Our contributor Emily Walters talks to author Ennatu Domingo about the recent publication of her new book, Burnt Eucalyptus Wood, adoption and a nomadic sense of being, the centrality of language to identity, filmic narrative structures and the power of nostalgia in Ethiopian culture.
It is bewildering, yet magical, how a particular scent can propel us back in time. For Ennatu Domingo, a policy analyst turned writer, the fragrance of burnt eucalyptus wood is distinctively evocative. Any time she closes her eyes and conjures it, she reawakens memories of her childhood in the sun-drenched meadows of Gondar in Ethiopia.
At the age of seven, Domingo was adopted by Catalan parents and migrated to Barcelona. Now in her mid-twenties, she has lived a nomadic existence – moving between Kenya, Belgium, England and the Netherlands – but has never let go of her roots. In her non-fiction debut, Burnt Eucalyptus Wood: On Origins, Language and Identity (The Indigo Press), Domingo intertwines stories from her life as an international adoptee with incisive analysis of Ethiopia’s shifting political landscape. Her revelatory meditations on memory, identity and belonging radiate resilience, tenderness and yearning for a more compassionate world.
On an unexpectedly bright April morning a couple of weeks ago, I had the delight of sharing an hour or so with Ennatu to ask her more about her astounding story.
Burnt Eucalyptus Wood shifts between the modes of intimate memoir, manifesto and sharp political analysis. This struck me as a powerful way to engender empathy and understanding by situating personal experiences within the context of broader, political developments; imbuing overwhelming statistics relating to poverty and structural inequality with humanity and clarity. How did you decide on this genre-defying format? I wonder if there was an element of wanting to embed ideas about duality, rebellion and refusing to fit into constricting moulds within the structure of your writing?
My book has this distinctive, hybrid format because it recounts my personal story, told from the heart. As a child, moving from Ethiopia to Barcelona profoundly shocked me and I’ve spent years analysing the impact of this disruption. Migrating taught me so much about the world, but particularly about issues that are severely under-discussed in the context of adoption, such as race. I am an Ethiopian woman who was raised by a white family in Europe, so sharing my story provides space to unpack a number of crucial issues – poverty, violence and gender inequality, to name a few.
I also wrote with the ambition of portraying the reality of living in rural Ethiopia, as I have seldom seen this depicted elsewhere. Since there is a lot of development in the country’s capital (which politically is evolving rapidly), there is a tendency to overlook what is happening in rural communities. I have the personal experience to channel information about the struggles faced by those living in poverty and to make it more accessible. As an Ethiopian who grew up in Europe, I strongly felt the absence of role models with whom I could identify, so I was primarily aiming to bridge this gap in our literature.
Finally, I write because I refuse to be silent about the violence I witnessed first-hand in my home. Memoirs are such a powerful tool for disseminating knowledge and in my case, I composed two narratives: firstly, the young girl who undergoes a dramatic, life-changing international migration, and then secondly, surrounding this first narrative, I speak as an analyst and I theorise my experience.
Speaking of migrating, your book sets up this theme by opening in motion. As readers, we encounter you for the first time in the midst of your nomadic childhood in Ethiopia, journeying in a stifling bus from Dansha to Gondar with your younger brother, Mikaele, and your mother, Yamrot. Aged only seven, you are acutely aware that your family are desperately ill. Could you describe the experience of revisiting this memory and outline why it felt important to begin by sharing this particular recollection?
This journey from Dansha to Gondar changed my life completely. If the bus had continued and we had reached our intended destination, Wereta, I would be someone else. I’d have a different life. I wanted to illustrate how anyone’s life can irrevocably change at any moment. It was important to begin with this painful memory – I was only seven but still very much aware of the weight of our poverty and the precarity of my family’s health. The book follows the path of my growing understanding.
You recount your life story non-chronologically. I found this to be a really compelling approach to exposing the jarring polarities between your early childhood in Ethiopia and growing up in Barcelona after your adoption. For instance, immediately after reading about your turbulent journey to Gondar, we are transported 17 years into the future as you wake up in an apartment in Brussels to disturbing tweets about military intervention in your home region, Tigray. Could you speak about why you structured your book in this non-linear manner?
I wanted my readers to experience the retelling of my story as if they were watching a film. I am really influenced by the potential of cinema to share stories and perspectives, so I wanted to tap into this when mapping out the structure. For me, my book needed to have lots of cuts and jumps in time to reflect gaps in knowledge and the dramatic contrasts in my changing circumstances.
There is a lot of dialogue between my seven-year-old self based in Ethiopia and my twenty-five-year-old self at the time of writing. The differing realities of these two selves, that is, the contradictions between what I experienced in rural Ethiopia and how I was raised in Barcelona, are so stark and alienating. The ambition of my book was to set out the questions I’ve always had: how do you balance such opposing realities? Who do you end up becoming?
So building on this question of becoming, your memoir demonstrates that successful adoption hinges upon the creation of a new family who keep the adoptee rooted, rather than solely uprooting them from the culture and way of life to which they were accustomed. What does it mean to you that your Catalan parents, Anna and Ricard, ensured you travelled back to the place where you were born and helped you to continue being able to speak Amharic?
I’m forever grateful that my parents were so open and shared so much with me despite how young I was when they first adopted me. But still there just isn’t enough information out there about the process of adoption. For many kids, they grow up without knowing much about their birth families. There is however a lot of discussion at the moment around the ownership of information, enabling the adoptee to have the agency to know their trajectory and decide for themselves whether they want to maintain their link to their birth country or if they want to break it.
Travelling back to Ethiopia was a key to unlocking and defining my identity. I think it’s crucial to maintain understanding of your birth language and culture if you have memories of them prior to adoption. Uprooting someone who has had a strong connection to their birth culture is an act of deprivation. There are huge, intense and complex discussions to be had. For me it is a defining aspect of my identity that my family never tried to break the links between myself and my birth culture.
Children who migrate become increasingly distanced from their mother tongue. In terms of looking at my own experience, I would say that losing the ability to speak Amharic was the most traumatic part of the process of my adoption. My parents showed me videos they’d filmed of me when they first adopted me and I couldn’t understand my younger self. In the book, I use the Amharic alphabet to punctuate the sections of my story. I don’t imagine that many Anglophone people know this language and so I wanted this to illustrate all that is lost or inaccessible when a language evades you. Language is a fundamental aspect of how we build our identity – I’m speaking in English now and that has such a different feel to speaking in Catalan or Spanish. When I arrived in Barcelona, I completely forgot Amharic. It was so shocking to look back on the videos of my younger self and instantly see how much I had changed in a short space of time.
They say the language you speak with your family is your primary language, no matter where you live. I come from a country with Amharic as the official language, but ended up being raised by a family who speak Catalan, which is effectively a nation of its own within the nation of Spain and it’s a language threatened by regressive linguistic laws. If you come from a minority culture, you might not have the power to keep your language alive. The language you speak is central to how you perceive yourself.
Let’s talk a bit more about information. I read recently that the Scottish writer, Amy Liptrot, having also lived a nomadic existence, sees the Internet as her most permanent home. I would be really fascinated to know what you think of this perspective, particularly as you have expressed the dangers of social media breeding misinformation about rural communities. Could you talk about your relationship with the Internet as a form of connection and communication?
This is a big question. As part of my work, I research access to the Internet and the impact of having Internet access on people’s lives. I can really relate to Amy Liptrot’s idea; the Internet can give us a kind of proximity to people all around the globe that otherwise we simply wouldn’t have. In terms of access to information, the Internet really powerfully facilitates reporting about events happening elsewhere but I’m not sure to what extent this makes people’s lives easier or creates an alternative home for them. We need to be cautious about the online world. It is crucial that adopted children are able to use social media to find their families, but the Internet alone doesn’t bridge the gap. It’s a huge challenge. As an Ethiopian living outside of Ethiopia I can see we need so much more regulation than we currently have – I have to think critically about what I can and cannot trust. Dealing with misinformation when trying to maintain connection with your birth country is one of many compounding obstacles faced by diaspora communities.
With diaspora communities in mind, your text is prefaced by intricately drawn maps allowing the reader to situate the journeys undertaken throughout your life. I wonder if you consider the project of Burnt Eucalyptus Wood as a whole to be a form of mapmaking, both for yourself and others navigating homecoming and (re)constructing identity?
My writing is an attempt to show what Ethiopia truly is and a project of unveiling the misconceptions surrounding being adopted as well as being African. It’s definitely a guide to my own identity, to pinpointing what it means to be Ethiopian and Catalan, African and European. But surrounding that, I also incorporate the stories of other adoptees and migrants to evoke a sense of community and convey how those of us who have faced similar experiences can feed and nourish each other. So, I like the idea of my writing as a map to guide myself and others.
The colour blue is a poignant seam running throughout your book – be that the expansive sky you gazed up at as a child or the distinctive turquoise door of the Missionaries of Charity centre where your family were looked after in Gondar. This motif is further established as you express your affinity with the ‘Divisa’ written by the Catalan poet, Maria Merce Marçal – “I’m grateful to fate for three gifts: to have been born a woman, working class and into an oppressed nation. And the turbid azure of being three times a rebel.” Could you expand on what this image of ‘turbid azure’ represents for you?
‘Turbid azure’ reflects how I am unwilling to fit into the mould society would like to impose on me. It would be easy to just see me as Ethiopian but who I am is also rooted in my gender, the complexities of my nationality, my social class. Rebellion is crucial because we need to challenge, question and reimagine what we are fed.
As for the colour blue, the turquoise doors of the Missionaries of Charity centres are instantly recognisable by all children who have been looked after by the Sisters. I wanted to make sure this image was a motif in my writing to connect with other people who have travelled paths similar to my own. These blue doors symbolise resilience and love.
Thinking about resilience, concerns regarding visibility and refusing to be silent predominate in your writing, and you make reference to films and books that afforded you solace through their depictions of diaspora. How essential were other people’s stories of searching for their place in the world, in spite of racism, inequality and prejudice, in grounding and reassuring you?
It is very reassuring to be in control of the telling of my story; to have this documentation of it in my own words. There are of course plenty of writers from the Ethiopian diaspora, but quite often their books are depersonalised and centred on economic migration or political exile rather than anything that resonated more specifically with what I had gone through as an international adoptee. Knowing that so many children left Ethiopia like me, it was empowering to be writing and owning my own history. My book is an homage to everyone who has enabled me to learn from them and feel confident in what it means to be an Ethiopian raised in Europe.
Other people’s stories played an essential role in normalising my experience. Being Black and raised by a white family is bizarre, it can be strange and disorienting. There is a scarcity of culture depicting the experience of Africans being raised in Europe, but nevertheless, films and books have played a huge part in helping to know that I have a place in the world and feel less marginalised. This comes back to that idea of my book as an exercise of mapping, the art and literature I reference in my writing are the tools I used to shape and understand my identity.
Furthermore, it was important for me to choose my words carefully and resist recreating a Eurocentric view of Africa. I want my book to motivate people to dig in and question the perspectives that predominate in the media. The mainstream discussion of Africa is not told from an African perspective. Africans contribute a huge amount to European culture and identity but this is often completely overlooked.
Devastatingly, you convey that the psychological effect of poverty is deeply underexplored, alongside the profound sense of guilt that adoptees can endure when their circumstances dramatically switch from intense precarity to stability. Do you feel that it is possible for this specific form of shame to alleviate over time?
It is so important to me that we find better ways of integrating children who have moved because of traumatic experiences, so that they are not further destabilised by adoption. Children might not have safe spaces to share how they are truly feeling. One of the biggest obstacles to me feeling settled in Barcelona was the huge contradiction between the poverty I endured living in Ethiopia and the life I was brought into in Europe. I was expected to live as if I had never known any different. I was in turmoil attempting to balance such opposed realities. I think if international adoptees are able to understand that other people get through what they are going through, they would be much better equipped and supported.
When I was promoting my book in Spain, I was often told by the parents of adopted children that they had taken their child back to their birthplace to show them how much “luck they had to leave it” in the hopes of helping them to integrate. I think this sounds so counterproductive and traumatic – we need much more nuanced, complex and empowering approaches than that. To be able to belong somewhere new, you have to feel at peace with the place you left behind.
You also write beautifully about the complexities of nostalgia, which figures both as a sentiment of displacement and a manifestation of idealisation. Would you say that nostalgia has been a driving force in the forging and affirming of your sense of self? Does writing and revisiting your memories help to clarify the space between reality and romanticisation?
Absolutely. Writing helped me not to feel held back by wondering what my life might look like if I had remained in Ethiopia, and instead to focus on where I have been able to go and live, what I have been able to do because I have lived in both Ethiopia and Europe. Nevertheless, I recognise that nostalgia for the past is well-known and familiar for those like me who have been uprooted, but I don’t see this as a disadvantage – it’s nostalgia that drives me to keep on learning about my roots.
Nostalgia is a dominant cultural concept in Ethiopia. Tizita is the Amharic term for this, it’s very common in music of the Ethiopian diaspora and evokes a vision of Ethiopia that is more progressive and peaceful. I think the whole concept of nostalgia is really part of being Ethiopian. It is tied to economic growth too. Whenever I speak to other Ethiopians who have left, we always come back to this concept of tizita, so it was important for my book to address idealisations and cultural identity through nostalgia. Especially in the 70s, lots of Ethiopians had to leave their homes because of the political situation and they had huge ambitions for how their country would develop. So there was a deep yearning to return to Ethiopia, despite the oppression. Nostalgia is also about protection of culture, not wanting to be suppressed or influenced by others; striving to preserve traditions. So in my own writing, I was drawing on this history of tizita being strongly present in the music, art and literature of the Ethiopian diaspora.
On a personal level, tizita is a prism for me to think about and feel connected to the culture of a country with which I no longer have a biological link. Tizita is such a common sentiment, it helps me to think about Ethiopia without dwelling on the pain of no longer having a biological family there.
The central symbol of your book – the scent, image and memory of burnt eucalyptus wood – encapsulates the dichotomy of renewal and destruction, whilst rooting us in a distinctive marker of the rural communities of your childhood. In reading your reflections, I got a sense of you being acutely aware of the brutality and fragility of the world we inhabit, but also profoundly alive to its beauty and potential. As the political landscape of Ethiopia has continued to shift since you finished writing Burnt Eucalyptus Wood, has your perception of this symbol evolved too?
This smell permeated the rural communities where I was born and first lived, it will always be incredibly evocative for me. Eucalyptus was imported to Ethiopia as part of a development project to provide a simple energy source. It made sense to use this as a symbol in my book because it allows me to clearly distinguish between the varying quality of life in urban and rural communities.
The Tigray War has crystallised my thoughts on Ethiopia. Rural communities are those most impacted by conflict and political decisions are too often made without regard for the poorest people. Since writing I feel even more passionate about my project and believe this type of intersectional analysis to be even more essential.
The burning of eucalyptus symbolises how we had so much progress in ending war with Eritrea, people coming to Ethiopia to celebrate peace, and then another war in Northern Ethiopia breaks out. So there is this cycle we don’t seem to be able to break in spite of all the potential for good.
Above all, eucalyptus is a very resilient tree, so I will always perceive it as a reflection of migrants and their indomitable strength.
Ennatu Domingo’s Burnt Eucalyptus Wood is published by The Indigo Press and is available to purchase online and in all good bookshops now.
Lucy Writers would like to express their deepest thanks to Emily Walters, Ennatu Domingo and all at The Indigo Press for their time, energy and support in making this interview happen.