When, for my Well-Read Black Girl anthology, I asked some of my favorite black women writers to write about the first time they saw themselves in a book, I wasn’t surprised to see that nearly all of the contributors wrote about works by other black women. Who better represent us, after all, than our sisters? What follows is the only essay in the collection focused on a work by a white writer—a white man, at that. Bsrat Mezghebe beautifully portrays the pain of separation and the need to belong that she felt as a young black girl in the diaspora, as reflected in Roald Dahl’s own story of migration, Boy. She shows how, even when we can’t see ourselves directly on the page, our imaginations can forge the connections we need to embrace ourselves entirely. —Glory Edim
In Boy, Roald Dahl starts his childhood memoirs with this story of his father: As a teenager in late-nineteenth-century Norway, his father falls from a roof and breaks his arm. A drunk doctor pulls up in a horse and buggy, gives the wrong diagnosis, and amputates the poor kid’s arm without anesthesia. Dahl assures the reader that his father managed just fine. In fact, the only great inconvenience he suffered was not being able to cut the top off a boiled egg. No other time is spent on this unnecessary loss of limb.
I don’t remember how old I was when I first read Boy. But that blithe tone about an avoidable catastrophe was the first time I found my family in a book. Dahl sounded like my parents and their mass of Eritrean friends who had become our surrogate family in the Washington, D.C., area. Their stories were otherworldly, so different from my own life and the books I read. And the levity with which they treated their dramas—the deaths of loved ones, culture shock abroad, and nostalgia for home—only confused me more. Dahl’s voice echoed what I had heard in my home but nowhere else.
Dahl fast-forwards to his father and uncle taking a country stroll to discuss their futures. They decide that Uncle Oscar will plant his flag in France, while Papa Harald will try his luck in the United Kingdom. A branch of the Dahl family splinters, and again, something felt familiar. Thanks to the independence war against Ethiopia, I didn’t know a single Eritrean who had family in fewer than three countries. Our circumstances were less idyllic than the Dahls’—most Eritreans trekked on foot to Sudan before eventually making it to North America and Europe—but here was the first time I read of families parting, mirroring my own sense of loss. There is nothing tragic about being a first-generation American, but the discontinuity is palpable. Your ancestors lived in the same place for hundreds of years until a dislocation, whether by force or design, hurls your parents a world away. Unlike my American friends, I didn’t know all my cousins, uncles, aunts, and grandparents. I didn’t really understand the rhythm of my parents’ hometowns and early lives, nor could I visualize their journeys to the place I called home. Yet I needed my parents’ origin stories to make sense of my own.
My parents were born in southern Eritrea soon after World War II, in the interim between the end of Italian colonization and the start of British administration. After the death of my grandfather, my six-year-old mother was sent to neighboring Ethiopia to be brought up by her uncle. My grandmother endured the three-day-long journey to Addis Ababa as often as she could, but Ethiopia wasn’t familiar, and her authority over her children was subordinate to that of her dead husband’s brother.
My father was born the third child, but became the eldest when his sister died of a treatable infection and his brother drowned. He was one of the first children in his village to go to a secular school, a decision that temporarily rendered his father, a respected and titled elder, persona non grata in their community. There wasn’t a nearby middle school, so my grandfather sold what he had to send my father to boarding school in Ethiopia. When he returned for his first break, he was met by wailing family members mourning the death of his mother. She had died earlier in the term, but the news was kept from him so he could focus on his studies. His baby sister, just a few months old, had died soon after. My grandfather remarried quickly and had more children, despite his grief.
Let’s get back to Boy. After relocating to the United Kingdom, Papa Harald’s wife dies after giving birth to their second child. He returns to Norway to remarry and brings his new wife to Wales, where they have four children, including our Roald. You can see how this all sounded very familiar to me. In quick succession, Dahl then shares a series of additional tragedies: his older sister dies from appendicitis at the age of seven, and his father, too grief-stricken to fight, succumbs to pneumonia. (Penicillin had not yet been discovered.) Dahl then mentions, almost as an aside, that his own daughter died from measles at the same age his sister did. He offers no other information about this terrible coincidence and makes no effort to describe his grief. Just as if I were talking to my family, I hoped that later, perhaps when he’s in the mood, Dahl would give me more. He doesn’t, and I learned that some pain is so obvious that it doesn’t have to be articulated. Two months after Dahl’s father’s death, his mother gives birth to the last child. Like my maternal grandmother, she never remarries.
With five children, two of which she didn’t birth, it would have been easier for Dahl’s mother to return to Norway. But to honor her husband’s wish that his children be educated in English schools, she downsizes and enrolls Dahl in a boarding school in England. On the first day, nine-year-old Dahl stands next to his trunk and tuck box, items I very much wanted, as the headmaster, flashing a gold-rimmed front tooth and shellacked hair, advances. He is curt with Mama Sophie, wishing her off without even offering a goodbye. She understands that her services are no longer needed and leaves quickly. Poor Dahl starts to cry. The scene fills in the details of my mother’s send-off—not physically, as Somerset couldn’t be any more different from Segeneyti, but emotionally. I imagine Mama Sophie is my own grandmother, suppressing her heartache to do what’s best for her child. In the end, it pays off for Dahl and my parents, but here I get to see the cost. Dahl, miserably homesick, stares out of his dormitory window onto the Bristol Channel, trying to make out his home. He sleeps facing the window every night, never turning his back to his family. I, of course, imagined my parents doing the same.
Dahl adjusts and survives the tyranny of prefects and headmasters. My parents’ experiences were less dramatic, although my mother witnessed a different hazard at her girls’ school in Addis Ababa. One day, Emperor Haile Selassie’s son made an official visit. The students lined up, facing each other in two long rows, and instead of walking in the space between them, the prince inspected them from behind. A beautiful high schooler caught his eye, and he told the headmistress to introduce them when he returned. On his next visit, the headmistress hid the girl, making up an excuse for her absence. My mother recounted the incident only as an afterthought, joking that she was too young and skinny to be worried.
We missed a lot being in the diaspora. Babies were born, and we phoned in our congratulations. Loved ones died, and we mourned in cramped living rooms and basements thousands of miles away. I had seen burial services only in movies or on television; it seemed unlikely, until I got older, that you would actually say goodbye. When Dahl is in his forties, he undergoes a serious operation on his spine. His mother is unable to visit him because she is dying, a secret she keeps so as not to impede his recovery. She calls him one last time to send her love and passes away the next day. When he finally returns home, he discovers that his mother had saved every letter he had written her over thirty-two years. In one sentence, he shares how lucky he is to have those letters in his old age. For Dahl, those sixteen words might as well have been an entire chapter. I fantasized, irrationally, that we, too, would find letters, recordings, or any sort of family archive to fill in the gaps and hold on just a bit tighter. I harbored this fantasy until I realized that I could be doing that work. Finally, I started to write.
From the book Well-Read Black Girl: Finding Our Stories, Discovering Ourselves, by Glory Edim. “Finding My Family” Copyright © 2018 by Bsrat Mezghebe. Published by arrangement with Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.