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  • Tizita: A New World Interpretation1
  • Dagmawi Woubshet (bio)

Tinan’tenan t’so, zaren tentereso Kenegem teweso, amna’nem adeso Yemetal tizita gwazun agbesbeso

Outdoing yesterday, shouldering on today, Borrowing from tomorrow, renewing yesteryears, Comes tizita hauling possessions.

—Tizita Lyric2

This essay stems from a yearning to connect poetic practices across boundaries, linking Africa and its Diaspora—by seeking out and fingering the gap that dislocation prompts; by redirecting one’s own unmoored tongue, which, like water (to borrow from Toni Morrison) “is forever trying to get back to where it was.”3

In the New World, Ethiopians are late-Diaspora people. For that reason, it would be ahistorical to compare Ethiopian and New World poetics in the ways usually framed by critics and writers of the African Diaspora. One can’t assume, for example, that the Middle Passage is the only context. Nor can one succumb to the seductions of Ethiopia as it’s romanticized in pan-African discourse, a discourse that has elevated it and constructed its apotheosis, restoration, and return. Nor can such a linking of traditions rely on a transnational, racial nationalism to do all the thinking. Instead, I want to extend the reaches of diasporic discourse—and to free up the Ethiopia that is under romantic arrest—by making a suggestive translation, using an element of Ethiopian poetic tradition as a point of reference. In that effort, I bear with me what Ethiopians call tizita to offer a reading of an African-American novel: James Baldwin’s Just Above My Head.

In Amharic, the word tizita has three related meanings. It can mean, in the first place, memory and the act of memory. Some dictionaries parenthetically add nostalgia, or the [End Page 629] memory of loss and longing—and nostalgia certainly evokes the word’s attendant mood, its melancholy, discernible in the way Amharic speakers employ it even in their most quotidian exchanges. Secondly, tizita refers to one of the scales or modes in secular Ethiopian music, one that conjures up in sonic terms the word’s dictionary meaning. Thirdly, and incorporating the two, tizita refers to a signature ballad in the Amharic songbook, which always takes the form of an expression of loss.

At bottom, tizita is a ballad about the memory of love loss. The lovelorn singer takes up the departed lover as the subject and, simultaneously, the unrelieved memory of loss that the lover’s departure has prompted. Tizita often begins as an apostrophe, a direct address to both the absent lover and memory as a personified abstraction:

Tizita’ye antewneh, tizitam yelebgn Tizita’ye antewneh, tizitam yelebgn Emetalhu eyalk, eyekereh’ebgn

My tizita is you, I don’t have tizita My tizita is you, I don’t have tizita You say you’re coming, yet you never do

Amharic thrives on polysemy. Here the possessive tizita’ye, my tizita, refers to the singer’s own melancholy memory, but also to the absent lover, since in Amharic the possessive is an ornament placed around certain nouns—“my” love, beauty, life, memory—to show affection in addressing a beloved. The second clause in the first two lines contains another generic trope—the singer’s disavowal of all memory but that of love loss—which positions lack and longing as the song’s spatial and temporal coordinates (lack is “here,” longing is “then”). The third line—the absent lover’s empty promise of a return—reprises and affirms the longing stated ambiguously at first.

The longing in tizita is without resolution, since the possibility of restoration or return is always thwarted. Unlike other acts of nostalgia that “try to repair longing with belonging,” tizita is akin to what Svetlana Boym terms reflective nostalgia, which “thrives in algia, the longing itself, and delays the homecoming—wistfully, ironically, desperately.”4 Tizita is to be longing.5 Like the blues, tizita keeps alive the apprehension of loss, and even when it reaches to overcome it, does so “not by the consolation of philosophy,” as Ralph Ellison puts it, but “by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism.”6

At its worst, a tizita ballad is sappy, enamored of its own sentimental excesses. At its...


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pp. 629-634
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