Getty Ambau On His Novel Desta

Getty Ambau's new epic novel Desta narrates a family saga -- spanning three generations and dealing with their dark and mysterious past in a world of monkeys, goats and spirits. (Courtesy photograph)

Tadias Magazine
By Tadias Staff

Published: Wednesday, September 1, 2010

New York (TADIAS) – After graduating from Yale and working at a cancer research lab at Stanford and as a chemist at SRI and Raychem, Getty Ambau went to graduate school to receive a master’s degree in business. He went on to develop his own venture in the health and nutrition industry. Although he formally started writing his first book of fiction, Desta, three years ago, he worked on a different novel idea prior to that for many years. A course in short story writing inspired him to complete and get Desta published.

Below is our recent conversation with the author.

Tadias: You have written a couple books and several articles on health and nutrition. Is Desta your foray into novel writing?

Yes, I have written books and articles on health because my academic background was partly in the sciences, but I have always felt my inner calling was in writing novels. Yes, I guess, you can say Desta is my entry into the novel-writing profession because I really do enjoy writing.

Tadias: Please tell us a bit more about the book. What prompted you to write it?

The book is about a seven-year-old boy named Desta who dreams of climbing one of the mountains that circle his home to touch the sky and run his fingers through the clouds and his middle-aged father, Abraham, who yearns to find his long lost father and a missing, ancient family gold coin. But this story is also about love, relationships, greed and jealousy and losses and redemption. There is magical aspect to the setting and mystery and adventure to the story.

A few years ago, I took a short story-writing class online. Although what I wrote for this class had little connection to the novel, it served as an impetus to it in that somehow this opportunity set me on the track to engage in what I had long wanted to do.

Tadias: You paint an incredible imagery of Ethiopia’s magical landscape. Is that drawn from your childhood recollection?

Yes, much of the vivid description you find in the novel comes from what I saw and observed as a boy. The Ethiopian landscape has a soul or spirit within it which pulls and holds you every time you gaze at it. I remember whenever I had an opportunity to be on a mountaintop, I would perch on a rock and stare to the distant hazy, terrain for a long time, wondering who lived in there or how far out the earth extended.

Tadias: Where in Ethiopia were you born?

I was born in north western Ethiopia, in Gojjam Kilil. I first left Ethiopia in the seventies to come and study for one year in high school in United States. I went back home at the end of the year, but returned to the states a year later to go to college.

Tadias: What’s your most vivid memory of growing up there?

Geographically, the beautiful, jagged mountains that undulate like ocean waves to the distant horizons and the carpet of wild flowers that adorned them in the spring season; culturally, the holiday festivals—the colorful clothes people wore, their glees and smiles at these events; and spiritually, the doggedly religious, and even fatalistic, community of people I grew up in.

Tadias: When was the last time you visited the country?

The last time I visited Ethiopia was in 2005. I stayed barely a week and didn’t get to see much outside Addis. Before that in 2003, I went with my son and had stayed for 3 weeks and had a wonderful time. We travelled east to Dire Dawa and Harar, south to Awassa and Araba Minch and north-west to Bahar Dar and other towns. I had never been in the southern part of Ethiopia before and we enormously enjoyed driving though the Rift Valley, seeing the acacia covered, park-like places, past grazing cattle and clusters of villages. Awassa was serene and relaxing but the scenery outside of Arba Minch was amazing and enchanting.

Tadias: Are any of the characters in your novel based on people you knew in Ethiopia? Or are they just a creation of your imagination?

Most writers borrow from their life experiences and I certainly won’t be the exception. The setting is a real place but the characters and the story, as told, are fiction.

Tadias: The book is also full of spiritual symbolisms and superstitions. For example, in the first chapter, you highlight the folk belief that an owl sound foretells death. In one scene, the family is sitting around the house waiting for the return of their missing father. “It was at that moment, the too-familiar but unexpected call of an owl from the sycamore sent shivers down the mother’s spine,” you write. “But there is nobody sick in the family the mother said to herself, knowing that the doomsayer usually makes that awful call when someone is about to die.” How have these cultural beliefs changed or influenced you or your writing?

One of the reasons I had wanted to write the novel was to show or share some of these wonderful cultural nuances or “superstitions”, as you call them, with people who may have little familiarity with Ethiopia. I think instinctually, animals know a lot more than we humans do. For example, there are many documented cases that show dogs behaving in a certain way right before an earthquake. In Ethiopian folklore, at least the part I come from, owls are perceived to have abilities to predict or announce the incidence of death. As a kid, at night I used to listen to an owl sometimes hooting in a plaintive, human-like tone. The adults often interpreted this sound as a sign that someone was about to die in the area. So I used that personal observation to indicate those cultural beliefs in the passage you excerpted from Desta. Throughout the book, I enjoyed including these tidbits to show some of our cultural rituals or beliefs.

Tadias: Of course, the father’s fortune is connected to the mystery of the lost coin from the family’s ancient treasure-box. What does the coin represent?

Without giving away too much (in the interest of my future readers), the 2,800-year old Solomonic coin contains a great amount of life-enhancing information. In Desta’s family, it also represents spiritual and financial wealth as well as provide magical power to the individual who possesses it.

Tadias: In what ways have your professional background in natural and social sciences informed your writing?

I am a very visual person. This quality of mine was probably enhanced by the many science courses I took because I often saw atoms, molecules and cells in my mind instead of just names on paper. In writing, I have to see everything in my head first before I can sit down to write it. So I guess, I can give credit to my science background including my studies in economics in helping my ability to see objects in my head instead of just with my eyes.

Tadias: The book cover is very intriguing and we read that you were actively involved in designing it. Can you tell our readers a little bit about it?

To start with, I had wanted the main character, Desta, to be on it. I also wanted the landscape and the sunset, which are important to the story to be an integral part of the scene. Although I am not an artist, I’ve good conceptual skills and can sketch or draw what I want. Even though the landscape and the sunset were very easy to put together, asking or instructing someone to draw the boy the way I had perceived him to be was a completely different matter. After many different attempts and going through so many artists, I found Phil Howe of Phil Howe Studios, who could skillfully and realistically compose and interpret the ideas I gave him. I am happy with the way it eventually came out.

Tadias: What do you hope that American readers will discover about Ethiopia while reading your novel?

This epic novel encompasses so many aspects of human life. There are births, weddings, funerals, and the people in the story face problems, have family feuds, hardships as well as dreams. These are universal events or issues found in all societies but how the Ethiopians deal with them is unique, dictated by their culture and tradition and this, I think, will be very interesting for Americans as well as to readers from other countries.

Tadias: How has the book been received by the Ethiopian community?

The Ethiopian community has been wonderful. Not only they want this book for themselves and their children but also as a gift to their American friends. They have been greatly supportive and encouraging and I appreciate them very much.

Tadias: Where can people buy it?

In few weeks it will be available on amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com, but in the meantime, people can buy the book at: www.gettyambau.com, as well as from bookstores.

Tadias: Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?

If I said anything more, I would be giving away a lot of the magic and mystery in the novel. I would rather let people read the book and discover them for themselves. Thank you for the opportunity you have given to share Desta’s story.

Tadias: Thank you Getty and good luck.

14 Responses to “Getty Ambau On His Novel Desta”


  1. 1 Hamelmal Shiferaw Sep 1st, 2010 at 5:10 am

    How Wonderful! I Cannot Wait to read “Desta”. Thank you Tadias for bringing this story.

  2. 2 Susana Mikael Sep 1st, 2010 at 12:39 pm

    Sounds very intriguing and at a minimum a great idea! Based on the sensibilities of the author displayed throughput this interview, I imagine it to be an interesting and instructive read. I do have a question for Mr. Ambau: Is the book intended for young-adults or is it for all ages? The reason why I am asking is that I have 12-year old, would be appropriate to share it?

  3. 3 Getty Ambau Sep 1st, 2010 at 2:00 pm

    Dear Ms. Mikael,

    Thank you for your comments. This book is for all ages. A 10-year-old boy recently came up to me and said he read the whole book in a few days and loved the story. A 12-year-old young person should certainly have no problem in understanding the novel.

    Thank you again.
    GTA

  4. 4 Zelalem Sep 1st, 2010 at 11:06 pm

    Bravo. Looking forward to it. One more addition to the small but growing number of Novels by Ethiopian American authors.

  5. 5 Ye Oak Town Lij Sep 2nd, 2010 at 11:15 pm

    Got a copy from a friend here in town. An excellent book, in my opinion! The main reason why I liked the book is that it reminds of wonderful paintings that tell stories. In Desta, the author’s canvas is Ethiopia and all its maddening beauty and complexity, but the message is universal indeed and it contains, in my opinion, quite a good dose of wise moral lessons for everyone. I recommend it!

  6. 6 Monika Sep 4th, 2010 at 4:29 pm

    I thoroughly enjoyed the book and shared it with my students when it was in manuscript form. I found a new world in the Ethiopian customs and countryside, yet the struggles Desta encounters are universal. The desire to see more of the world, to see beyond one’s small circle of space, is the desire all young people hold, so not only can young adults appreciate Desta’s predicament, but adults looking back to their own youth, recognize their own longings that drove their dreams of the future. The harsh treatment Desta receives and his yearnings for knowledge and exploration beyond his limited scope, motivate him to follow his curiosities and explore his dreams, concepts which most young adults and adolescents can recognize as universal conditions the world over. The lush landscape is more than travelogue, but a mystic environment.

  7. 7 Jackie Richmond Sep 16th, 2010 at 3:40 pm

    Having read exerpts from the novel, Desta, was a real privalege.
    Words can’t express just how transportive the ‘sense of place’ Author Ambau has given his readers. His characters are very alive and the entire novel sings with their power. I’m going to have to puchase two of the books…one for each of my daughters as they will want Desta in their ‘home’ libraries!

    Thank you, Tadias

    Thank you, Getty Ambau and best of luck with your wonderful book.

  8. 8 Hirut Abate Sep 18th, 2010 at 7:56 pm

    I love DESTA! For a first novel, it is great read. It can still use a bit more tuning though.

  9. 9 Elizabeth Wolfe Sep 18th, 2010 at 8:02 pm

    Congratulations, Getty! Great interview and a wonderful book!

    From your authonomy friend, Elizabeth

  10. 10 DJ Sep 20th, 2010 at 9:16 am

    The book certainly piques my interest. I will get a copy when it becomes available on Amazon. Question: Why specifically “Solomonic Coin” though? Why not just “coin?”

  11. 11 Getty Ambau Sep 20th, 2010 at 9:18 am

    To Hirut and all those who have the first batches of DESTA,

    Thank you for your purchase of DESTA. Regarding the “tuning” issue, we had problems during the conversion of the manuscript from one application software to another, and as a result, some of the dialogues were corrupted, the alignments were lost and a few textual errors appeared. We fixed all those we could find at the time but apparently there were still a few missed. Having a deadline to meet didn’t help either. Rest assured that they have all been addressed now.

    Thanks again.

  12. 12 Lori Schryer Oct 14th, 2010 at 10:54 am

    I read DESTA in manuscript form a year ago, and this amazing, lovely book is still in my mind. Getty is a fabulous storyteller, and Desta and his family are wonderful, vivid, flawed, and ultimately uplifting characters. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Like Harry Potter or The Book Thief, it is a book for both adults and younger readers. READ THIS BOOK! You will be glad you did. It is a true literary and cultural treasure.

  13. 13 Getachew Admassu Nov 22nd, 2010 at 12:11 pm

    Dear Getty Ambau

    Congratulations !!

    You did a marvelous work. I was fortunate enough to speak to you, when you called us here in Seattle. I took the book with me to Ethiopia, and read it on the way there and finished on my trip back.

    I enjoyed it immensley, and I woud suggest you contact The Hilton in Addis Ababa, to have it displayed for sale. I have seen copies of other books by Ethiopian authors being sold there.

    What fascinated me most was how you were able to weave our cultural nuances in the book, blending well without deviating from your story.
    I am certain there amny Destas who went through similar/identical life experiences who could cherish your work.

    You added a significant contribuition to ETHIOPIA’s literary folder.

    Thank you
    Getachew Admassu

  1. 1 DESTA Author Getty Ambau Receives Moonbeam Book Award at Tadias Magazine Pingback on Nov 17th, 2010 at 5:07 am
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