do not remember a time where I was content with my present life (that is since I came to this country). I always thought about the future, I always had clear vision as to what I want my future to look like, and the visions in my head made me happy and hopeful. I have not yet stand on my own two feet; I stand leaning against my mother’s shoulder. As I am writing this I have, realized something, I have realized that I have to take time to appreciate and be grateful for my present life. After all I have achieved many things I had thought was impossible for me to accomplish. The panel discussion for the Maternal Mortality project was an impossible task to complete when the idea first arise. However, with courage and hard work we were able to pull it off.

SIN/GIN: Since I left home in 2000 for graduate studies in Europe I have met many African women on the road with me. They had left husbands, children, ailing parents, promising careers, generations old support systems, for brief or very extended periods. Could you speak about some of the women you have met on your road? The messages they have given you?

Selamawit: I have never been asked this question. Wow! The women I have met on my path are women who are courageous and supportive. I will tell you about the woman who has the most meaning in my heart. I met this woman when I came to Lehman, as a freshman. She is my SEEK counselor, her name is Ms. Pinnock.  I felt safe talking to her. I was never afraid to tell her about my weakness, all my heart desires, and about the problems I would face at home or at school. She helped me discover my passion, she talked me through it. I knew that she cared about me, and that she understood me. She understood where I came from; she understood my ideas and my plan for the future. I did not have to explain myself to her and I really liked and appreciated that.  I consider her to be my mentor, my very first mentor.

 Dear Brother

 Dear brother,

have you been waking up at night because you had a dream of me whispering in your ear?

Have you been writing letters that you never get to drop off in the mail?

Dear brother,

have you been staying up at night because you missed our fight over turning of the light?

Have you stopped going to church blaming god for our good bye?

Dear brother,

Did you let your ego take over your heart

Did you deny yourself the pleasure of helping out your mom?

Dear brother,

please send me a letter,

Tell me how life is treating you

Without your sister?

Selamawit Asmeron

SIN/GIN: The poem or letter to your first love suggests an emotional as well as a physical separation. You ‘used to’ feel, to wonder, to taste, to smell. In this letter you repeatedly ask your first love to  ‘let go of me.’ And yet, my impression is that the act of writing the poem is an act of ‘unlocking the chain’ and releasing yourself.

Is writing poetry an expression of freedom? What emotional and/or spiritual role does writing have for you?

Selamawit: I have more freedom in writing than speaking. When I write I do not have to worry about what people might think of my thoughts. I write it with a free will. I sometimes find myself writing about things that I would never say out loud. Writing has been my “best friend” since I came to this country. Back then, I did not have anyone that I could speak to as a friend and express my feelings to (I barely spoke English, so I could not really make friends at school, and there was no Ethiopian girls or boys around my age). Therefore, writing had been my only true friend I could express my feelings through.

SIN/GIN: I have a belief that we leave home to find home. I sometimes feel that my Africa is right here in the Bronx. That the abuses of power, strange distribution of wealth and poverty, solidarity, squalor, hope, sharing, beautiful fusion of cultures that I encounter everyday on my walk to school and back home, is no different from what I left at home. I find this a comforting realization. What changes is not the structures that make some of us gods, others big men and others small men but me as an individual. I change.

What have you come to believe about leaving home? Do you find other homes? Is home an abstract or a real shelter? Have you rebuilt your family life in the US? Can you believe that you will raise American children? What is the best change that you detect in yourself since you arrived in the US?

Selamawit: There is a saying in my country that goes like this, “There is nothing that you cannot get use to.” I very much so believe in this saying. The first time I left my country, my town, my neighborhood, I did not think that I was going to live through a day let alone nine years without seeing my family and friends. But, somehow I got use to my life in New York, Harlem. I loved living in Harlem, it reminded me of home, and I loved our apartment, even if it was too small for us. It was my home, a home I would miss if I go away for a day or two. Then when we moved to the Bronx, Riverdale, I did not think I would ever get use to our new neighborhood. In fact, I hated it; it was too quiet for my ears, too white for my eyes. However, with time I started to appreciate and love it. You’re right; you can make any place your ‘home.’ Nevertheless, for me there is no other place like my childhood home. I have a lot of memories, good and bad, but memories that made me the Selamawit I am today.

Making it…..

Not knowing what tomorrow will bring for us

We travel on the life path while still trying to move forward.

Often times, we long for the future,

Because for us, it means going back,

Back to our homeland.

The Life we lead in the present is,

Merely a straggle to fit in,

A straggle to learn how to socialize,

A straggle to learn a  new language,

A struggle to make our children understand the value of their culture.

We make our children our hope,

We make going back to our homeland our dream.

For us, going back means success,

It means achievement.

Not knowing what tomorrow will bring for us

We travel on the life path while still trying to move forward.

Often times, we long for the future,

Because it promise us going back.

The future guarantees us of our childhood Memories,

The precious times we learn to love our country.


Selamawit Asmerom