The book explores a young athlete’s decision to seize an opportunity, to defy his government, to break the silences, to expose the hidden truths in Ethiopia, to risk death and pay the price of exile.
Feyisa Lilesa, an Ethiopian runner, reached the finish line in the men’s marathon at the 2016 Olympic Games with his arms raised above his head, crossed at the wrists. Crossed wrists represent a non-violent protest sign: they symbolise the handcuffs of captivity; voluntary restraint of coiled power; and outward palms with no weapons hidden. He won the silver medal and the attention of the world.
IN THE BLOGS THAT FOLLOW, I EXPLAIN HOW I FOUND AND WROTE FEYISA’S STORY.
My Feyisa Lilesa Podcast
Stephany Steggall (Australian Writer): On my website StephanyEvansSteggall.com. I’ve been telling you about Feyisa Lilesa, the Ethiopian marathon runner, whose story I had written and published.
Today I’m talking about cultural appropriation, a subject that recurs in literary circles. I recall Thomas Keneally, author of Schindler’s List, debating it to himself. What did he know about the Jews and what they had suffered? The book should be written by a Jew he reasoned, in the same way that a first nations author should have written another of his classics, The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith.
Tom had his critics about appropriating the story, yet who better to tell it then a well-recognized, well-respected author with no agenda of his own other than to tell a compelling story. When I looked at the story of the Ethiopian athlete Feyisa Lilesa, I doubted my credentials. What did I know about Oromo culture or Ethiopian politics, let alone the elite running?
Feyisa had made his protest at the 2016 Olympic Games to draw the world’s attention to the plight of the Oromo people, because that was the only way he knew to express his despair and determination. So few stories are heard in the West about Ethiopia, and he did not know anyone who could write it all down in a readable story.
Journalists picked up the protestor’s story immediately after the Games and he held public attention for a few months – regarded as a hero in his own country, and as a topical talking point outside it. He was ready and willing when I approached him to tell the story. He says the book’s purpose is similar to that of his unspoken, but powerful message at the Olympics. Let the world know what is happening in my country. I, the runner, he said, could train hard for years to win a medal and raise my crossed arms in the non-violent protest sign. You, the author can research and write the story over three years and get the message out in a book.
Go forward four years plus to the book’s publication, A Time To Be Born: The Feyisa Lilesa Story, just ahead of the postponed Olympic Games, Tokyo 2021. Readers say that they are learning a lot about a different culture beyond the runner’s personal story. Now another debate rages has the IOC made the right decision, prohibiting any kind of demonstration or political religious or racial propaganda? This will be the subject of my next blog.