Maaza Mengiste: ‘The language of war is always masculine’
The Ethiopian-born novelist on her book about the female fightback against Mussolini’s invasion of her homeland, why Instagram blurs the vision, and the lure of Moby-Dick
Maaza Mengiste’s second novel, The Shadow King, is a reimagination of Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia. Told from a range of perspectives, it focuses on the experience of the Ethiopian women who played a vital role in winning the war, as well as that of the Italian soldiers and the exiled king, Haile Selassie. Mengiste was born in Ethiopia in 1974, but her family fled the Ethiopian revolution when she was a child (a history she explored in her first novel, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze). She lives in New York and spoke to us from Zanzibar.
Your first novel clearly drew on personal history. Did this new subject feel more distant from your own experience?
It was not until I was well into my research for this book, when I was on a trip to Ethiopia, just visiting some of the locations where the battles were set, that my mother very casually mentioned the story of my great-grandmother who had enlisted to fight on the frontlines.
My mother had been with me on so many research trips; I had told her so many times about the problems of finding women, how it felt so often that I was reaching in the dark trying to capture these women, who would evaporate into the air, and here was one of them in my own family. I remember I turned to her and said: “Why did you never tell me this?” Because I had met my great-grandmother before she passed away. And she looked at me and said: “Well, you never asked.” And I thought, “Oh my God, this is what happens.”
The language of war is always masculine, and we automatically position history in terms of what men did. It was the same with my great-grandmother.
Did you ever think of writing a factual account of the female fighters in this colonial war?
I was really interested in looking at the kinds of truth that perhaps historians couldn’t tell, because they’re so indebted to data and to finding hard evidence. As a novelist, if I found one or two or three women, I could say I suspect there are more and I could work with that.
You learned Italian to research this book. Did that bring you closer to the experience of the fascist soldiers?
I was touring for the first book and went to Calabria, in the south of Italy. I understood that many of the foot soldiers in 1935 were from Calabria, and from Sicily. The generals came from the north. The southern people of Italy, their blood is in Ethiopian ground.
I was in a tiny bookstore in a small town in Calabria, and during the question and answer session a man stood up and said: “I would like to talk to you about 1935.” The entire room tensed up.
Italy has not talked about this history; it’s still difficult for Italians to comprehend what they did in east Africa. A few people grumbled for him to sit down. But he was visibly shaken and emotional. He told me that his father was a pilot during the war. He said: “My father dropped poison on your people. How do I ask for your forgiveness?” And he started crying.
It was at that moment that I said to myself: “My God, this history is not done, this war that feels distant but is not distant. There’s still the question, How do we bridge this gap between us?”
One of the devices in the novel is descriptions of photos taken by one of the characters…
I’m very interested in the middle ground between what’s visible and invisible in a photograph. When we see a photo of an Ethiopian prisoner, are we seeing the prisoner or are we seeing the Italian photographer who took it? That photo is not a statement about Ethiopia, it’s a statement about Italian colonial power, about masculinity, about cruelty. It reflects back on the photographer and the Italians that it’s framing. It’s a language of violence and power. I wanted to imagine these photographs as something moving and alive.
We’ve become a very visual society, with Instagram and social media – how many photographs can we take? We are forgetting how to look. Every image that ends up on Instagram is flattened of meaning and complication. They’re these simplistic narratives that don’t correspond to the lives they seek to represent.
What books are by your bedside?
Celestial Bodies [by Jokha al-Harthi], Invitation to a Beheading [by Vladimir Nabokov]. Now hold on… let me go to my bedside and check what else… Wittgenstein’s Nephew by Thomas Bernhard.
What’s the last great book you read?
Daša Drndić’s Trieste. Oh my God, I loved that book.
How do you arrange your books?
I’ve just rearranged everything, which means that fiction is now divided from nonfiction, there’s poetry, there’s my books about art and photography. I have not put them in any sort of alphabetical order. My research books are somewhere else. So I have quite a few bookshelves and they’re arranged by genre, which I’m sure is politically incorrect.
What was the last classic novel you read?
Can I tell you what I will read? I planned on reading it this past year, but had no time with the edits of my book. Moby-Dick. Wish me luck.
What kind of reader were you as a child?
If we go very far back in childhood, I just remember the first time I read The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. What a profound and moving book it was for me – the way it spoke about generosity, awareness and empathy. I then came to the Greeks, to Homer, and I will never forget the day I read the Iliad and how electrifying it was.
Then there was a high school teacher who introduced me to literature that broadened my world. We still keep in touch, and without her I wouldn’t write the way I write.
Source: The Guardian