Maaza Mengiste: Writing Home
The award-winning author Maaza Mengiste writes of an Ethiopian home she left behind, dismantling preconceptions and bringing to light some of that country’s rich past.
Maaza Mengiste is a celebrated novelist whose books blend fiction and history. Her second novel, The Shadow King, was shortlisted for the 2020 Man Booker Prize.
Mengiste moved from Ethiopia with her family at age 4 in the wake of the Ethiopian Revolution. She spent her childhood in Nigeria, Kenya, and the United States. She earned an MFA at New York University and studied in Italy as a Fulbright Scholar. Mengiste’s fiction is deeply rooted in her historical research. Her acclaimed debut novel, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze (2010), is set in Ethiopia in the 1970s, during the turmoil of the revolution. It was translated into over half a dozen languages. Her next work, The Shadow King (2019), takes place during Mussolini’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia.
She also edited the short story collection Addis Abba Noir (2020); her story in it, “Dust, Ash, Flight,” was nominated for an Edgar Award. Her nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, Granta, and elsewhere. She teaches creative writing at Queens College, City University of New York.
The novelist Maaza Mengiste blends memory, discovery, and imagination, to reconnect with a homeland she’d feared she’d lost. Mengiste’s family left Ethiopia when she was a child, spending a few years in Nigeria, then Kenya, before moving to the US when she was seven, but her native land kept calling her back.
Maaza Mengiste: My earliest memories of Ethiopia, they were memories of family and love. But once the revolution came in in 1974, I was three years old, and I had very vivid memories of those years as well. My family didn’t want to talk about it at all, so the memory’s that I had were almost in a lockbox.
That lockbox was shut at age four when her family realized it was time to flee after emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown in a Marxist military coup. Anyone linked to his regime, especially the educated middle-class, was considered a person of interest.
AJC: What was the breaking point for the family to leave?
Mengiste: There was one moment I remember in particular when I was outside playing, it was New Years, and we had these little sparklers, firecrackers, and what we were doing was throwing them up into the tree. It was at night. Of course, I wanted to do this, I’m holding one up, it’s great fun, it’s a beautiful sight in the dark to do that, and as we’re singing and getting ready to throw these up, the gunshots started right outside our gate. And I remember it was such a jarring sound for me, and so startling that I shook, and I dropped the firecracker, and it dropped on my foot and burned through the skin, and I looked down, and I ran right into the house and I told my mother we can’t stay here. You have to get me out.
Mengiste’s father, an executive with Ethiopian Airlines, was able to get his family out of the country with relative ease, and once they became US citizens, they could come and go as they wished, but the earliest visits in the 1980s weren’t always easy. Beyond the boundaries of her grandparents’ home, it would take Mengiste years to feel accepted.
Mengiste: At this point, Ethiopians in Ethiopia have become used to members of the diaspora coming back and visiting, even in these more remote areas. They see us as Ethiopian, but also foreign. Before there was that level of comfort, Ethiopians could be quite cruel. And it was almost saying, you’re not really Ethiopian was like an insult. And it did used to be painful when I was a teenager. And then once I started writing, I started understanding that my distance from Ethiopia was specifically the thing that enabled me to write. And I needed that space in order to be able to look at history and look at the culture from a vantage point.
Whatever your vantage point, Ethiopia is complicated. Landlocked, drought-ridden, largely Christian, twice the size of Texas. It now has a parliamentary government, but in her novels, Mengiste looks back to darker times of authoritarian rule, famine, civil war. As a graduate student, she wasn’t sure if she should or could turn such cataclysmic events into fiction, so she asked her professor, the renowned South African poet, Breyten Breytenbach, some big questions.
Mengiste: Do I have a right to turn it into fiction? You know this is a national tragedy, and what is fiction? Like, is a fictional book, is this the best form for this history that was devastating to so many people I know, and to my own family, and he said this thing to me: “Fiction tells a truth that history cannot.” And I grabbed onto that, and I had that on a sticky note on my computer for those moments when I wavered. But I understood what he meant by that is history gives us data. It gives us location. It gives us dates. But fiction gives us the human being, and that’s what I felt that I could do.
Mengiste’s debut novel, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, is set in 1974 in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. By then, Haile Selassie has become the messiah of the Rastafarian movement. Ras means chief, and his family name was Tafari. With revolution brewing, his six-decade long rule, marked by both triumph and tyranny, was nearing its end. Mengiste shows us an 82-year-old man, broken, under house arrest, with only a pet lion for company.
(Excerpt from Beneath the Lion’s Gaze):
“Soldiers were posted outside his door, which was locked in triplicate, and then chained. Their fear of him was heartbreaking, compounding his loneliness and the largeness of this empty space he was trapped inside. They walked backwards into the room whenever they escorted his old servant inside with his food, doubly armed and wearing sunglasses. They scurried out as quickly as they could, too afraid to glance his way. The mournful whimpers of his old lion, Tojo, lulled him to sleep, and he tried to make himself forget about the garden just outside his window, which he was no longer allowed to walk in. Under the weight of this solitude, all of the emperors’ hours, minutes, and seconds blurred and ran together like a slow, dying river.”
After Beneath the Lion’s Gaze came out in 2010, Mengiste and her parents began talking more candidly about what had happened to them in the 1970s. Until then, her mother had always dodged questions about the revolution and its aftermath.
Mengiste: My parents were in Washington, DC, for my book launch for the first book, and the book was done. I was using my own memory and research, and other people’s stories.
AJC: And it’s fiction, lest we forget.
Mengiste: And it’s fiction, right. So she read the book, and just before we were on our way to the reading, she said, “I’m ready to answer your questions now.”
AJC: Thanks, mom.
AJC: Did she fact-check it for you, then? Was she like, “That never happened!”
Mengiste: What she said, actually, was some of the things that I thought I had made up, she said “How did you get that? How did you know that person’s name?”
Though some of Mengiste’s writing has been intuitive or invented, much of it comes from intensive research. Her second novel, 2019’s The Shadow King, set during Mussolini’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia, was informed by countless hours spent reading at Italy’s state archives in Rome. But Mengiste’s first draft, all 800 painstakingly researched pages of it, went into the trash. The narrative was historically accurate, but she said it lacked feeling and focus.
Mengiste: There was a moment of sheer panic where I said this isn’t the book, I don’t even want to read this book. I don’t want to read it, but I’ve just written it, and I knew at some point, halfway in, that that moment when I’m writing, going “I hate this, I hate this, but I have to finish.” And I finished, and I sent a panicked message to my editor, and she said, “Why don’t you come in? Send me this draft.” And bless her for reading it. The first question she asked me was “Whose story is this?” And I started again from page one, and I realized that Hirut, this young servant girl, who would eventually become a soldier, she wants to tell the story, at least to begin it. And if I can do anything, what could I do? And I looked back at books I loved. The Greek tragedies, Il Dottore, Toni Morrison, a Croatian writer Dasa Drndic, and I said “Okay, let me just, they broke rules. Let me break some rules and see what happens.”
Mengiste takes us beyond grainy, vintage newsreels of famine and war, showing us her country’s kings and peasants, its heroes and scoundrels, through contemporary eyes. Now she’s bringing other Ethiopian writers together to look at their country through an unusual lens. Addis Ababa Noir, out August 2020, is an anthology of crime stories set in Ethiopia’s capital city.
Mengiste: The darkness in here I think is very different from what many Ethiopians are used to reading. I’ve heard from Ethiopians, well we want only things that entertain, and I think that’s been a sense about writing, writing should be entertainment, or it should be religious, or it should be educational. But these are inhabiting a space that’s wholly their own. Still incorporating Ethiopian metaphors.
Having helped put her birthplace on the contemporary literary map, Mengiste says she’s ready with her next novel to change direction. The setting is still a secret, but it’s certain that whatever the destination, Maaza Mengiste will lead us on another absorbing journey.