An interview with Wendy Laura Belcher on “The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros”

The Life and Struggle of Our Mother Walatta Petros jacketWendy Laura Belcher and Michael Kleiner’s translation of The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros is the first English translation of the earliest-known book-length biography of an African woman predating the seventeenth century. The original author, Galawdewos, collected stories of Petros told by word of mouth from the leader and Saint’s disciples in 1672, thirty years after Petro’s death. Petros was a significant religious figure, who led a non-violent protest against European Jesuits forcing Ethiopians to abandon their African Christian faith. In this interview, Belcher, associate professor in the Department of Comparative Literature and the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University, offers us valuable insight into who this woman was, and the historical context that shaped her fascinating life.

Your title calls this a “seventeenth-century African” text. Are there many African texts from this time?

WLB: There are lots of texts, the problem is that they are rarely preserved or translated. So we are glad to be bringing one to the attention of the public, in part to demolish this myth about Africa being a continent without a written literature. It’s a common assumption, even among scholars, that there is no writing in Africa before Europeans, but that is an error. This text was not written by or for Europeans or in a European language, but by Ethiopians for Ethiopians in an Ethiopian language about an Ethiopian woman.

So, why is this particular book important?

WLB: It’s the earliest-known book-length biography about an African woman. As a biography, it is full of human interest, being an extraordinary account of early modern African women’s lives—full of vivid dialogue, heartbreak, and triumph. For many Americans, it will be the first time they can learn about a pre-colonial African woman on her own terms.

Who was this woman?

WLB: She was a revered religious leader who led a nonviolent movement against European proto-colonialism and was the founding abbess of her own monastery, which still exists today. She lead an amazing life: a woman who was born to an adoring father, lost three children in infancy, left her abusive husband, started a movement, defeated a wicked king, faced enraged hippos and lions, avoided lustful jailors, founded seven religious communities, routed male religious leaders, gathered many men and women around her, and guided her flock subject to no man, being the outright head of her community and even appointing abbots, who followed her orders. Her name is Walatta Petros (which means Daughter-of [Saint] Peter, a compound name that cannot be shortened) and she lived from 1592 to 1642.

This is a biography, not an autobiography. So who actually wrote it?

WLB: Thirty years after her death, her Ethiopian disciples (many of whom were women) gathered to tell stories of her life to a scribe named Galawdewos (Claudius in English). So, it is a kind of oral history of the community. They praised her as an adored daughter, the loving friend of women, a devoted reader, a disciplined ascetic, and a fierce leader.

This book was originally written on parchment. Nearby Ethiopian Orthodox monasteries copied it. We used twelve of these manuscript copies of the book to create our translation, including three from the saint’s own monastery. The text was written in the classical African language of Ethiopic, or Gəˁəz. Ethiopians innovated a writing system in the first millennium BCE and have been using it to write bounds books since the fourth century CE.

If this text wasn’t written for Europeans, how are Europe and Christianity involved?

WLB: It is confusing! First, the Christianity in this text is African. Ethiopians have been Christians since the fourth century, long before most of Europe. They have retained a distinctive form of Christianity in their Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Second, this book records an early encounter between Europeans and Africans from an African perspective. When the Jesuits came in the 1500s to try to convert the Ethiopians to Roman Catholicism, many Ethiopians resisted, especially the royal women. Walatta Petros was one of these women, and she led others in a successful fight to retain African Christian beliefs. For these acts, she was elevated to sainthood in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Are there a lot of these Ethiopian biographies?

WLB: There are over 200 Ethiopian orthodox saints and over 100 of them have biographies. At least 17 of them are women and six of them have biographies (or, since they are saints, what are called hagiographies). Ethiopian stories about Ethiopian saints are a vital archive of African literature that has gone almost entirely unexplored outside Ethiopia. They are fascinating narratives about Ethiopian folk heroes as well as rich repositories of indigenous thought. This will be the first accessible translation into English of any of these stories. (There are three of the other hagiographies in English, but they exist only in art books that cost thousands of dollars each.)

Can you tell me more about yourself and your fellow translator?

WLB: Dr. Kleiner is a German scholar with an excellent knowledge of over a dozen languages, including Arabic, French, Amharic, Ethiopic, and English. He is widely acknowledged as one of the two best living translators of Ethiopic (or Gəˁəz) into English. I am an assistant professor of African literature with a joint appointment in the Princeton University Department of Comparative Literature and the Department for African American Studies. I spent part of my childhood in Ethiopia and I now work to bring attention to early African literature.

What other important figures from Walatta Petros’ life are mentioned in this text?

WLB: The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros features a life-long partnership between two women and the depiction of same-sex sexuality among nuns. This is the earliest known depiction of same-sex desire among women in a sub-Saharan Africa text. Walatta Petros was in a life-long celibate relationship with another nun, Eheta Kristos, and they “lived together in mutual love, like soul and body” until death. Interpreting the women’s relationships requires care and this scholarly edition and translation provides the necessary political, religious, and cultural context in all its richness. The same-sex relationships are a fascinating aspect of the text, but just one small part of it.

Read the introduction to The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros here.

Ellen McLarney talks about SOFT FORCE on ISLAMiCommentary

In the years preceding Arab Spring, when Mubarak’s authoritarian regime fell from power, Muslim women took a leading role in developing an Islamist presence in Egypt’s public sphere. Their success in opposing secular dictatorship hinged on their use of something called “soft force”, a women’s jihad characterized by nonviolent protest.

ISLAMiCommentary, a web forum for public scholarship based at the Duke Islamic Studies Center, recently interviewed Princeton University Press author Ellen McLarney about her new book, Soft Force: Women in Egypt’s Islamic Awakening.

From the book’s introduction:

Soft Force jacketOne of the most visible public faces of the 2011 revolution in Egypt was Asmaʾ Mahfouz, a young woman who posted a video blog on Facebook calling for the January 25 protest in Tahrir Square “so that maybe we the country can become free, can become a country with justice, a country with dignity, a country in which a human can be truly human, not living like an animal.” She describes a stark imbalance of power: a lone girl standing against the security apparatus of the state. When she initially went out to demonstrate, only three other people came to join her. They were met with vans full of security forces, “tens of thugs” (balṭagiyyīn) that menaced the small band of protesters. Talking about her fear (ruʿb), she epitomizes the voice of righteous indignation against the Goliath of an abusive military regime. “I am a girl,” she says, “and I went down.” The skinny, small, pale girl bundled up in her winter scarf and sweater speaks clearly and forcefully, despite a slight speech impediment, rallying a political community to action against tyrannical rule. Mahfouz’s vlog is not necessarily famous for actually sparking the revolution, as some have claimed in the revolution’s aftermath. Rather, she visually embodies and vocally advocates what the Islamic activist Heba Raouf Ezzat calls “softforce,”al-­quwwa­al-n­āʿima.

You can watch the interview here:

Read the full article here.

Ellen McLarney is assistant professor of Arabic literature and culture at Duke University.

Deborah Jordan Brooks’s Double Whammy: He Runs, She Runs: Why Gender Stereotypes Do Not Harm Women Candidates Wins Two Awards

Deborah Jordan BrooksA round of applause for Deborah Jordan Brooks: the celebrated Princeton University Press author has scooped up not one, but two awards for her latest book, He Runs, She Runs: Why Gender Stereotypes Do Not Harm Women Candidates.

The first comes courtesy of the American Political Science Association, who has named the book the Winner of the 2014 Victoria Schuck Award. This prize is awarded annually for the best book published on women and politics and carries a prize of $1,000. Initially established to honor the legacy of Victoria Schuck and her commitment to women and politics, the award recognizes and encourages research and publication by women in the field.

The second, awarded by the International Society of Political Psychology, has dubbed Brooks’s book the Winner of the 2014 David O. Sears Award. This prize is awarded to the best book published in the field of political psychology of mass politics, including political behavior, political values, political identities, and political movements, released during the previous calendar year. In keeping with the scholarship of David O. Sears, the award-winning work must “demonstrate the highest quality of thought and make a major substantive contribution to the field of political psychology.”

Deborah Jordan Brooks is an Associate Professor in the Department of Government at Dartmouth College. She received her B.A. in both Politics and Psychology from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and completed both her M.A. and Ph.D. in Political Science at Yale University. From 1998 to 2003, Brooks also served as the Senior Research Director for the Gallup Organization, which “provides data-driven news based on U.S. and world polls, daily tracking, and public opinion research.”


Deborah Jordan Brooks is the author of:

7-9 HeRunsSheRuns He Runs, She Runs: Why Gender Stereotypes Do Not Harm Women Candidates by Deborah Jordan Brooks
Paperback | 2013 | $26.95 / £18.95 | ISBN: 9780691153421
Hardcover | 2013 | $65 / £44.95 | ISBN: 9780691153414
240 pp. | 6 x 9 | 18 tables. | eBook | ISBN: 9781400846191 |Reviews Table of Contents Chapter 1[PDF]