The History of a Difficult Child: A Novel (Paperback)

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"The History of a Difficult Child is an extraordinary novel." —Maaza Mengiste, Booker Prize-shortlisted author of The Shadow King

“An exhilarating novel by a powerful new writer.” —Elif Batuman, author of Pulitzer-Prize finalist The Idiot and Either/Or

A breathtaking, tragicomic debut novel about the indomitable child of a scorned, formerly land-owning family who must grow up in the wake of Ethiopia’s socialist revolution

Wisecracking, inquisitive, and bombastic, Selam Asmelash is the youngest child in her large, boisterous family. Even before she is born, she has a wry, bewitching omniscience that animates life in her Small Town in southwestern Ethiopia in the 1980s. Selam and her father listen to the radio in secret as the socialist military junta that recently overthrew the government seizes properties and wages civil war in the North. The Asmelashes, once an enterprising, land-owning family, are ostracized under the new regime. In the Small Town where they live, nosy women convene around coffee ceremonies multiple times a day, the gossip spreading like wildfire.

As Selam’s mother, the powerful and relentlessly dignified Degitu, grows ill, she embraces a persecuted, Pentecostal God and insists her family convert alongside her. The Asmelashes stand solidly in opposition to the times, and Selam grows up seeking revenge on despotic comrades, neighborhood bullies, and a ruthless God. Wise beyond her years yet thoroughly naive, she contends with an inner fury, a profound sadness, and a throbbing, unstoppable pursuit of education, freedom, and love. 

Told through the perspective of its charming and irresistible narrator, The History of a Difficult Child is about what happens when mother, God, and country are at odds, and how one difficult child finds her voice.

About the Author

Mihret Sibhat was born and raised in a small town in western Ethiopia before moving to California when she was seventeen. A graduate of California State University, Northridge, and the University of Minnesota’s MFA program, she was a 2019 A Public Space Fellow and a 2019 Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Initiative grantee. In a previous life, she was a waitress, a nanny, an occasional shoe shiner, a propagandist, and a terrible gospel singer. She's currently a miserable Arsenal fan.

Praise For…

Praise for The History of a Difficult Child

“An endearing coming-of-age story set in post-revolutionary Ethiopia . . . Sharp and witty. . . .  Like other child narrators — see Giovanna in Elena Ferrante’s “The Lying Life of Adults”; Esch in Jesmyn Ward’s “Salvage the Bones” — Selam is curious and obsessive about the truth. . . . Selam’s pressing queries guide Sibhat’s debut, a wily and operatic novel about a former aristocratic family’s adjustment to post-revolutionary Ethiopia. . . . The History of a Difficult Child spans decades, swinging between the past (before Selam) and the present with a casual and impressive ease. . . . [Sibhat] has built a portrait of Ethiopia’s history while giving us a compelling family drama anchored by a distinctive heroine. . . . Sibhat’s ability to find humor in even the darkest situations keeps The History of a Difficult Child nimble and propulsive.” 
—Lovia Gyarkye, The Washington Post

“Sibhat . . . has created a memorable character in Selam, who entertains us — and her family of siblings and extended relatives — with her smarts, humor and wily charm. . . . Sometimes heady, often rowdy . . . [the novel] delivers its message with humor and brio.”
—Minneapolis Star Tribune

“A remarkable family saga. . . . Sibhat wonderfully distills the political and historical context into a personal story, and centers Selam’s emotional turmoil with inventive narration. This is a standout.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review) 

“Sibhat’s vivid narrative is captivating, particularly for its emotional depth, even as some of the events she depicts are shocking. She has achieved any fiction writer’s first goal—transporting the reader into another world—and has set the bar high for what promises to be a brilliant career.”
—Thane Tierney, BookPage (starred review)

“Sibhat tells Selam’s tale with verve, offering a vibrant panorama of Ethiopian society in all its complexity with an unforgettable protagonist at the center.”
—Booklist (starred review)

“Mihret Sibhat’s beautifully rendered first novel, The History of A Difficult Child, is as rich and complicated as they come—a novel that delves fearlessly, with so much grace and compassion, into the most essential corners of our lives, the ones where family, politics, culture, and love are inextricably intertwined.”
Dinaw Mengestu, MacArthur “Genius Grant”-winning author of All Our Names and The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears

“An exhilarating novel by a powerful new writer.”
—Elif Batuman, author of Pulitzer-Prize finalist The Idiot and Either/Or

The History of a Difficult Child is an extraordinary novel. It is at once a story of a sharp-witted young girl trying to hold herself together during political upheaval, and an achingly tender tale of community, family, grief and forgiveness. Its most striking achievement, however, rests in young Selam’s insistence that rebelliousness and nonconformity might, after all, be the greatest expressions of love.”
—Maaza Mengiste, Booker Prize-shortlisted author of The Shadow King

“Mihret Sibhat’s The History of a Difficult Child signals the emergence of a major new writing talent. Not only does the novel confront history, masculinity, and gender in refreshing but uncompromising ways, it also has a remarkably original voice, fresh and irreverent. This, combined with the unexpected reimagining of the novel form, her elegant and accessible language, and her deft hand at tragicomedy, ensures Sibhat will soon be one of the most influential voices in the literature of Africa. I am sure this is only the first of many important books that will come from this gifted writer.”
—Chris Abani, author of GraceLand and The Secret History of Las Vegas

“Selam, Mihret Sibhat’s ferociously witty young narrator, depicts her family’s religious and political struggles in Ethiopia in extraordinarily rich and original prose. The History of a Difficult Child is deeply moving as well as hilarious. This is a one-of-a-kind must-read debut.”
—Julie Schumacher, Thurber Prize-winning author of Dear Committee Members and The Shakespeare Requirement

“Mihret Sibhat wields the child narrator voice with rare finesse and brave conviction. The ‘history’ here is not only about the growth of a beguiling bad girl with visionary intelligence, but also about the force of history itself. A brilliant powerhouse of a novel, an incandescent read from an electrifying writer.”
—Patricia Hampl, author of The Art of the Wasted Day

“An unexpected and hilarious voice with a velocity all its own. You won’t soon forget brutally frank Selam, or Mihret Sibhat’s razor-sharp wit. The History of a Difficulty Child is tender and merciless, full of human and political insight. I couldn’t stop turning the pages.”
—V.V. Ganeshananthan, author of Brotherless Night

“A moving evocation of life in a time of terror, as seen through innocent eyes.”
Kirkus Reviews

“A family story, a community story, a political critique, and a very funny rollicking novel. . . . Mihret Sibhat’s command of language, her sense of humor, and her love for Ethiopia combine to stir the memories of any who have encountered this culture and people. . . . A magnificent guide to this ancient and enduring culture.”
—Richard Crepeau, New York Journal of Books

"[A] debut novel about a precocious little girl and her family trying to survive against the backdrop of political upheaval in Ethiopia. Themes of religion, loss, community and independence run through this unexpected and singular work."
—Karla Strand, Ms. magazine
“I recommend The History of a Difficult Child by Mihret Sibhat. Told through the perspective of a precocious, cuttingly sharp child, it follows a formerly landowning family in Ethiopia as they’re increasingly shunned during the socialist revolution. Selam catches far more about the conflict than the adults around her realize, and she becomes fascinated by the strained threads between family, country, and religion.”
—Susie Dumond, BookRiot

"Sibhat’s debut novel is observed through the eyes of a young girl. When Selam Asmelash’s formerly privileged family is shunned after Ethiopia’s socialist revolution, her mother turns to extreme religion to cope. Selam, coming of age, is torn between extremes of wealth, power, politics, and religion. The novel offers a heartfelt look at the development of this 'difficult child.'"
"There are a slew of great reads from debut writers coming up, and The History of a Difficult Child is among the best of them. Decorated first-time author Mihret Sibhat was raised in a small town in Ethiopia before her family moved to California, and her powerful novel is told through the eyes of a girl raised in just such a town as her family endures the country’s civil war."
—Nick Hilden, The Manual

“Set in a small town in Ethiopia, this story is told from the perspective of Selam Asmelash, the youngest in her family and a very big personality. As political turmoil coupled with personal losses unfold around her, Selam takes it all in her stride, navigating the turbulence with a unique wit and charm. A novel set against the backdrop of the politics of its time.”
—Samira Sawlani, African Arguments
Product Details
ISBN: 9780593298633
ISBN-10: 0593298632
Publisher: Penguin Books
Publication Date: June 25th, 2024
Pages: 400
Language: English