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August 22, 2005

My Fathers' Daughter - Hannah Pool

Posted by Anthony Daniels

My Fathers' Daughter
by Hannah Pool
Pp 304. London: Hamish Hamilton, 2005
Hardback, 14.99

In My Fathers' Daughter, Hannah Pool - who was adopted by a British academic from an orphanage in Eritrea and brought up mainly in Manchester - recounts her visit to Eritrea to track down her biological father. Anthony Daniels finds that the book tells him nothing about Eritrea or Eritreans, but unintentionally says rather a lot about British youth culture.

The first Eritrean I knew was a fellow medical student. He was a remarkable young man, though at the time I am not sure we appreciated just how remarkable.

He had been well-schooled by missionaries, but worked as a shepherd. A charitable Briton with a fondness for Ethiopia had left a scholarship fund for four Ethiopian boys annually to attend an English public school, and my fellow medical student had walked from Eritrea (then part of the Ethiopian Empire) to Addis to take the exam. He was one of the four boys selected, and he impressed us deeply by showing us photos of him receiving his award from the hand of the Emperor himself.

He was a most agreeable companion, and a group of us went on holiday to Ireland with him in a horse-drawn caravan. To the astonishment of the local people, he sung Eritrean shepherd songs as we went down the country lanes of County Cork and he taught us how to make toothbrushes out of twigs. He was always cheerful, polite, immune to all the fashionable political extremisms of the time and liked by everyone; and though we didn't think of it at the time, he must have possessed great depth of character to make so successful an adjustment to a different world.

It is because of him that I have retained some slight interest in Ethiopia and Eritrea, and cannot appreciate the novels of Evelyn Waugh very much. Try as I might when reading him, I can never get his callous remarks about the gassing of the Ethiopians from the air by the Italians out of my mind, and his haughty and ignorant disdain for everything and everyone emanating from that part of the world. When I read him, I think of my Eritrean friend, and a visceral distaste for Waugh wells up in me.

Because of my continuing slight interest in the area which I don't want to exaggerate or inflate I read to the end of a book called My Fathers' Daughter by Hannah Pool. The author is Eritrean by birth but was adopted from an orphanage in Eritrea by a British academic, David Pool, and brought up mainly in Manchester. She went to school, studied sociology at university and became a journalist on The Guardian. Having discovered that, contrary to what she had previously believed, her Eritrean father was still alive in Eritrea, she resolved, at the age of twenty-nine, to visit him. Until then, she had never so much as seen a blood relative.

In the event, the book told me nothing about Eritrea or Eritreans, but quite a lot about young Britons: for, her colour notwithstanding, Miss Pool's culture, if that is not too strong a word for it, is entirely young British: which is to say, shallow, unattractive and emotionally incontinent.

First, there is the question of prose style. Of course, not everyone is... well, an Evelyn Waugh. But it is surely significant that someone with a university degree in the humanities, and with a job on the pre-eminent daily of intellectuals, should resort constantly to Anglo-American demotic expressions such as "I'll fess up", "how to do vintage or whatever", "I was freaking myself out", and "all I had to do was keep it together".

Quite often, if fact, she can't keep it together, and then it takes its revenge: it does her head in. And at the end of the book, from the very last sentence in fact, we learn that there are tough times ahead:

OK, it [the trip to Eritrea] wasn't exactly a relaxing break, but it was a breeze compared with trying to figure out where we go from now.

I think it unlikely that she learnt this style, simultaneously colloquial and impersonal, from her father, a distinguished academic at Manchester University and author of From Guerrillas to Government: The Eritrean Liberation Front. Therefore, I can think only that it is the product of British youth culture using the term in its anthropological sense. And, presumably, these are the kind of thoughts that young Britons, including those who have had nearly twenty years of education, think.

Miss Pool is in other ways quintessentially young British. The biggest problem in her life seems to be what to wear on different occasions. Her most serious dilemma seems to be lip gloss or no lip gloss? When finally she reaches Asmara (the capital of Eritrea) she has nights out with other Eritrean returnees from western countries that are indistinguishable from those she has in London. A hangover for her seems to be a certificate of sexual equality; at any rate, all the world's a night club.

She has another quintessential characteristic of young Britons: emotional incontinence. She is constantly bursting into tears, on the slightest of occasions, and when she is really moved, she retches and even vomits. On being told that the member of her family whom she most resembles is her sister who was killed at the front during the war of independence, she:

can't take in this new information in front of all these people... [It is] too much for [her] to deal with in front of an audience, too many eyes wanting me to smile and say I'm OK with it.
Then she feels a tightness in her throat that she knows means that she is:
either going to faint, vomit or dissolve into a puddle of tears.
And this, in the presence of her relatives who have known years of war and famine! (Of course, there's no emotion a hug can't put right.)

It is hardly surprising that such self-absorption, deep and yet shallow, precludes any interest in the world around her. She evinces no interest whatsoever in the life histories of her relatives, or in the way in which they live, or what they think and believe, despite the fact that practically all of them must have had lives of supreme difficulty. She can't wait to get back home to a world in which the choice of lip gloss and night clubs seem serious matters.

I am aware, of course, that one swallow doesn't make a summer, and yet the emotional thinness, the cultural shallowness of the author, despite such a long education, seems all too familiar to me.

Anthony Daniels is a writer and recently retired as a doctor.

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It is not really surprising that Hannah Pool thinks a lot about lip gloss/make up - since she is the Guardian's make up correspondent - the writer of their "The New Black" column. Anyway - Dr Daniels, just because a girl thinks about lip gloss does not make her trivial. There is nothing to stop you thinking of Aristotle and lip gloss - granted not that many girls probably do. But how many blokes think of Aristotle when they are considering the football?

Posted by: Jane at August 22, 2005 05:57 PM


Lip gloss, I mean like, so like last year duh, what ever, talk to the hand, Im off to vomit.

Posted by: Tom at August 23, 2005 09:52 AM

weel i just found out that Hannah Pool is my 2nd cousin.....her and my mom are 1st cousins...its really exciting and great that she got to know who she really is and where she came from.

Posted by: Feyere Solomon at September 4, 2005 06:36 AM

Dr Anthony Daniels I was very interested to read your comments about Hannah Pool's book My Father's Daughter. I found them to be very harsh in view of the emotional experience she had gone through. Granted, she chose to put herself through this, but nevertheless it required immense courage. It was clearly not carried out on the spur of the moment having taken 6 years to answer her brother's letter. Can you put yourself in her position? Contrary to your belief, you find out that you are not, after all an orphan. What does that FEEL like? Yes, of course she felt sick. I nearly vomited for her in anticipation of meeting her father.

You quite rightly point out that she did not spend time writing much about Eritrea and the Eritreans. She really did not need to do that. The book was not about that. It was about her quest to find a family who had given her up. She did not comprehend, looking at it from the comfort and safety of the UK, why this could have happened. She had to go and find out. She did. It was painful.

As for the question of "prose style" as you put it, I quite agree with you - it is no work of literary art and she could have been better advised by her publishers on the use of language. She IS a "British youth" and even an educated one is going to adopt the culture of the day - she is even creating it along with all her contemporaries. She showed herself as she is - no pretences. British youth culture of today is a subject in itself for a book. Her father, in this respect, may possibly cringe along with many of us of the same sort of age, myself included. My feeling, however, is that through her honesty and openness about herself as a British young woman of today, (whether I like the culture or not) she illustrated the differences between herself and her Eritrean family. Her lifestyle and manner of speaking could not be more removed from theirs - she was aware of that and made the point through her unease, nervousness and sometimes irritation. There were many other examples of differences which she did not point out in so many words, but were well illustrated in her encounters with the family. That is what it was all about and what she had to come to terms with and I think she demonstrated this very well.

Her final words I think are very poignant. Where indeed does she go to from now on? Recognising the cultural differences between her and her family, she has much to think about. She has choices. She could bury the whole episode and carry on with her life as if nothing had happened, or somehow she could make a difference somewhere to someone's life. She is young, and I would be very interested to know where this experience will take her.

P.S. I was born in Asmara to British parents - in a convent - and later married an Englshman in Addis. Although I have not lived there for many years the bond remains strong and my heart has just gone out to a young woman who needed to find her routes.

Posted by: Pamela at September 19, 2005 02:49 PM

Just finish reading the book My Fathers' Daugther and I find that out was very intersting story. Specialy when she is about to Meet her family for the FIRST time was so deep that I cannot take, but Hannah did what a courage. I salute you Hannah.
I love your book and the story I hope lot's of people will learn from it, specialy young African American.
I am an Eritrean living in America and I am proud to say that I am from Eritrea, So do you.......

Posted by: Mussie Manna at September 29, 2005 11:17 PM

i have just finished reading it. very interested in comments about being black in a dominant white culture and even more about the comments on adoption. having had nothing to complain about in her life with her adoptive parents she wishes that she had not been adopted and suggests that any adoptee who denies an interest in knowledge about their birth family is lying, just as she was for years after receiving a letter from her brother before deciding to trace the family

i wondered about the honesty of expression of her thoughts and feelings and the likelihood of distress to her families reading the account.

but i found the whole book to be compulsive reading - language acceptable by modern standards


Posted by: glen at November 13, 2005 02:28 AM

I am just reading the Dutch translation of the book of Hannah Pool. I read the comment from Anthony Daniels.

What impresses me in this book that I can understand very good her feelings. She did not deny she is a yuppy in England if this is still the word. But I could very good sense her feelings. I have a partner from Eritrea, I was in the country for some time.
For me it was all so understandable.
The things her relatives told her about the hair, the dress, although as a white they will not tell me to wear the same, but as the wife I should.

If I read the further comment, I am sure the Dutch translation is very good. There are no cliche cult youth words. It is very easy readable. And compared to other books, it is a good book and I surely will recommend it to other people.

Posted by: Bosch at January 30, 2006 09:57 PM

It is a great book with roller coaster dramas. The author is very candid and honest with her life. It is an enlightenment to those of us who have no clue about adoption; in Hannah Pool's case, it was a double tragedy because she believed in her entire life that she was an orphan without any clue about her biological parents except their country of origin.
The book is full of twists with lots of crying, tears as well as laughing and bewilderment of a strange Eritrean culture which is very rich and bizyntine. The most memorable time is the moment she was ready to meet her 'biological' family members. I read books quite often but never cried like this recently, except watching the movie - "The Beautiful Mind" - while at the end, the main protagonist was receiving his Nobel Prize. It was a book I never wanted to put on the table in between. The author has done a very good job and who knows a good script writer may make it a blockbuster movie at a hand of a good director.
The most amazing about her story is her strong attachement and bond with her dad, I know she hates the conjugated words "adoptive father". As she describes him, her dad is very sensitive, caring and an ideal father whom I believe has made a "difference", no wonder she dedicated her book to him; the kind of ideal dad every one wants to have.

F. N.


Posted by: F.N. Canada at November 18, 2006 11:17 PM

I understand Anthony Daniels views, he is not trying to put down Hannah Pool in any bad way. As an African who came to live in Britain in my early twenties it was very strange how misinformed people are in the 'Mother Country'. Some comments from British people were downright offensive. I had all the knowledge of being educated in a country that was once known as the British Gold Coast, we were educated enough, not to voice out narrow minded statements. Living in this society I am convinced that more can be done in education especially subjects like History, Citizenship and in English Literature. As Ghanaians we learn about many positive aspects of the British culture and the youth of today can learn from and about the beauty or the positive aspects of non western cultures. We can learn and share so much with each other. This is the only way we can combat ignorance. Ignorance; due to the lack of education is not bliss, it can cultivate the problems we are facing in our society today.


Posted by: Marian Brew at December 18, 2006 11:48 AM

I'm sorry Anthony Daniels finds it hard to appreciate Waugh, whom I'd see as less ignorant and disdainful of Abyssinia (as it was) than simply misanthropic. Very few people come off well in Waugh's writing, including Waugh himself, and without the spite and rancour we might not have had the comic genius.

Posted by: Wuff Stuff at September 16, 2007 11:53 PM

That was rather more spiteful than I expected. Perhaps A.K.A. Daniels was unaware of how just how small and spiteful his words might seem to his reader.

I'm inclined to think that as an adolescent and young man he must have been as perfect in every detail as he is today. His well known (and publicized) humility and charming self-deprecation seem to have worn a little thin in places. Oh, to be so much above one's readership! I did not read the book and I will take the dear doctor's word for the content but I have read elsewhere how very, very interested he is in criticizing the appearance and style of dress of everyone around him (barring his good self). Miss Pool was, understandably, quite nervous and yet she must not use her appearance as a way of controlling some of her rather too out there emotions. If she had written that she had crawled out of bed and pulled on sweats and a hoodie she'd have come in for the same amount of criticism. And if she had felt no emotion at all and been entirely unaffected by the experiences what that? Maligned for being heartless and unfeeling? Is there anyone who is not a mirror image of him (including appearance) who might hope to meet with his grudging approval? Certainly not me or anyone I've ever known except perhaps that well beloved writer St. Theo of Dull Rumple.

I enjoy reading Dr. Daniels articles but sometimes I wonder if he takes himself a little too seriously. Perhaps the gentleman should stick to reading the Bard and then his oh-so-refined sensibilities might not require the delicate lace edged hankie soaked in cologne quite so often. He is in danger of becoming a curmudgeon and I don't think he would enjoy himself as much as he might think.

Posted by: Jannie at February 9, 2011 03:26 AM
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