Novelist Maaza Mengiste left Ethiopia as a girl in the midst of revolution, an experience that led her to begin questioning the ways that conflict affects communities and families. Her latest novel, The Shadow King, tells the story of the Second Italo-Ethiopian War (1935-1941) through the eyes of Ethiopians and Italians alike. TAI Contributing Editor James Barnett recently reviewed the novel and subsequently spoke with Maaza to discuss the legacy of the war, the current discourse surrounding refugees, and Western perceptions of African literature. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
James Barnett for TAI: I wonder if you could tell us a bit about your background. Where were you born, and what got you interested in being a writer?
Maaza Mengiste: I was born in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia and I left during the very early days of the  revolution. I moved to Nigeria, Kenya, and eventually settled in the United States. I think that my path to writing really began in the first move that I made to Nigeria. My whole life has been spent trying to make sense of that move, that initial step outside of the country, beginning with questions of “Why did I leave? What was happening in the country?” And that became the focus of my first book, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze. As I’ve become older, and I’ve written my books and I’ve figured out the history of Ethiopia a little bit, I’ve also begun to wonder, well, what are the effects on communities and on families, on groups of people, to have gone through this? What happens within the spaces of conflict or war between men and women? And the second book is really focused on World War II. But these are questions that I’ve been asking for a long time.
I think that I started writing the minute I started reading; I started my path towards becoming a writer. I loved to read and I was really invested in books—in any kind of storytelling. I would gravitate to that. And I started finding out as I moved through middle school, and then into high school and into college, that I seemed to have a knack for analyzing stories and looking at them in terms of many aspects—character or plot or larger questions. I liked doing that. It was just the way I read and I didn’t know that that’s what you would need to do to become a writer.
JB: What writers influenced you the most?
MM: When I was in college, I came across the work of two writers. The first was a Ghanaian writer, Ama Ata Aidoo, and her book Our Sister Killjoy. I didn’t think you could write a book like that. I was looking at the way that she structured it, the kinds of stories she was telling, all of the questions she was asking in that book. It moved me; it shook up my ideas of what a writer could take on. And of course it’s a story about migration, about a woman in Africa moving to Europe. Other books that I had read in college that were not about some of these issues: I could find them interesting, but this one really spoke to me.
So I started paying attention to writers who were working in areas that directly connected to me. And it’s one of the ways that I came across the work of Toni Morrison and really began to read her in earnest. Song of Solomon was a book that taught me how language could work in the service of—I don’t know how to say it—in the service of stories that people wish were not told; Morrison’s language could force you to read something even as you found the facts of what was happening traumatic and brutal. The language could carry you through that. And Song of Solomon really, really did that for me and every book by Morrison that I read after that pushed me in that direction as well.
JB: I see some parallels there with The Shadow King that’s set amid the Second Italo-Ethiopian War, which was obviously a great trial for Ethiopia. What inspired you to write about this subject?
MM: Well, I had grown up in Ethiopia—and also in the United States—hearing these stories constantly of Ethiopia’s fight against the Italians: When they were less equipped, had fewer numbers, their strategies were not as advanced militarily as the Italians—but somehow, they won. And I became really interested in that story. As I was writing my first novel, I knew this was a story I wanted to take on. I thought it would be a pretty straight-forward David versus Goliath story, which is what I heard growing up. But it was only once I got into the research that I discovered women and really started to think about the everyday lives of the soldiers living in the midst of war.
JB: Was your plan always to center the novel around female resistance fighters? Or did you make that decision later in the process of researching?
MM: I made that decision later in the process. I was not aware of women fighting. The stories I had heard were about men. Women followed behind the men and did the tasks of gathering wood, getting water, cooking the food—all those roles that were supportive of an army. But I didn’t know that they were really part of the army itself. Once I started discovering one or two or three or four women, I realized this is the story that I’d been wanting to write. The original draft I had was not quite working and I couldn’t figure it out. But the minute that these women seemed to step forward, I knew I had found something.
JB: Ethiopia stands out among African countries vis-à-vis its experience with European colonialism. Its history of resistance to the Italians—first in the late 19th century, then again in the ‘30s—made Ethiopia something of a lodestar for a lot of African independence movements and Pan-Africanist thinkers in the second half of the 20th century especially. In your experience, how do Ethiopians themselves remember these wars? Do the wars’ legacies engender a sense of exceptionalism, or is there also contention over these legacies?
MM: There is definitely contention, because I think that the sense of Ethiopia as being a unified country—it’s not the truth. It’s not the way it happened. Which is why I say that Ethiopia’s victory is in some ways illogical. People continued to fight, but Ethiopia was not unified. There were people within the country who said, “Why do we want to be under Hale Selassie? Why do we want to continue this monarchy, this legacy of rule that has kept our people—whether it’s the poor, or those who are enslaved, whether it’s based on ethnicity—has kept our people down. Why do we want that? Isn’t it possible that the Italians will treat us better? Isn’t it possible that the Italians will free the slaves? Isn’t it possible that they will not see the hierarchies that are in place in the country? They’ll create a new system where we have a chance to move forward.”
So, the idea of an African nation facing a European nation and, through the strength of its singular unity, winning, is, I think, just part of the legend. And, of course, people have always known this, but I think this is becoming talked about more in recent years.
JB: In your book, you dedicate some space to developing two Italian characters, really giving a level of depth to the Ethiopians’ adversaries. Why did you choose to include these characters in a story that’s mostly focused on the Ethiopian perspective of the war?
MM: It would have been much easier to leave the Italians out. It would’ve been so much easier for me. I think the book would have been done in half the time. But I’m not interested in telling war just from one perspective, and this war had dozens—if not more. All I wanted to do was think about maybe two or three or four of them.
I was very curious about the Italians. How did they conceive of this conflict, not just the people who were officers but the foot soldiers? I found that an interesting question. And obviously you can’t have a war without two or more sides, and I wanted to explore as many of them as I possibly could while still keeping my characters, the Ethiopian ones, central. But I think that putting the Italian characters into the book also complicated questions of loyalty and betrayal and love and all the questions I was asking about from the Ethiopian side. When the Italians came in, they made it even more complicated. And for a writer, that’s really interesting territory to move in.
JB: And you included the perspectives of some of the Ascari, the soldiers recruited from Italy’s African colonies, who made up the bulk of the invading forces. Did you make a conscious effort to share those perspectives? I’m curious as well if you found it difficult to find sources that illuminate that history.
MM: I found some material on the Ascari. Really what I was doing was talking to people who knew those who had been in the military. Some of the people had been fighters for the independence of Eritrea. I met them in Rome when I was doing research and it was my opportunity to just sit there and learn. And the role of the Ascari—I really feel that I have not done enough with it. I’ve just barely touched it. But I did want to pay attention to them so that they would not be ignored. Because they were not treated as well as they should have been by the Italians. They were not given the respect that they should have been. I wanted to acknowledge that in some way. I was interested in war from many different sides and if I were going to do the Italians, then how could I possibly ignore the Ascari?
JB: Based on your experience doing research for the novel in Italy, is there much of a popular reckoning with this war among Italians today? This was, after all, Mussolini’s first real taste of adventurism abroad.
MM: When I’m around my group of friends in Italy, everybody’s aware of this history. Within my insular group, there are people who specialize in this history, and so at a first glance it might seem like Italians are really open to discussing this moment. But as soon as I step out of my own communities, when I’m there and I start moving out and talking to people, nearly all of them, every Italian tells me, “We haven’t talked about this. We weren’t taught this. Nobody remembers this. We don’t know enough about it.” Even in textbooks, it’s like one or two lines, maybe a paragraph: Mussolini went in and then he left. It might be something that innocuous and then it moves on to the next lesson. So Italians in general really don’t speak enough about this. It’s uncomfortable for those who are aware of it.
JB: A big issue in Italy today and across Europe—before coronavirus started grabbing all the headlines—is migration. You’ve written about this a bit before. In one powerful essay, you invoked Primo Levi’s writing on the Holocaust to make the case for humanizing refugees amid the tragedies that many of them face in their efforts to cross the Mediterranean. As a novelist and an essayist with this focus, and given your own background, how do you view the current discourse on refugees and migration in Europe and the United States?
MM: Well, it’s awful. I think the human rights record is dismal. It’s really frightening to think about the consequences of laws that people are making for political reasons and not for humanitarian reasons. It’s discouraging and disheartening and infuriating. I have been inspired by those captains of rescue ships that just refuse to back down in the Mediterranean and rescue refugees and migrants despite the laws that are trying to prevent them from doing that. I see those people as literally being on the front lines of a different war that’s being fought at the borders. And the human beings that are trying to cross borders are the casualties; and they’re unarmed.
I think this is something that we are going to look back on and be horrified that we allowed to happen. And we’re in the midst of this coronavirus crisis and every day as I’ve been hearing the news, I’ve been waiting to hear about what is happening in detention centers, what’s happening in the refugee camps. We haven’t heard that. The focus has all been on grocery stores that have no food and restaurants and how many people can go in or stay out. We haven’t moved out into the periphery to really look at people who are going to be devastated by this in ways that we may not be, those of us closer to the center. Because we have accommodations. We have rights.
JB: Earlier you mentioned how one of the books that inspired you as a young woman was by a Ghanaian author. I’m reminded of an article in Quartz Africa a while back that lamented the fact that for all of Africa’s diversity and all the exciting stories there, so many books written about Africa or by Africans feature the same cover of an Acacia tree. The author’s point was that there’s far more to Africa and African literature than pretty landscapes, but for a lot of publishers in the West, when they see an African novelist, their instinct is to market this in a way that appeals to Western stereotypes or preconceived notions of the region. I’m curious, are you generally happy with how your novels have been received in the U.S. and Europe? How about African novelists generally or those in the diaspora? Or do you think there’s a tendency among Western critics to either ignore or misunderstand contemporary African literature?
MM: I think there are many layers to your question. On the one hand, people who have read my book carefully have come away with it understanding the questions I’m asking. They’re talking about the characters; they’re really looking at this in terms of the story. I think if people haven’t read the book and they don’t know how to approach the book, there are biases and assumptions about what kind of story it is. And I’m talking about my book, I’m talking about every African book. Those assumptions are in place as guiding posts. And they’re almost a hundred percent wrong.
By that I mean, when writers go to conferences or festivals and the audiences have not read their books, the questions that get asked as a way to step into the book are really questions of ethnography, questions about politics, questions about sociological practices—all these things that have nothing to do with the creative work. And I think other writers don’t get that. European writers don’t have to deal with that. There is no wading through the bulk of unnecessary information to get into a creative work. So I’ve been thinking a lot about this and I think when audiences stare at a book that’s from the continent of Africa, they feel that they have to know [the answers to] all these other questions before they can approach the creativity. But they don’t have any of those questions when they approach a European work. Those questions don’t exist. So I think that gets frustrating. I think the Acacia tree has been removed from the covers, but the “Acacia tree” questions still exist.
JB: That’s a good way of putting it. As a writer of historical fiction, how do you think about the balance between adhering to historical fact and taking some artistic liberty? Is this a particular challenge when dealing with real historical figures? The character of Ethiopian emperor Hale Selassie in your latest novel comes to mind.
MM: I think that as a writer of fiction, my parameters are wider than for a historian. That character of Haile Selassie is in many ways still a fictional character. It’s still a figment of my imagination. I am recreating scenes with him that I don’t really know happened. But I found him an interesting character because he was central to the war.
The book is set in Ethiopia, but I’m looking at the history of Ethiopia through the lens of women and girls. I wanted to talk about Selassie’s daughter, Zenebework, whom he gave in marriage when she was 14 to a man who was nearly 50. And two years later, she was dead.
I wanted to begin in the home when I talked about history. That’s why the book begins in small spaces and then it moves into the battle later. And I wanted to look at what happens in the home as a characteristic of what war is like, but also what people are capable of outside the home.
A lot of people still don’t talk enough about Zenebework. And Haile Selassie I think was instrumental in erasing her from the memory of the country, even though I’m sure he and his wife and their children never forgot her. He basically allowed her to die. He did not get her from that house because he wanted to maintain power and form an alliance between families that were feuding. My imagination has created this character who’s haunted by this girl. I wanted to look at the nature of a leader by what he does and how he behaves in his family.
JB: Your novel begins and ends with the fall of Haile Selassie’s regime in the 1974 revolution, which is also the subject of Beneath the Lion’s Gaze. Why did you choose to feature this revolution as the bookends of The Shadow King rather than focus exclusively on the events of the 1930s? Does your personal experience or your family’s experience with this revolution play into how you depicted it in the novel?
MM: Well I wanted to begin with the revolution because I think that all of the dots are connected. We can’t talk about ’74 unless we talk about 1960 and the uprising [an attempted coup against Selassie -ed.]. But we can’t talk about 1960 unless we talk about 1935 and ’36—when Haile Selassie fled and left his people—and the bitterness that people still had in 1960 and 1974, and the nature of his rule over those decades. All of this came to a head in 1974.
People were fed up. Revolution doesn’t erupt out of the blue. Neighbor is not coming after neighbor just because they feel like it and they’re naturally violent. There are reasons for that and those reasons are outside of politics, often deeply personal, deeply intimate, deeply connected to what they’ve experienced or what their family has experienced. I wanted to keep exploring those personal experiences in this second book and also explore how memory is carried over from decade to decade. I wanted to see how the memory of the 1935 war was still carried through over the decades to 1974.
JB: As you said earlier, it seems like one of the reasons that the legacy of the war is contentious is because there’s still this contention over Hale Selassie’s reign. So it seems appropriate to conclude the novel, after we’ve already seen him flee into exile, by noting that the chickens came to roost, if you will.
MM: Yeah, he created a system—or helped to perpetuate a system—in Ethiopia where the people who were conquered were permanently subjugated beneath the people who had done the conquering. There’s a series of hierarchies based on class, based on ethnicity—and he compounded it in many ways. At the same time as he’s creating schools and all of this, there was still a lot of discrimination in Ethiopia. But I really wanted to focus on his home.
JB: Do you have any other projects in the pipeline that you’d like to put on our radar, or are you enjoying a well-earned rest after your latest novel?
MM: I will announce that I am launching www.project3541.com, an online archive of stories and photographs dealing with the war between Ethiopia and Italy from ’35 to ’41. And I am putting out a call for photographs and stories related to these histories, not only from Ethiopians but from everyone whose family might’ve been involved in this war in one way or another. So that is something I’m really excited about.