For Maaza Mengiste, the research on her new novel, The Shadow King, was a kind of archeological dig. The sweeping war epic is an elegy of loss, both personal and collective, set against Mussolini’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia. It will be classified as historical fiction, but it so deliberately questions the burden and responsibility of whose history and whose fiction is being recounted that it seems to challenge the entire genre. Researching the book took Mengiste years. The Ethiopian-American author moved to Rome and learned Italian to be able to properly probe what is considered one of the first conflicts of World War II. She spent extended periods of time in Ethiopia, both in the capital, Addis Ababa, and exploring the rocky and unforgiving terrain in the countryside, where her story takes place.
Mengiste’s first novel, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, published in 2011, was also set during a period of conflict and upheaval in Ethiopia—in that case, the 1974 Marxist revolution, something she knew well having been born in Addis Ababa in that year. (The family emigrated to Colorado when Mengiste was seven, after stops in Kenya and Nigeria.) She spent five years writing a 900-page first draft of The Shadow King—by hand—then read it and asked herself, “Who’s story is it, and why are they telling it?” When she didn’t come up with a satisfactory answer, she knew she had to throw it away and begin again from scratch.
An elegy of loss, both personal and collective, set against Mussolini’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia.
Her novel is told from varying perspectives, an event is described three times, first in an omniscient yet questioning third person, then in an objective description of a photograph taken of the event, then by the chorus, mythologizing the day. This is a paean to and an airing of the history you’ve never been able to read, one where Europeans are secondary characters and not only Africans but African women are the keystone to the story.
“This is a book that is looking at history as much as it’s taking on history,” Mengiste told me earlier this month, tucked into a green leather banquette at the Marlton Hotel. “I want people to understand that even as there are some truths in myth, there are also some myths in what we assume are truths.” She sipped black coffee and picked at a mini-scone. Mengiste lives in Flushing—she and her husband are both professors at Queens College—but she had meetings in the city and her Joan Didion Lit Hub tote was heavy with notebooks of varying sizes. She wore all black, including a small, dark, wooden traditional Ethiopian cross suspended close to her jugular notch, a gift from her aunt.
Chloe Malle: How did you decide that this was the time period and the conflict that you wanted to write about?
Maaza Mengiste: I grew up with these stories of the Italians invading Ethiopia the first time. They were kicked out in 1896, but then they came back again in 1935 with a bigger army, and with more weapons. They were not going to be defeated this time. And Ethiopians defeated them after five years. In Ethiopia, Ethiopia’s defeat of Italy is woven into its identity. You are not an Ethiopian if you don’t know that history, and there is a pride that comes with that. So I had this idea: I’m going to write this story based on all of these stories that I have heard.
C.M.: Your great-grandmother fought in the Ethiopian Army in 1935. How much was her story an inspiration for the book and Hirut’s character?
“Ethiopia’s defeat of Italy is woven into its identity.”
M.M.: The entire time I was writing this, I had Hirut, I had her story, I had her trajectory. I had her fight for her rifle before I knew about my great-grandmother. It was really an uncanny parallel. But what happened when I learned her story, what I realized was people might say I made stuff up, but I know I didn’t, and now it’s in my family. And knowing that, I went full speed ahead with this. And then it made me think about, Wait a minute, why was this never thought important enough to tell alongside the stories of men? This young girl who goes to war.
I asked my mom, and she said, “You never asked.” And as I started looking through, I started finding snippets of women who were actually in the front lines. Then I would find a photograph or two of a woman with a rifle and uniform. And then I would find a headline or two of a woman who picked up a gun from the field and led her husband’s army. And I said, “There’s a whole other side to this.”
C.M.: The idea of the Shadow King, is that something that really happened in history?
“Women were actually in the front lines.”
M.M.: It’s not. I knew from reading about Ethiopian history during Menelik’s time and Zewditu, there were decoys as a way to distract the enemy. When Haile Selassie left, I imagined the demoralizing effect of that. And there’s no way the people fighting way up in the hills knew that the emperor had left. So I wanted to play with that. Let’s have a Shadow King, which I made up. I know leaders had doppelgängers. I think Hitler had three or four, and Mussolini had a few. So why not?
C.M.: That also plays very well with themes in the book of myth versus truth, and mythmaking as a way of aiding the truth. Was that something you conceived of from the beginning, that this was going to be about different versions of the truth?
M.M.: Yes. I really wanted this book to reflect the way that history is really a series of narratives told by human beings who are biased and fallible. That’s what it is and this is why we have gaps. This is why we have contested histories. This is why we have so many people who have been ignored and we suddenly discover them. So I wanted to play around with that and say, “What would a book look like that is countering history as much as it’s relaying history?” And this is where the idea of the chorus came in. Because I wanted this other voice to step in periodically and say, “Actually, that’s not what happened.”
C.M.: How did you approach writing about someone as fierce a historic character as Haile Selassie? There are very intimate moments of his personal grief, and his ambivalence. How did you inhabit that so deeply?
“I wanted this other voice to step in periodically and say, ‘Actually, that’s not what happened.’”
M.M.: I had to stop thinking of him as the emperor and really just think of him as a man. I’ve called him Haile Selassie, but this was somebody who was a leader of a country. He is for me an imaginary figure. I went to Bath for research. I went to his house, I looked at some of the artifacts, and one of the things I found there was that he kept a Bible by his bedside, and he kept an English dictionary by his bed. So he was working on his English. It was very human. I said, “This is a man, in a sense, with his own insecurities.” And I wanted to work with that in the book.
C.M.: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave a TED Talk interview where she said, “There’s a part of me that deeply resents the fact that there are many parts of the world where the fiction that comes from there is read as anthropology rather than literature. And that kind of anthropological reading means that you have to explain your world rather than inhabiting it.” The idea of glossing, and how much one annotates words that are perhaps unfamiliar to an American audience, is discussed often. You navigate this very fluidly; you are very clear about what you’re talking about, but you don’t describe or explain a lot of the Ethiopian terms. Was that ever a difficult decision to make?
M.M.: I really had to think about that. Do I italicize everything? If there is an Amharic word for something, I’ll use it, and I think you could tell by the second time what that was. This is Hirut’s story. Would Hirut pause to annotate things? The chorus is telling us some of this. Would the chorus pause, or would they just tell their story? And I think if I’m living in their world, they are the majority and so I’m going to write their story. If I pick up a book about something that’s set in France, that person who’s writing their book, they’re not thinking about someone who doesn’t know. And so I think readers should be comfortable with not knowing certain things, and then moving into a book. And then if it doesn’t explain, look up something, or let it go, and move into the book and see what happens.
“I think readers should be comfortable with not knowing certain things.”
C.M.: Whenever I’m reading interviews with writers from the African diaspora, they express frustration with how they are supposed to identify: are you an African writer? Do you identify as an African writer? And I’m curious if you’ve seen a shift in that over the past 10 years. Are people more receptive to someone just being a writer, regardless of where they are from? Do you feel pressured to self-identify as an African writer as much as you did with the last book, or when you started writing?
M.M.: Yeah. I think when I started writing, it was the thing, because African writers were new on the scene. There was this whole debate of: Are you African? Are you not? And maybe for the first six months or a year when the book came out, I would say, “Just judge my book for what it is.” Then I started thinking, and I said, “You know, I’m really bored of this conversation. I am really tired of it.” I think that there are writers who feel the need to constantly explain what they are, or what Africanism is. We are beyond that, I feel. And I find if someone wants to label me as that, that’s fine. If you want to say I’m American, that’s O.K. You want to say I’m Ethiopian-American? That’s really fine.
“You know, I’m really bored of this conversation. I am really tired of it.”
C.M.: You had this idea in ’99, 20 years ago, but it feels like an eerily perfect cultural moment for this kind of book to be published, at a moment when we are privileging stories from the point of view of women, and also from the point of view of cultures whose stories have long been ignored. Was that originally a central tenet? That this was going to be a story that has not yet been told about this history?
M.M.: I like to say that I was writing this book when we were still a democracy. And nothing changed. This was the story I wanted to write. It was very interesting when I sent the book off to my editor; she said, “This book speaks to this time.” I stepped away from 1935, because it was completely where I was, and looked at the book in the present moment and said, “Wow, I really had no sense.” I think it’s women and a younger generation that’s really going to change things, the way that they have always changed things. And, in that way, the book feels like an affirmation of where we are.
Chloe Malle is a freelance writer and contributing editor to Vogue