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Dec 18th, 2014

An Intimate Conversation with Hannah Giorgis [Part 1]

by in Interviews
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Writer Hannah Giorgis first started garnering attention on the social media platform Tumblr for her witty yet unapologetic commentary on race relations in the U.S. Giorgis was perhaps able to draw such an audience because she was intriguing yet relatable—the girl next door spitting knowledge that shakes your understanding in the best way possible. Giorgis’ ability to use her humor to tackle difficult issues on her blog Ethiopienne.com inspires readers to think critically on current events. Graduating from Ivy League Dartmouth College, Giorgis is continuing to write and inspire young black girls around the globe. Habesha LA sits down with Giorgis to learn more about the voice behind the pen.

Tell us about your background and how you started writing.

Hannah Giorgis: I grew up in Anaheim, but went back and forth to LA for church. I was all over So-Cal. My parents moved to the U.S. in the early 80s. In 2009 I left California to go to Dartmouth. I graduated in 2013 in English modified with African/African-American Studies. The way I used my degree at school is that I’ve always always always been into literature. I’ve always loved reading. I’ve always loved books. I’ve always loved thinking about how to use words to make sense of the world.

It just made sense after a while that I would get an English degree. College is the first time where I was constantly interacting with the work of black authors. [I thought] Oh there are people representing experiences, that aren’t exactly mine, but still mirror how I fit in the world and I can read their writing. I remember being really excited about that and just kind of wanting to delve into it and make sense of myself through the word of black authors and that’s how I ended up choosing the concentration.

It’s really hard for me to think about when I got into writing, I’ve been reading for so long and writing things in my head and I didn’t necessarily start calling myself a writer I should say until later into my college years. Even though I remember the moment I felt like this is something that I could do and be good at was in high school

You were able to establish a following on Tumblr. Is that where you created your fan base?

Giorgis: It’s so weird for me because the first original version of my Tumblr I was going to post Afro-Diasporic fashion and it was going to be me posting pictures of fashionable Africans from all over the diaspora. And then I started realizing, ‘Oh I go to school in New Hampshire I don’t interact with many people from the continent or diaspora, I can’t post pictures of people if I don’t see them.’

I started using more of an exploratory way of making sense of where I was at in terms of school and where I was and process the world around me. I never really intended for it to be this thing that I shared with the world and it sort of just happened. I guess I would say that’s where I started feeling like I came into my voice, definitely.

You talked about how your parents immigrated here like most of our parents. Were they always supportive about your interest in literature and writing? Or did they ever want you to take a more traditional route?

Giorgis: I think that they’ve always supported my intellectual passion. They have always supported me in being someone who loves to learn. In high school my mom was kind of like, ‘hey look into medicine!’ And we would have these back and forths and I would tell her ‘No mom, I hate science.’ I think after a while she came around and realized this is not going to be the path for my daughter. And I think my Dad still has ambitions of me being a lawyer, but he knows that’s pretty unlikely.

They very much do have those dreams that a lot of Habesha parents have. But, I still have continued along this path and they have been rooting for me very much so.

A lot of it isn’t just because it’s arbitrary and they just think lawyer and doctor for no reason. Actually when you’re an immigrant there’s a whole lot of security in those particular professions. I totally understand the appeal of that even if I recognize that for everybody’s sake it’s good that I’m not going into medicine.

I think for a lot of young black college students, experiencing African-American classes shifts their perspectives on how they view the world. I want to hear your experience taking African/African-American studies classes and eventually identifying yourself as a black feminist.

Giorgis: The first thing that comes to mind for me is that my mom jokes that there was some professor that radicalized me and took her daughter and turned her into this militant [laughs]. I know that it’s mostly a joke, but there may just be this part of her that thinks I went to college as this blank slate and there were some professors that were like ‘hey read the black panther party’ and I emerged suddenly. To think about the way my mom jokes about that makes me think, ‘okay, I know that wasn’t my process, so what was it actually?’ So I realize when I went to school my first term on campus I took an Intro to African-American Studies class.

I thought ‘I want to do this, I grew up in Orange County, the only thing from a black author that I ever read in all of my classes was a narrative of Frederick Douglass and I’m pretty sure it was during Black History Month.’ I remember what was mind-blowing for me from that class is that not only was I being taught by a black woman, it was the first time I was allowed to have a space to understand blackness through the lens of black peoples’ words and the way that black people thought about blackness. For so long growing up I’d been taught about blackness and black people from a lens that wasn’t from us.

All the ways that I understood blackness were not coming from black people themselves. It was the first time I had a chance to explore that. What happened was that I was just told all of these beliefs and I absorbed them. It was more that I found the words for things that I had been feeling for a long time. As a writer, one of the most liberating and empowering experiences to ever have is to know that you have been feeling something for a long time and you find words to explain that.

I took a class that following term on black feminism and womanism. Suddenly, I was confronting all of these things about gender that I never was able to think through critically and had the words of Audrey Lorde and Patricia Hill Collins to help me make sense of things. I have roadmaps now. What those classes did and what those texts and books have done is fundamentally inform me that I’m not alone and show me who is out there thinking these other things and giving me the language to relate to them.

You just know you’re different. And you feel that maybe there’s something wrong with me if people are reacting to me in this way and I didn’t do anything. Then you learn, ‘oh wait I live in a country that was built on the trans-Atlantic slave trade and so many forms of structural racism.’ It makes sense when people treat you in a racist way, it feels bad, but given the logic of this country, it’s not illogical when racism happens. For me to be able to understand that in a historical and literary context was strangely empowering and freeing.

How do you think you can best explain to young Habesha people that we are in fact black and what being black means in this country?
Giorgis: I try to think about things that connect. I think that Habesha people are pretty sensitive to ‘famine’ jokes right? And we’re pretty sensitive to ‘Starving Ethiopian’ jokes. We know what it feels like to be on the receiving end of that. There’s a layer of getting people to think, ‘we’re also black’ and then under that there is also a layer of how to get Habesha people to think about how we interact with African-Americans specifically and why there may be some problems with that. When I talk to people about ‘famine’ jokes they can recognize off-the-bat why that’s messed up.

When I enter these conversations I try to do it from a place of vulnerability, and as African immigrants there are things we feel vulnerable about that other people point out. Similarly, because we have entered this country that has this particular history, sometimes when people look at us they don’t have the time or energy or desire to see Ethiopia or Eritrea. What they see is something that they are more familiar with, which means that’s a history that you have to deal with too. I want to build a curriculum around this. There’s so much need for it.

I think where the biggest point of difficulty lies is that Habesha folks don’t necessarily want to admit another point of vulnerability.We know that we are vulnerable in the sense that we are African and immigrants and all the negative things that can come with that in the U.S. People may be hesitant to also take on this other thing. I think acknowledging that vulnerability is the first way I’ve been able to make ground. When you tell people I know it’s scary and intense for you to admit this and think of what the consequences are to being black in this country, when you’re willing to do that emotional work with people then they are more willing to walk along that journey with you.

My frustration sometimes is when conversations get too hung up on facts and you forget that you’re talking to people that may have seen the news and see that black people deal with particular things that they wouldn’t want to deal with. If those people feel like they can distance themselves from those consequences by saying they are not black, then what you have to deal with is the trauma that comes from realizing you are not distant from that. You’re not dealing with necessarily a logical conversation.
I think this is a different conversation depending on what generation you are talking to as well. I think the way I talk about this with my parents that grew up in Addis where black wasn’t a useful distinction versus how I talk about this with my peers that grow up with some sort of vague understanding of being Othered in some way.

When I’m talking to my peers I ask more ‘why do you see yourself as being separate from black folks in this country’ and use that question to see if they are answering that question with a bunch of stereotypes and figure out that it’s not that you want to distance yourself away from blackness, but rather distance yourself away from these stereotypes. Those are two different things. I understand where the division comes from. It is not from not noticing things, but rather being scared of the consequences of what it feels like to be on the other side.

Blackness and Habeshness are not mutually exclusive. You can be black and Habesha and the thing about blackness is that it has room for multitudes. You can be black and American. You can be black and West Indian. You can be black and Nigerian. That’s part of the beauty of it. You can retain the culturally specific heritage and still be part of this incredible kaleidoscope of international blackness. When you think of yourself as one piece of a puzzle it’s a lot easier to follow..

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