Emerging from the Shadows of History: A Conversation with Maaza Mengiste
In 2010 Ethiopian American writer Maaza Mengiste’s literary debut, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, was hailed as a courageous and deft envisioning of the Ethiopian civil war. She is currently writing her second novel, The Shadow King. As invited participants to the 2013 Callaloo Conference held at the University of Oxford, an annual gathering that uniquely cultivates dialogue between creative writers and scholars of African and African diaspora literature, we took the opportunity to meet in London and discuss her process as a historical novelist who takes up the stories too often untold.
Z’étoile Imma: So, I want to ask you about what you are working on now, but let’s go chronologically, so to speak, and begin our conversation with how you came to write Beneath the Lion’s Gaze. What made you decide to write a historical novel?
Maaza Mengiste: Well, it goes way back. When I came to the US I knew it was because of the revolution. I was a kid, so I didn’t fully understand what was going on. I was trying to figure out what brought me here, how to make sense of some things I remembered, what I was supposed to think of the transition. I was interested, whenever I heard something about another country that was in conflict or at war, I was paying attention, trying to see if it would give me clues into my own situation. When I got to the US, I met a group of students from Libya who were fleeing Kaddafi. When they started telling me their story of fleeing persecution, of being students, and being afraid, I realized that that was exactly what was going on in Ethiopia.
ZI: How old were you when you migrated from Ethiopia?
MM: I was four.
ZI: So you were very young—
MM: Yes, so talking to those students from Libya gave me some kind of context. And I knew them for years, so over the years, I was beginning to understand more. But I wasn’t reading any stories about Ethiopia or about the situation that my family went through or about what the people that I knew went through. That’s the motivation [for the novel]. I was always interested. And when I started researching I thought, maybe there is a way I could do this.
ZI: So did you know at a young age that you wanted to write? When did it come to you that you wanted to be a creative writer? Did your interest in your history and writing develop at the same time?
MM: You know, you always hear about people who say, “I always knew I wanted to be a writer since I was a kid,” but I’m not one of those people at all. All I knew was that I liked to read. I could get lost in stories, I loved books. That’s all I knew, even in college. In college, professors would tell me, “You’re a good writer, you write your essays beautifully,” but I had never done creative writing. But after college, I got a job in advertising. That’s when I felt that I had a level of creativity I could explore. So, I didn’t think being writer was what I would do. It wasn’t in my framework, I didn’t know any writers, I didn’t grow up like that.
ZI: So, at some point after college, you decided to apply to MFA programs? So you graduated college and you were working—
MM: I worked a lot, I was out of school for a really long time. I was in a career, but I hated my work. I was in the film industry, and it was supposed to be the dream job, and it was terrible! I was working in film development. It sounds creative, but it was really about which films would make more money and how do we change a script to make it more marketable. It had nothing to do with the creative aspect of creating stories. And that was what I was interested in—
ZI: Once again, narrative—
MM: So I was in this position, all the people above me, I didn’t want to be like them or have their jobs, but that was the track I was on. So I thought, Either I try to write this story about the revolution I’d been thinking about, or I’ll never do it and I’ll be here. So I applied to grad school.
ZI: Wow. That’s great, I’m sure the aspiring writers out there will love this story!
MM: I didn’t come about writing “the normal way.”
ZI: That’s great. I mean that’s so impressive because you got into NYU, that’s a very competitive program to get into.
MM: That was a long shot. I didn’t think it would happen. My plan was apply, and apply, and apply again the next year if I didn’t get in. And in the meantime practice writing. And it worked out.
ZI: So, you began developing Beneath a Lion’s Gaze as an MFA student. How did you find that process? Because I know there is a tension in the writing community regarding MFA programs, there has been an ongoing discussion about whether MFA programs are liberating spaces for emerging writers or are they spaces that, by design, command a kind of conformity. What was your experience—did you find it liberating to be surrounded by other writers?
MM: Yes, because I hadn’t been around other writers, this was my introduction into the writing community. I was introduced to literary festivals, readings, and lectures. I wouldn’t have that experience outside an MFA program. It allowed me to cultivate a more critical voice through closely reading my classmates’ work, and learn how to analyze literature, how to accept criticism, how to revise. I found it invaluable. I know people have hesitations, earning an MFA isn’t going to make you write a book, it isn’t going to guarantee publications, but it is a way to experience the world of writers. And once in a program, you can stay within the world of student writers or you can use it to meet writers, to move in the world you want to be after graduation. It’s an experience you must largely make on your own, and I tried to do that. For me it was really great.
ZI: Who were some of your teachers who especially inspired you?
MM: One of the teachers that I really credit with supporting my work is Breyten Breytenbach, the South African poet. He was the one who really encouraged me to write the book. I was worried about taking on this huge project, with such a complex history, and taking it into fiction. I felt in a way it really should be a historical text, nonfiction, a journalistic essay . . . but he told me, “You have to do this because sometimes fiction tells the truths that history can’t access.” And in some way, that was the go-ahead that I needed. I realized what I could do was focus on individual consequences of war and revolution, rather than attempt to contain an immense political discussion.
ZI: And you do that so effectively; I commend your bravery on taking up such an important history. As someone in the classroom teaching stories—from the wide body of work that can be categorized as African literature—I can tell you that it’s invaluable for students to read fiction about the diverse possibilities of the human experience, whether that be stories of migration, revolution, post–civil war stories, love stories. Especially for the US student-reader, who oftentimes knows very little about African lives outside of what writer Chimamanda Adichie has called the “single-story” in the mainstream media, it’s fascinating to see them develop a critical engagement with the African world through literature. It opens them up in ways I think are very distinct from their engagement with academic texts. Of course, I, as an English professor, am very biased! But I do have to say that my colleagues who teach African history or approach African studies through anthropology tell me they assign fiction by Buchi Emecheta and Aminatta Forna in the their classes. So, they too appreciate and make use of the power of what world literature—and, more particularly, African fiction—can do.
MM: I think fiction gives us a door into what is actually happening around us. There are those who don’t trust fiction, they will read history or biography, but they don’t understand that those forms of narrative are also constructed.
ZI: It is very impressive that your debut novel takes on the question of history so boldly. Did you feel nervous or did anyone attempt to discourage you from writing fiction about the Ethiopian revolution and the Red Terror that followed?
MM: I think I was too naïve to fully understand the challenge of the story I wanted to tell. I just wanted to write the story. I find that with the first novel I just leapt, and now with the second novel, that is where I’m finding all the questions coming in. At the time, there were a few people who asked, “How can you write about the revolution?” But I wasn’t thinking of getting published, I was only focused on finishing the book and doing it well. I didn’t think about what would happen next. I realize now, that was a bit of a luxury.
ZI: That’s wonderful that you didn’t feel that pressure. Because I know so many aspiring writers, inside and outside of MFA programs, who are so anxious about “getting it published.” It can frustrate the spirit of how they approach their work, as the editor is already internalized and speaking very loudly. That pressure can be paralyzing for a writer.
MM: It’s true.
ZI: So as we were discussing, there is a significant way in which fiction can engender the individual story, and bring the reader in. One thing that strikes me when I think about your novel is the subject of masculinities and manhood. I’m working on a research project that analyzes masculinities in the work of African women writers, African feminist writers. I’m considering what an African feminist perspective might lend to our understanding and perhaps reimagining of masculinities. I’m especially interested in how this newer generation of African women writers, of which I consider you to be a part, constructs African masculine characters with a different set of politics than the earlier generation of writers such as Ama Ata Aidoo, Buchi Emecheta, Mariama Bâ. There was a way that the earlier generation of African women writers, writing in the 1960s to the ’80s, felt compelled to make visible, most often through the voice of a central female protagonist, the gender hierarchies that impacted women’s everyday lives.
However, I find writers such as Chimamanda Adichie, yourself, Forna, Delia Jarrett-Macauley, Monica Arac de Nyeko, Doreen Baingana, and others pay such fine attention to the range of complexities, contradictions, and performances that make up masculinity in African contexts. So one of many interesting elements in Beneath the Lion’s Gaze is that you give us this story from the vantage point of male characters, and while there many characters in the novel, at its heart is this intergenerational trio of men—Dr. Hailu and his sons, Dawit and Yonas. And yes, there are very significant characters who are women—Selam, Sara, and of course the young woman in the hospital come to mind—but in an important way this is very much a story about a father and his sons. Can you speak about why you decided to tell the story in this way?
MM: It wasn’t something that I initially set out to do. One thing I was conscious about deciding was who would best tell about the human cost of the revolution. I thought a doctor would be dealing with the material and direct impact of that. He would be looking at the consequences of this fight. Who would that realistically be in Ethiopia in the 1970s? This doctor would have been trained in the 1950s, the doctor would most likely be a man, so Hailu became that character. It felt like a natural inclination, also because of the fact that as I was writing the book, I was hearing more about my uncles. But I did know that the women in my family had also been strong—the women who were part of the revolution, and the women who survived it. The mothers, the sisters were part of it, the female students were as strong and determined as the male. I didn’t want to negate their efforts in any way. But once I had Hailu, that seemed to open up this generational conflict. So Dawit became important, in that regard, and he also embodies the stories I knew about young revolutionaries at that time.
I have gotten questions from female readers about why I’m not writing more specifically about women. But why must I write about one gender or another, why would I be any more obligated than a man to bow to pressure about gender and force it into a story? If it’s a political choice, if it’s trying to resist something , then it’s not really writing. That’s not a creative process, that’s a political process. I think what writing should be at its essence is a creative expression, it should be informed by the needs of the story, by the dictates of your characters. In the second novel, I have more female characters who are central to the story. But it wasn’t a political choice, it was, again, Who’s the best person to tell this aspect of war? It turned out it was women. I feel like I can write any character I want—an African, a European, a writer can do anything, it just has to feel true to the story.
ZI: Another thing about Beneath the Lion’s Gaze that is so powerful is that the novel is about war, but the way you write about death and dying—the way death is not the climax to the plot, but is instead woven throughout the story. Particularly, I’m thinking about how Dawit and Sara begin to bury the dead as an act of resistance. Such a profoundly dangerous and yet intimate act to perform. I imagine that leaving out the corpses of those murdered by the Derg has a historical basis?
What interested me about this particular act of resistance was that it was a way I could imagine forms of resisting repression that didn’t entail picking up a gun and shooting someone. What are the other ways to stand up for human dignity, or a sense of self-determination, without violence?
MM: Yes, leaving out the bodies was a way to frighten the students, or anyone who wanted to resist against the government. It was a warning sign. Collecting the bodies was something I wanted to imagine actually happened. When we are writing stories, we are in a sense re-creating what happened but also envisioning what we wish could have happened. I wished that someone like Dawit, that someone like Sara, could have made a such a humane gesture. And it’s not to say that no one did, but I did not know of anyone doing that. Later, an Ethiopian reader of the novel told me, “I did everything that Dawit did, but I have to tell you, collecting the bodies would have been logistically impossible.” I said, “Yes, this is fiction, I wished it could have happened.” And he said, “We tried.” It was a very powerful moment. What interested me about this particular act of resistance was that it was a form of resisting repression that didn’t entail picking up a gun and shooting someone. What are the other ways to stand up for human dignity, or a sense of self-determination, without violence? So for me, it wasn’t about dying but about what happens after that. What remains of the world that we know after death happens?
ZI: Do you feel that African writers have to grapple with the burden of history in ways other writers from other parts of the world do not? Clearly, you were very inspired to write Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, yet as you work on your second novel, which also sounds like a historical novel, do you feel a weighty responsibility to contend with aspects of Ethiopian history that haven’t been told?
MM: I don’t think I could sit for five years with a book if I felt burdened. I have to be inspired by it and see beyond the surface layer of the war story. If I can’t see beyond that, to see all the complexities of the story, of the characters . . . My first book is a story of revolution, it is set in violent times, but it is a story about love. It’s a love story within a family. So I didn’t feel like I was writing a war story or story of violence, it is about characters who attempt to continue to love people in whatever way that they could. And again, with the second book, which is set during the period I’ve always been fascinated by—it’s pre-World War II, it’s fascist Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia, their attempt to colonize Ethiopia. I heard all these stories growing up about these brave men—I have these heroic figures in my head who captured my childhood imagination. But as I got older and started to read about this history, I realize it was much more complicated than what is often talked about. I began to wonder, Who were the women whom people said supported the men, and where are their stories? So beyond the surface story of war, I’m looking at the complicated relationships that emerged during this period, not only between Ethiopian men and women but also between Italian men and Ethiopian women. So it’s set during the war, but it’s not simply a war story.
ZI: Well, my second book project is called Love Stories from Africa, so it sounds like you will continue to offer me material for my research! Given the time during which your book is set, I’m wondering about your thoughts on the history and mythology that builds Ethiopia as the exceptional nation that does not get colonized by Western forces. Many of us have studied about how Ethiopia, for over a century, has circulated as a triumphant symbol throughout the collective imagination of the African diaspora. So as you are researching and writing this book, does the history and impact of Italian aggression against Ethiopia trouble that victory narrative? Some scholars, art historian and curator Elizabeth Wolde Giorgis for example, apply postcolonial theory to describe what is at stake culturally and politically in present-day Ethiopia, even as we talk about Ethiopia as unsullied by colonization. There is an interesting tension there. I spent time in Eritrea, where I had the best cappuccinos and folks are eating spaghetti for lunch. As an outsider, I was struck by these seemingly trivial traces of cultural imperialism and occupation, as there is a way that Italian culture still permeates the everyday, similar in some ways to how English culture is so present in Ghana, for example. So, I wonder how do writers and intellectuals from Ethiopia situate, in their own imaginings of nation, what we could at least tentatively describe as a paradox?
MM: When I think about it, a lot of the stories told about Ethiopia are based on what it symbolizes. What we need to spend more time talking about are the realities of the country versus its mythologies or historical symbolism, which could contain very different identities. Ethiopia did not have a history of colonization like Sierra Leone or Kenya or Nigeria, but that does not mean that Ethiopia was not subjugated. Maybe that’s the word we have to use. It was a five-year occupation. There was a moment in Ethiopian history when, despite the brave struggle for independence, the country was under the rule of a different nation.
When we talk about colonization, we are assuming, that for Ethiopia or any other country that has not been “colonized,” that it has never been under an unwanted rule, yet the Derg was [an unwanted rule], in its own [way]. Does it have to be free from repressive domination by a foreign power to say that a country has always been free? This question gets complicated. In terms of what is happening now, the kinds of freedoms Ethiopians have, the numbers of journalists who are in prison, is the country really free? When it isn’t a European or Western form of domination that is doing that, does that mean the country is more free than another country that has had a colonial experience? These are issues perhaps for political scientists and not for a writer of fiction, but the questions: What does it mean to be free? What does it mean to be independent? How are we defining independence? How do we understand freedom of expression? Is freedom just about economic growth? Is that the way we decide to measure democracy or our progress in the country? Ethiopia raises all those issues. I think it’s complicated, but fundamentally, all we have to do is look at the prisons now, to see where things are.
ZI: We can ask very similar questions regarding the United States as well.
MM: Absolutely. These nations and their histories complicate the notion of freedom.
ZI: One thing that I thought was so courageous of you to do in your first novel was to write Emperor Haile Selassie as a character within the story. You could have gestured in his direction, but amazingly you took that risk to write from his perspective.
MM: Yes, after several drafts of the book, I thought to myself, How can I do this without writing him? There would have been blank spots in the story. This great figure, how do you write a story about a revolution without the person that people rose up against? Although he died in the early days of the revolution, I still felt I had to grapple with his presence and how he shaped the thinking and actions of so many. For me, that was the question. Again, it was the naïveté of writing the first book.
ZI: Part of what makes your imagining of his perspective so intriguing to read is that part of the aura that surrounds Haile Selassie is his mystery—he remains an enigma and a mythical figure and, for some in the African diaspora, a divine figure. So to write him, I imagine, was a difficult task.
When you enter the world of fiction, you have to figure out a way in. Would I stand in a room with Emperor Haile Selassie, maybe not, but could I stand in the room with an old man who is being locked in his room by a group of his soldiers every night? That I could do, that I could imagine.
MM: When you enter the world of fiction, you have to figure out a way in. Would I stand in a room with an emperor, maybe not, but could I stand in the room with an old man who is being locked in his room by a group of his soldiers every night? That I could do, that I could imagine. I could imagine an old man who’s watched every member of his family being jailed, and that point I could imagine—he was not thinking like an emperor, he was thinking like a man. That I could do.
ZI: So interesting, as someone from the Caribbean, I feel we could speak at length about how the iconography of Haile Selassie reverberates across the spaces of the African diaspora.
MM: I was invited to give a reading from the book in Jamaica, at the Calabash Literary Festival. So I decided to read a section that featured the emperor. I read the section where he dies, not understanding the implications of that for Rastafarians. There were people in the audience, I found out later, who had actually seen Haile Selassie when he visited Jamaica. It was a very touching moment, when after the reading, they came up to me, and very kindly and with a lot respect, said, “Thank you for being here. We just never imagine H.I.M. dead, he is not dead to us.” But they were willing to give me that space. It was a very poignant experience for me.
ZI: Yes, to diaspora dialogues, that is a conversation that hasn’t been fully explored. It will take the kind of sensitivity you describe to allow for meaningful exchange. For me, it’s important to re-center and reclaim Rastafarianism as a resistance movement that articulates an important pan-African theorizing and praxis against domination. The way many people understand it now—only as a marijuana-imbibed musical subculture—is a discredit to the radical politics at its origin. So in that regard, how do Rastafarian politics contend with the worship of an emperor, on one hand, and the repression of Ethiopian people that, to some extent, undergirded the monarchy on the other? Especially as Rastas understand what it means to be marginalized, criminalized, not listened to by the status quo. These are important concerns, and it will be interesting to see how that dialogue continues to develop.
MM: Yes, to talk about Haile Selassie, Ethiopia, and his legacy, we have to talk about the poverty and inflation that were in the country as much as anything else, including the building of infrastructure, hospitals, and schools.
ZI: Exactly, those realities need to be factored into our conversation. Ethiopia is so important in that it pushes us to the edges in our thinking about socialism too. Through an analysis of Ethiopian history, we can see how the progressive rhetoric of socialism can be manipulated and used to propagate division and violence. The Derg—
MM: It was destructive. When the military regime came into power, it was Marxist in name only. There have been a lot of wars in the name of socialism, in the name of equality. This is not say to that capitalist governments have done much better. Still, I think we can see similar moves happening in Egypt and Syria. What is fascinating in watching the Arab Spring unfold is how, in many ways, it reminds me of Ethiopia.
ZI: Indeed, and we have to ask ourselves, given the impact of the Cold War on Ethiopia’s revolution, can a country today have a revolution under the shadow of US imperialism? I don’t want to be too pessimistic . . .
MM: What is profound about fiction is that it creates a place where we can imagine the possible futures of these kinds of movements. Those are the kinds of questions we have to ask as writers.
ZI: That being said, I place you in the cadre of new African women writers asking these kinds of important questions through their fiction. I was thinking about writing a blog post on the year 2013 in African literature. Between overwhelming loss of the great Chinua Achebe and the tragic murder of Ghanaian writer Kofi Awoonor in the Westgate Mall attack, there was the emergence of a bounty of critically acclaimed work by several African women writers. There is of course the wonderful work by Teju Cole, Chris Abani, and Helon Habila, but right now these new African women writers are catapulting a certain kind of literary energy that is unprecedented in the history of modern and contemporary anglophone African literature. Speaking of the those writing in English, there is you, Adichie, NoViolet Bulawayo, Taiye Selassi, Aminatta Forna, although in French there is the prizewinning Marie Ndiaye as well. What do you make of this?
MM: I think it’s great! I admire Chimamanda Adichie’s work. I’m excited to see NoViolet doing so well, I’m cheering for her. There’s also Chinelo Okparanta, with her exquisite and spare prose, from Nigeria, who has a new book. There is another new writer, Yvonne Adhiambo Owour, whose book Dust is just out. I remember when I was the student editor of a literary magazine at NYU, one of Yvonne’s short stories crossed my desk, I thought, Wow, who is writing this, who is this writer? And here she is, her book is out. We are all telling very different stories, with different voices, about different parts of Africa. Yvonne lives in Kenya, but many of us are in diaspora. But one thing that is especially interesting is that those of us who are here are looking back to the continent to see about the other writers that we can help bring to the forefront. That for me is just as important as the process of writing: who are you going to help bring along with you? If there is no other obligation to me, it is that. It’s not about subject, or writing about history, there is no other obligation except that if I make it, someone else should also benefit from those resources. I’m excited about those writers and their stories.
ZI: It’s great—especially, my students are enjoying engaging with some of these new voices. We read Adichie’s Americanah last semester, and they loved it.
MM: Yes, it’s wonderful. I read the work of writers from Africa or who are writing about Africa in some way. What has been interesting for me, as a novelist interested by history, is trying to read everything I can in that particular genre as well.
ZI: Who are you reading in that regard? Or whose work has particularly drawn you in as you’ve been writing your novels?
MM: One of the writers who has especially influenced me is the great American novelist E. L. Doctorow. On the level of craft, the fearless way he structures his stories and views the world, the way he writes about the working class, poverty, aspiration, all while taking creative risks—repeatedly—reading his books has been absolutely pivotal for me as a writer. And then there’s my favorite, Homer, and novels by Hilary Mantel, Adam Johnson, Henning Mankell’s book Daniel, all books that negotiate that no-man’s-land where individual desires are enmeshed inside something larger than the self. So that it doesn’t necessarily have to be an African story, but it speaks to something that I think many diverse sets of writers grapple with too.
ZI: Speaking of Mankell’s Daniel makes me think of how, in Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, you attend to the stories of children with such empathy. While the novel is not a bildungsroman, the children, though minor characters in the novel, offer an important vantage. They seem to factor in the work more allegorically perhaps that the central adult characters. I’m thinking of especially of the little boy, Berhane. Do children appear similarly in the novel you are working on now?
MM: You know, when I began writing my first novel I thought I would write it from the perspective of the little girl, Tizita, because in many ways that could have been my perspective, and so it felt like an easy entry into the story. But she had a limited perspective; I could not show everything I wanted to show through her, so it just kept expanding and expanding to include stories of other characters, until the end when she witnesses some crucial incidents. With Berhane, I didn’t plan him, he just sort of came into the story, and he tells a different side of it that I thought was very important. In trying to figure out what happened to children, I would hear these reports of children who just disappeared or who were taken to prison and their parents never saw them again. I felt I could tell these stories, and they felt like they fit inside the structure of the story.
In the new book, it’s technically the adult world of war, but of course it affects the children, so as I’m continuing to work on it, I’m thinking about the children who are on the periphery. There is no war that does not impact the lives of children, so children and what happens to them in migration or conflict are important to me, and we generally don’t hear enough about it. And it’s difficult because they don’t know yet how to express their perspectives very well, so I’m interested in that, how their vocabulary doesn’t yet capture what they are seeing and feeling. As a writer, that becomes an interesting vehicle through which to tell a story.
ZI: So tell me more about the novel you are working on now: The Shadow King.
MM: This is a story I’ve known for a long time I wanted to tell, but I knew it would take a lot of work. The first novel was in many ways a step toward this one. The Shadow King is set in the early days of World War II, and it involves both Ethiopian characters and Italian characters. It’s a story of these two groups of people and their interaction, told from both perspectives. I find it really interesting and challenging. The thing that is exciting about any project or any book is that you have to push yourself, you have to push beyond what makes you comfortable. And that’s what I’m doing with this, so it’s also terrifying.
ZI: So you are doing a lot of research for this novel? When we bumped into each other at Heathrow Airport, you were on your way to Bath. I know archival research and collecting oral histories can be an ambiguous process, but what are some of the things you are seeking out and/or finding as you work on telling this story?
MM: I lived in Italy for close to a year doing research in the archives of the fascist government. I kept finding materials of propaganda, the documents that were produced which were state approved. As I looked at the newsreels or carefully crafted news articles, for example, I realized it was telling me something, but not necessarily giving me insight into the human story of that era. So I realized what I had to do was start looking for soldiers’ letters, diaries, and photographs, those types of personal artifacts, as well as personal stories from people. It has been a really fascinating process. Most of the Italian men who fought in Ethiopia have passed away, but I was able to contact the descendants of some soldiers and veterans of the war, who have the letters, personal objects of their family members, they shared the stories they heard, so that helped to fill in some of the blind spots in the official history. In Ethiopia, I’m constantly collecting the stories and comments about that era, that come up in casual conversation, alongside the more formal research in libraries and archives.
ZI: Has there been much scholarly consideration of the period of Italian occupation of Ethiopia from Ethiopian and/or Western historians?
MM: There is a growing interest, but surprisingly there is not as much work as the period deserves.
ZI: Even in terms of Italian historiography?
MM: Not really. In terms of their national history, they are only beginning, since the 1990s, to admit and interrogate what actually was done in Ethiopia during the World War II period.
ZI: So, who is the “Shadow King”?
MM: Well, I think several characters will inhabit that position throughout the story.
ZI: Translation: read the book! It’s literature, it’s complicated! So where are you in the process of writing?
MM: In the middle of editing.
ZI: So, great, you are in the thick of things.
Regarding World War II, so much of how we understand the contemporary, what it means to be humane, heroic, nationalistic, patriotic, how we define genocide, really arises at that moment in history.
MM: Yes, and the research has been fascinating. Regarding World War II, so much of how we understand the contemporary, what it means to be humane, heroic, nationalistic, patriotic, how we define genocide, really arises at that moment in history.
ZI: So true, we take it for granted, as if it were always this way, yet so many international cultural norms were codified at that time. Also, it’s interesting being here in London and considering how the war transformed the architectural landscape of the city: how buildings were bombed and destroyed and what we experience now as visitors were part of a long rebuilding process.
MM: Yes, we live in the shadow of those events that were recent enough to still be felt with a certain immediacy. That is what is fascinating to me, the stuff that is carried forward. I think of a book like Half-Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan, which takes up these issues in highlighting the experiences of Afro-Germans.
ZI: So many diasporas . . .
MM: And we are just really beginning to unravel the impact that these conflicts had on African and black people. So what is fascinating to me is seeing what I bump into along the way as I conduct research for my novel. It opens up many, many questions.
ZI: Is The Shadow King set primarily in Ethiopia, or do you write about characters living in Italy?
MM: It goes back and forth. I’m so interested in writing about what was happening in Italy during that time as well. For example, at the beginning of the crisis, Italy didn’t have enough to fund the war, but they said they did. They had to the find the capital, so among other initiatives, they told all the women that through a public rite of faith they would marry the state. So every woman in Italy was encouraged to give up her gold wedding ring and give it to the state. Things like that are such an interesting part of the story of Mussolini’s fascist regime, but it is those stories of women that are often forgotten. I’m not sure if that particular event will fit into the novel, but for me the writing will be informed by my knowledge of those moments of history.
ZI: Given the growing presence of an African migrant population in Mediterranean Europe, your book takes up a very timely subject, and I am so looking forward to reading it, as there is a way that the Italian participation in the underdevelopment of Africa was been marginalized within the larger history of European imperialism. It is important that we examine how an aspiring imperial country attempted to participate in domination, and the legacy of that attempt on its own citizens and those in the occupied territories. Because as you said, we live in the shadows of these histories. The Shadow King, indeed.
EDITORIAL NOTE: Visit puterbaughfestival.org to watch a highlights reel featuring Maaza Mengiste at the 2013 Puterbaugh Festival of International Literature and Culture.