With her new novel, Maaza Mengiste pushes against what is told and what is remembered.
Four years into the nine-year marathon that would result in The Shadow King, Ethiopian-American novelist Maaza Mengiste’s stunning second novel about the 1935 Italian Fascist invasion of Ethiopia, the author hit a wall.
“I had published a novel, so when I started this one, I thought I knew how to write a novel,” she says wryly during a call to her home in Queens, New York. Mengiste came to the United States as a child after Ethiopia’s brutal 1970s-era revolution toppled Emperor Haile Selassie, experiences that formed the foundation of her first novel, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze. Mengiste is now a professor in the MFA program at Queens College in New York and is married to a fellow writer/professor. After four years of frustration writing the new book, Mengiste says she really had “to relearn the craft in order to do this.”
One of the problems with her first draft, she says now, is that it was too closely tied to the facts of the war in Ethiopia. For those who don’t know, Italy believed it had been denied its fair share of African colonies after World War I and, using a border incident as pretext, invaded Ethiopia (then called Abyssinia) in 1934 and briefly annexed it.
Mengiste’s early draft “was completely attached to the historical facts and the historical data. Everything that I wrote was absolutely accurate, and the book that emerged was dry, and it was boring, and the characters were wooden, and I was completely defeated by what I had done.”
Another trap for her was the Ethiopian mythology about their ultimate victory in this war. “As a child, you hear these stories of heroism. These men were poorly equipped with old guns, charging a very highly weaponized European army and winning. While doing research, I started thinking about the myths and legends of war, and I realized that if Italy had its propaganda machine, then I also had to accept the fact that Ethiopia had its mythologies about this war. I realized I needed to break apart the myths and legends and propaganda and look deeper.”
That deep dive revealed the often hidden but undeniable role of Ethiopian women in the conflict. From that realization Mengiste developed her central character, Hirut, a young, often abused servant girl who displays a shrewd toughness and rises to become a leader. Mengiste also felt free to invent the character of “the shadow king,” a poor man with enough physical resemblance to Emperor Selassie, who had gone into exile, that he could be cultivated and trained to inspire Ethiopian fighters.
“In Ethiopian culture, the emperor is always in the front line. Always. But past leaders also had a doppelganger, somebody who looked like them on the battlefield to inspire morale and serve as a decoy,” Mengiste explains.
She quickly adds, “Part of my concern in this book was to center the story on people who are often not written about in history—the farmers, the peasants, the servants who don’t have the social standing to make them newsworthy—because the stories that get remembered are so often about people who are already famous or noteworthy.”
Freeing herself from being factually scrupulous also allowed Mengiste to be adventurous with the form of this novel. Yes, there are standard chapters, but there are also descriptions of photographs (one of the Italian characters in the novel is a morally compromised photographer forced to document the Italian army’s horrific atrocities); “interludes,” which describe Haile Selassie in exile in Britain; and a chorus that comments on the activities of the novel’s characters. The result is an epic novel reminiscent of the great Greek tragedies.
At Queens College, Mengiste often teaches a course on the literature of conflict, and the class always begins by reading a Greek tragedy. “I love the Greek tragedies,” she says. “I don’t know how many times I’ve read [the story of] Agamemnon and the Iliad. . . . I wanted to have the chorus because I was thinking that the way history is told is not the way that it unfolded. The chorus was a way to push against what is told and remembered.”
Mengiste also looked to the Iliad for inspiration in writing her incredibly gripping battle scenes. “I would read those battle scenes and not be able to breathe because there was just so much momentum in the prose. It gave me a great sense of the movement of battle, and I wanted to emulate that the best I could. It was fun. I really let the voice go free during battle.”
Asked what she is most proud of in The Shadow King, Mengiste points to “the freedom I gave myself. I’m really proud of the structure of the book. People will either like it or hate it, but I was willing to take the risk because I wanted to push myself as a writer—not just as a thinker but as a writer. Some of my favorite writers are those who break form. I wanted to see if I could do that under their tutelage. I’m really proud of being able to combine the stories of the Ethiopians and the Italians, to force questions about both of them, about loyalty, about racism, about being subjugated by the very people who should be protecting you. These were the questions I wanted to bring forward.”
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a review of The Shadow King.