Spotlight: Maaza Mengiste

Maaza Mengiste talks to Subi Shah about the women who fought Mussolini in Ethiopia. 

Photo: Nina Subin
Photo: Nina Subin

For someone who has written so graphically about the violence of war in the country of her birth, Maaza Mengiste has a surprisingly peaceful air about her. She smiles serenely as I stress about why my dictaphone isn’t working properly as the single hour I have booked for my interview ticks down, and says: ‘It’s fine, just take your time, I’ve learned not to hurry things.’

This is certainly true: her first novel, Beneath the Lions Gaze, was published a decade ago. Set in Addis Ababa on the brink of the 1974 revolution, the story centres on the lives of a doctor and his sons. Thanks to Mengiste’s meticulous research of historical records, news reports and personal accounts, her fictional characters are a metaphor for the turmoil of war and revolution. The critics loved it and fans waited eagerly for her next offering. Then, they waited some more… Ten years on, and the writer has only now published her second novel. I ask what took her so long.

I discovered that my great-grandmother was a young girl when Mussolini invaded and that she enlisted in the front lines. I thought I was writing about women who were distant and not connected to me at all, and yet, here was one, in my own family

‘I needed to make sure it was politically and historically accurate. The research took longer than the actual writing. Then, once I’d finished and was ready to publish, I had second thoughts, tore up the entire book and started again. Why? Because I’d paid so much attention to the historical research, I’d killed the story! It was a list of factual events, told accurately, but I had not written about how it felt for those at the heart of it.’

Set again in Ethiopia (then Abyssinia), The Shadow King takes place during the second invasion by the Italian army in 1935, still smarting from its failed attempt in the 1890s.

The ‘Shadow King’ is Minim, one of many men who answered Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassies battle cry to unite against the Italian invaders. But Minim is hardly the star of the show: he appears only halfway through the novel and his name translates as ‘Nothing’.

The main characters are the female soldiers who played a vital part in defending their land, but whose legacy has been all but wiped from history. Then came a very personal plot twist for the author:

‘I had almost finished writing, when I discovered that my great-grandmother was a young girl when Mussolini invaded and that she enlisted in the front lines. I thought I was writing about women who were distant and not connected to me at all, and yet, here was one, in my own family.’

I ask Maaza to choose and read me a paragraph, which she does, with a notable lump in her throat. One of the book’s main characters, Aster, is speaking as she prepares the women for battle:

‘The Italians are nearby… Kidane [her warrior husband], is counting on us to help them stay strong and brave. Let no man retreat. Run behind him and turn him around with mockery and song, pick him up if he falls, drag his body away if he dies, use your voice, use your arms and legs, turn your body into a weapon the Italians will never forget.

It will not be the same as fighting… but it will help you get ready for the front lines in the next battle. It will prepare you to look at dying men without collapsing at the thought.’

Maaza says she chose that passage because women involved in conflict are so often depicted as either caretakers, who cook food and knit blankets for male soldiers, or ‘victims’ of war. They are not acknowledged as active participants. Her research uncovered articles dating back to a 1935 New York Times and The Guardian, indicating women’s active participation, yet, somehow, these stories have been forgotten from the history.

Having lived most of her life in the US, how does she feel about being described as an African writer, I ask.

‘I’ve been called Ethiopian because of my heritage and the fact that I was born there. I’ve been called African, as I’ve lived in Nigeria and Kenya too. I’ve been called African American, because I live now in New York. I’ve been called a feminist because I want to do away with toxic masculinity and a patriarchal system. I’m not concerned about the way I am categorized, because these things don’t matter. I am all of these things, melded.

I’ve been living in America since the early 1980s and in my experience, the United States has, under Trump’s administration, started to feel like a more hostile place. A few years ago I never would have thought twice about going to certain places outside of New York, but now I’m hesitant because I know that certain states have voted for this president and it makes the whole country feel unstable. I’m curious to see what happens in Britain, as it separates itself from its European neighbours.’

The Shadow King is published by Canongate (2019) and Beneath the Lion’s Gaze by Jonathan Cape (2010).