NORMAN — The University of Oklahoma’s World Literature Today Magazine presented its annual celebration of influential and innovative international literature with the week-long Puterbaugh Festival, filling the week of April 9-12 with speeches, roundtable discussions, films and a photography exhibit.
Focusing on women’s empowerment around the world, the 2013 Puterbaugh Fellow was Ethiopian writer Maaza Mengiste, whose short stories and essays have appeared in the New York Times and BBC Radio 4, among others.
Joining OU professors Ralph Belliveau, Eric Bosse, Kristin Dowell, Jill Irvine and Kimberly Roppolo in a roundtable discussion, Mengiste discussed issues of awareness, artistic expression and cultural relativism following a screening of “Girl Rising,” a documentary film to which she contributed.
“I was hesitant about addressing the subject of forced early marriage in Ethiopia because I’m sensitive about how Ethiopia is represented to the West — images of downtrodden people holding out their hand — and forced marriage is particularly sensitive because the historical relationship the West has had with African women has been very sexualized and grotesque,” Mengiste said.
Ultimately, Mengiste felt compelled to find and re-tell the story of a young Ethiopian girl named Asmera because of her own family history.
“My great-grandmother was given in marriage at an early age and had my grandfather when she was about 11 or 12. My grandmother was about the same age when she was given in marriage,” Mengiste said. “I’ve had this history in my own life and it hit close to home.”
Asmera’s story, featured as one of nine similar vignettes in “Girl Rising,” was one of triumph over the damaging and highly common practice of forced child marriage, as Asmera refused to marry with the support of her brother and was ultimately able to receive an education as a result.
The screening’s roundtable discussion was dominated by a critical analysis of the film’s depiction of each young woman’s culture, the effect of imperialism on these cultures, and appropriate understanding and aid for young women seeking education in the developing world.