Tewodros Fekadu scraped through his childhood years between relatives’ houses and the streets of Ethiopia. He has since lived in five countries on three continents and is fluent in four languages (Amharic, Tigrinya, Japanese and English). In 2003, he arrived in Australia and resides on the Gold Coast with his wife, Anita, where he is an active member of the community. His book, No One’s Son tells the remarkable story of his life – from his difficult childhood, his struggles through life’s challenges, and eventual migration to Australia.
In this interview, he talks to Africa Book Club about his life and work.
Tell us about your book, No One’s Son. What is it about?
No One’s Son is the story of my life growing up as an Ethiopian-Eritrean child during civil war and the struggles I faced without the support of family since about the age of nine. It then follows my journey abroad to Egypt, then Japan where I spent 3 years in a Japanese detention centre before falling in love with an Australian – Anita.
You’ve had a remarkable life. What would you say has been the most important lesson?
Always believe in yourself.
How long did it take you to write the story? And, how easy was it to find a publisher?
Strangely enough, as a child in the orphanages I used to keep detailed notes on what was happening to me and how I felt at the time. I even used to tell my aunt (when she was mistreating me) that I would write about her one day when I grew up! I think the pen was the only power that I had at the time. The pen helped me to get through the toughest times because I believed that one day I could tell what was happening to me, one day people will know.
Then in Japan, I started compiling my notes for my memoir while in the detention centre. One time, I was taken for interrogation and fearful of what I had written about life in detention, I quickly flushed the notes down the toilet so I had to start all over again!
When I arrived in Australia in 2003 I began formulating my notes into a book and then spent a number of years travelling backwards and forwards to Ethiopia, Eritrea, Egypt and Japan to interview family and friends to fill in the gaps and also make sure my story was as accurate as could be. No One’s Son was published in Australia in 2009 so in all (from notes to book!) it took almost 10 years!
When the bookstores (Borders and Angus & Roberston) went into receivership here in Australia I started looking for a publisher abroad.
Finding a publisher was not easy especially being a first time African author and given the global economic climate. I had to travel to the Frankfurt Book Fair and then onto the America Book Expo in New York to get my story “out there” and was able to muster interest by US publishers. No One’s Son was published in the US and Canada in 2012.
What has been the response to the book since it came out?
Writing a memoir is a very personal thing and it is sometimes terrifying when you realize that you are baring your soul to the world. The response though has been fantastic and it is when I receive emails from people all over the world who have read the book and have connected with elements of my story that’s what makes it worthwhile.
Any plans to tour this year?
Well, I spent most of 2012 abroad with 3 months of that on a book tour in the US and Canada. Despite this, the US is still relatively untouched. There are so many opportunities there that I hope to get back there sometime in the near future.
Have you been able to visit your homeland since you left? And is the book on sale in Ethiopia?
After gaining Australian citizenship, I have regularly returned to Ethiopia initially to reconnect with family and to do research for my story, and now to do film project work for my company and some charity work. There were a limited number of copies of No One’s Son available through the major hotel bookstores but I understand this has now sold out. We are now looking at how we can make them available again in Ethiopia.
You do spend a significant part of your time working community-based organizations helping to resettle immigrants in Australia. From what you encounter, has the situation improved?
When I arrived in Australia, I immediately noticed how disjointed the African communities were and the lack of support available for new arrivals including refugees. I therefore went about setting up the African Communities Association Gold Coast Inc, to bring unity and build bridges of understanding between the African and Australian communities.
The African communities are definitely growing on the Gold Coast where I live, but although there have been some changes and as a non-profit organization we are doing our best, unfortunately I haven’t seen much of an improvement in services offered by government to support the growing need.
Do you write full-time?
In addition to writing and community work, I love getting behind the camera and doing film work. I have my own company, Moonface Entertainment, that works in Australia and Ethiopia predominantly focusing on documentaries and film projects in Ethiopia.
I have also established a group here in Australia called Tesfa Oz (“Tesfa” means “hope” in Amharic and “Oz” brings in the Australian connection) which raises funds for projects in Ethiopia.
Besides your own book, what other books by African authors would you recommend to readers out there?
The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears by Denaw Mengestu and one of my all time favourites, Notes from the Hyena’s Belly: An Ethiopian Boyhood by Nega Mezlekia.