Berfrois Interviews Abraham T. Zere


by Muna Nassir

I first met with Abraham T. Zere, a journalist currently living in the US, around 2007/2008 in his office at the city centre in Asmara. He was working at the time as one of the main editors for the state owned publishing house Hdri. It was late in the afternoon. Walking up the dark stairs to the first floor —I remember stopping on the landing in awe of the sunset as it painted the sky with an orange/pinkish hue. I was going to the office to share my first poem with the poet Haile Bizen, Abraham’s colleague and co-editor at the time. Little did I realise at that moment that I was also going to meet someone who would later become a dear friend and literary mentor.

Abraham T. Zere published his debut book with Emkulu Publishers in 2020. The collection comprises of 16 short stories that portray daily life in Eritrea from various vantage points in a unique manner. Unique in that they are written in a period of over ten years and there is a clear sense of the passage of time as the reader advances through the collection. Following is an interview we conducted recently.



Your debut book is hailed by many as one of the finest in Tigrinya literature. Your short stories treat, amongst many other things, such postmodernist concerns as a fragmented reality and multilayered notions of the self and selfhood. Your work breaks away from realist storytelling. From the protagonist by the same name, Abraham, in the short story ‘I Am Not Mistaken’ to the self conscious voice in the meta narrative ‘Sardine’, there is a clear blurring of the boundaries between reality and fiction. And for many us who know you well, you are best known for your activism as a journalist. Would you care to share with us your literary influences both locally and globally?

Abraham T. Zere

In all modesty, I just did a small contribution to the corpus of Tigrinya writing, but nothing close to be hailed as the “finest.” Maybe it is daring in that the writing attempts to challenge the status-quo, which certainly needs a long overdue breakaway.  I believe every one writes to differ. How much I achieved on that aspect is left to the reader and critics.

My short stories might read as slightly unconventional in Tigrinya literature for different interconnected reasons. Most of the stories might read as purely fictional in the sense that they are disconnected from reality, but at the same time on another layer, they might also be close to autobiographical. This is mainly because fiction is marred with the quotidian in Eritrea. The idea of using my name or the names of my close friends in the stories came to me naturally, because I could not differentiate between the reality and fiction when I composed them. I also had the liberty to write freely then, because I never expected to have them published while in Eritrea. You can imagine how free and creative someone can be when writing on their diaries. So later when I started to read them at a different time and place, they started to make sense. Hence why I was convinced to publish them.

On the literary influencers, I guess the list would be long, mainly because different writers have left their marks for different reasons, say Franz Kafka. The existentialist writers such as Albert Camus or Jean-Paul Sartre; Milan Kundera both for his fiction and non-fiction and J.M. Coetzee. I enjoy reading essays and interviews by notable writers, from whom I learn a lot about their philosophy of writing. From local writers, Beyene Haile for his creativity; Alemesged Tesfai for his craft as a Tigrinya writer and the poet Beyene Hailemariam for his usage of words, among others. This mainly after I started to write consciously.


Following on the previous question, as a self taught fiction writer, you certainly are an inspiration to young aspiring writers without access to training in the field of writing as a craft. How important or not do you think it is to form and attend writer’s groups, creative writing workshops, and writers’ networks?


Formal networks or writing workshops, I believe, are very helpful for any writer. But, someone must have the talent to contribute something in such settings. I was fortunate enough to work closely with most Eritrean notable writers. More than the formal workshops and seminars, I think the communication, informal conversations; sharing ideas contributed a lot.

As cliché as it might sound, reading (hopefully with some guidance) is also very crucial. In my case, it has been mainly through reading. However, I was also able to transfer my other learned disciplines into literature.


In all of the short stories there is a decentralisation of the traditional centre within the Eritrean context. Gender, class, economic, and national divides are transcended in favour of a shared humanity. This is particularly more pronounced in the three short stories that treat the theme of war. The horrors of a lived war are conveyed from an impartial viewpoint. Whether this is through the character of the war medic in the short story ‘In The Heat of Battle’ who treats the wounded from both sides of the war, or through the portrayal of the resultant trauma the child endures in ‘After a Battle’, you seem to put our shared humanity at the centre, how important is this to you in all your work?


I do not know how much I have achieved in that aspect, but I attempt to de-centre what triggers me to write and share my perspective on the matter. Overall, I assume this is at the core of most writers’ writing. Many of my short stories revolve around war, dislocation, trauma, etc. possibly because that is where I come from. To use your words, in my attempt to share my humanity, I critique and ridicule the senseless bravado that leads to war. Overall, I try to show the ugly side or consequences of war. As I put it on the back cover, most stories in the book attempt to de-centre and portray the downtrodden. That goes with the theme of the whole book—chronicles of failure or accounts of emptiness.


You seem to have a unique approach in your treatment of time in the collection. Time in some of the short stories like ‘The Trumpeter’ and ‘The Speech’ unfolds in the present of the narrative in a linear manner. Where as in some of the other short stories,  Time is portrayed as quasi static or even circular. Given that these short stories are written at different times, spanning over ten years to be exact, how important a role does the portrayal of time play in your work? What deeper significance does it have for you as a writer?


As the characters in the short story In Transit, for long, like many people living in Eritrea, I had lost the notion of time and space. I was unable to differentiate between a year and ten years. This loss of the sense of time and space is probably the reason why Mahmoud Darwish’s poems very much resonated with my feelings for so long. So it is this unfathomable notion of time where at times it becomes static and at other times a year feels like ten years in length that make me oscillate in my writing.  Years later, when I collected the courage to read what I have been writing over the years, they made sense and it felt like the short stories stood the test of time.


Finally, do you have a favourite character? Which story/character has been most difficult/gratifying for you to write?


Purely from a literary viewpoint, I enjoy characters who are passionate for a wrong reason. Such characters make me laugh when I am re-reading the short stories or when I think about them. One such character from the collection is Bockretsion from the short story The Speech. He is a delusional character who gives passionate speech in the wrong place to the wrong audience. From the collection, In Transit and The Flagellates are probably my favourites.


Thank you Abraham T. Zere.


My pleasure!

About the Interviewee

Abraham T. Zere is Voice of America’s Tigrigna program chief editor whose short stories have appeared in Dissent MagazineIndex on Censorship Magazine, and previously Berfrois.

About the Interviewer

Muna Nassir is a UK based writer and translator, who is currently doing her MA in Creative Writing at the Centre for New Writing, University of Manchester.


Photograph taken by Alex Teame in Washington DC, USA in 2021.

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