Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Ethiopia in Her Heart; an interview with Jane Kurtz --LeAnne Hardy

LeAnne Hardy:  From 1976 to 1977, I was librarian at Jane Kurtz’s alma mater, Good Shepherd School, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where I met her family.  School Library Journal calls Jane a “superb storyteller.”  Her books have gathered accolades, starred reviews, and awards.  Her twenty-nine published books include picture books and novels for young readers that draw on childhood memories of Ethiopia.

Jane has taught writing at the elementary, secondary, and university levels and is currently on the faculty of the MFA in children’s and young adult literature out of Vermont College.  Her passion for books and reading and her love of Ethiopia came together in Ethiopia Reads, an organization that establishes free libraries for children in Addis Ababa with Yohannes Gebregeorgis, one of CNN’s Top Ten Heroes.

LH: Jane, what was the best part of growing up in Ethiopia for you? 

Jane Kurtz:  I tell U.S. students this will sound strange, but my very favorite part of growing up in Ethiopia was…no television.  Maji, a small, remote village in Ethiopia, was a mountainous place of fog and flowers, frogs in the false banana leaves, and waterfalls—including the one my dad harnessed to put in a mill to grind grain into flour, usually a back-breaking job for women around Maji.  My sisters and I spent our days outside, exploring.  Ethiopia was a place of songs, stories, and elaborate dramas, things that have showed up in my books.

The clinic on our compound was a sad and somewhat scary place.  People clumped near it in various stages of distress and pain, and we kids weren’t encouraged to hang around.  But the school right outside the compound was a place where I saw boys…almost all boys…grabbing their chance at education.  Some of those boys were more like young men.  Some of them worked around the compound or in our kitchen to earn money for their supplies and teased us—as teenagers will do with young girls—and I thought they were infinitely cool.  It was painful to know that Ethiopian girls didn’t go to that school and didn’t come around to play as they had when I first moved to Maji.  They were working in their houses.  

LH: How did growing up as you did contribute to your writing? 

JK:  I was given a wealth of material, including memories and feelings I’ve drawn on over and over.  Also, being an outsider is useful in that it teaches observation skills, and I became an acute observer, something that always serves writers well.

LH: Your first published books were set in Ethiopia.  Was it hard to get an American publisher to consider an African setting?  Has that gotten any easier?

JK:  In 1994 when Fire on the Mountain was published by Simon & Schuster, it was the Ethiopian setting that caught the eye of the editor.  In those days, teachers, librarians, and some parents were calling for books set in other countries and reflecting many cultures.  Those calls were backed up with money to buy books.  Now it’s gotten tremendously harder because that money mostly has disappeared—for a variety of reasons.

LH: You have written several other books with Ethiopian settings.  Tell us about them.

Many of my books have Ethiopia connections.  (Even in my new American Girl books, set in Boston, my main character wants to grow up to be like Jane Goodall and imagines tracking animals on the savannah.)  Along with Fire on the Mountain, some that are still available include:
The Storyteller’s Beads, a novel for young readers set in the time of war and pain when Ethiopians spread all over the world in a great diaspora,

Faraway Home, a picture book story about a girl who can’t understand her father’s homesickness,

Water Hole Waiting, a poetic look at the animals of the savannah,

Trouble, a re-telling of an Ethiopian folktale, in a new bilingual (Amharic-English) edition. 
The same volunteer (Down Home Books) who sells Trouble on Amazon.com also sells new copies of my out-of-print first book for American Girl: Saba: Under the Hyena’s Foot, historical fiction set among the castles of Gondar, the ancient capital of Ethiopia.

LH: Jakarta Missing is about a family who has lived overseas, coming back to America and having a tough time of it—a family like yours and like mine.  How easy or difficult was that to write?

JK:  That novel took eight years to write.  I discovered interesting things as I struggled.  One was that sometimes the material closest to your heart is actually the hardest to write fiction about.  Another was that the more I fictionalized situations and people in my novel, the more true it became to some of the emotional truths of my life, including what it was like to come back to the U.S. (which I did a couple of awkward times) and what it was like to be the child of parents who had visions and dreamed big dreams.  Critics disliked the idea of good parents who could leave children so on their own, a reaction that probably doomed the novel’s chances of staying in print.  But I know other third culture kids can understand.

LH: Although you come from a Christian family and have a strong faith of your own, your books are not what we would call “Christian fiction.”  Was that a conscious decision?  If so, how did you make it and what do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of your choice? 

JK:  I tried for ten years to get my first book published, and I approached Christian publishers in those years but, ironically, doors opened for me first with big New York publishers.  I’ve found my editors brave in being willing to tackle some of the questions and details of faith and religion that have found their way into my books, especially The Storyteller’s Beads, Jakarta Missing, The Feverbird’s Claw and Saba: Under the Hyena’s Foot.  It does bother me when we Christians only talk with each other or others like us: one of the legacies of my childhood, no doubt.  So one big advantage of my choice is having a voice in a wide and varied community of readers.  

LH: I know you have a passion for books and for Ethiopian children.  Tell us about your relationship with Ethiopia Reads. 

In the late 1990s, I got an email from an Ethiopian-American children’s book librarian in San Francisco public library, Yohannes Gebregeorgis, who had a dream of going back to Ethiopia to use his skills and education to get books to children there.  Through First Presbyterian Church in Grand Forks, ND and a grant from Presbyterian Women, I was able to help him publish the first full-color book and start the first library for children in Ethiopia.  Now Ethiopia Reads takes enormous amounts of my time.  But I’m thrilled that we’ve planted 43 libraries, putting books into the hands of children who are learning to read but often, then, have not even one book to read.  It’s a healing of an old, old pain for me to reach out to Ethiopian children with books.

LH:  I have visited the original reading room in Addis and one of the school libraries supplied by Ethiopia Reads.  You are doing a wonderful work.  Thank you for joining us and sharing your stories.

Although LeAnne Hardy has not (yet) written a book set in Ethiopia, she has written stories for young people based on her experiences living in Mozambique and South Africa.  Learn more at www.leannehardy.net .


  1. What an interesting background to draw from, Jane. Great interview. Thanks.

  2. LeeAnne, fascinating post! Jane, it's great to hear your children's books have taken off in the general market and reach a wide audience. Thanks for letting us know about Ethiopia Reads - a wonderful initiative :-)

  3. Fabulous post, LeeAnne! Jane, thank you for sharing some insights into your childhood, and your passion for the people of Ethiopa.

  4. I agree that Christian writers should be in conversation with as wide a readership as possible. What makes fiction Christian is that the writer is a believer. Preaching, proselytising, or depicting stereotypical characters makes for bad fiction. We must write about universal topics and themes and who we are will come through if we have a writer's voice in our prose. This is what I have attempted to achieve in my new release, which I won't plug here. If interested, please click on my name and follow the link to my website. Thanks! David A. Bedford (USA and Argentina).

  5. I enjoyed the interview and the photos!

  6. I liked your experience in this great architectural country.The Gondar castle is simply superb.