African legend: Maaza Mengiste

African legend: Maaza Mengiste

We speak to the Ethiopian-American novelist about turning Ethiopia’s past into bestselling fiction, and why Addis stays home


Photography by Jay Brooks

Lisa Francesca Nand

This article was originally published in Selamta Magazine in March 2020 and was based on an interview with Maaza Mengiste that took place in 2019

Maaza Mengiste’s The Shadow King, though a work of fiction, tells the true story of the crucial role played by Ethiopian women in resisting Italian invaders in the 1930s. Published to rave reviews in the US, it continues to garner praise internationally: it was shortlisted for the UK’s Booker Prize in 2020 and was translated into French earlier this year for a receptive French audience. This builds on the success of her award-winning first novel, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, which was set in 1974, a turbulent time in Ethiopian history. We meet Mengiste amid the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves at Brooklyn’s Center for Fiction, one of her top recommendations for visitors to New York. Here, she tells us why Addis Ababa is still home.

Ethiopian-American novelist Maaza Mengiste

Mengiste's novels are based in Ethiopian history

You were born in Ethiopia and left when you were four. What do you remember about that period?

Well, the country was going through a difficult change at the time, and my parents were really worried about my little brother and me, and how we might be affected. There are frightening memories which eventually went into my first novel. At the same time, Ethiopia was where I had my happiest childhood moments. But we had to leave. My father worked for Ethiopian Airlines and requested a transfer to Nigeria.

So it seems you have a personal connection to Ethiopian Airlines.

Yes! In Nigeria, the community of Ethiopian Airlines staff became our second family. When we moved to Nairobi, it was the same. My father has passed, but there are people my mother still keeps in touch with, and many fellow children of Ethiopian Airlines staff are still my friends. The airline itself feels like a family to me.

After Kenya, you moved to the US. That must have been a memorable experience.

It was a whole other kind of adjustment. However, one of the interesting things about living in the US was that it brought me closer to Ethiopia. I started wondering, “What happened when I was a kid?” Since my parents didn’t want to talk about that period, I started reading as much as I could, not just about Ethiopia but every country that’d had a revolution. In the process, I was learning about Ethiopian culture and discovering things I didn’t know. I felt very connected to Ethiopia, at least in my imagination.

It must have been an emotional journey when you finally returned.

I was young, but I remember getting off that Ethiopian Airlines flight and the air smelt familiar, everything felt very familiar. It felt like some part of me just clicked back into place, like I had come home. My father retired in Addis Ababa, and my mother has returned. So when I go “home”, it’s now Addis Ababa.

It sounds like travel is in your blood.

When I get to an airport, I feel very comfortable. I think it’s because I’ve always spent time in them with my father. You see so many different stories: people reuniting, people leaving, people travelling with their families. I sometimes imagine it’s a small world in itself and here I am looking at all these different countries all at once. Travel for me is a way to jolt myself awake, to learn new things, to meet new people and to understand that we share so much in common.

You also returned home to research your novels. What was that experience like?

I only properly began to explore Ethiopia when travelling for research, and I was just in awe of the landscape. It was absolutely stunning. How does a writer describe something like this? What words would be enough? Those trips were some of the best I’ve had in my life – anywhere.

How would you describe the literary tradition in Ethiopia?

Historically, there have been some incredible writers and now there’s this whole new generation coming through – not only from the diaspora but also people living in Ethiopia. I’m absolutely thrilled about that. I recently published a collection of short stories called Addis Ababa Noir, written by Ethiopian writers living in Ethiopia and abroad. It makes me really excited that their work will be known in the wider world.

I only properly began to explore Ethiopia when travelling for research, and I was just in awe of the landscape. It was absolutely stunning. How does a writer describe something like this?

Could you tell us more about the collection?

The collection is part of the Akashic Books Noir series, which now features stories from over 100 cities around the world. The premise is to gather fourteen writers who know a particular city, and ask them to write a noir story about it. I’m so proud and honoured to have been able to work with the extremely talented writers featured in Addis Ababa Noir. Each of them selected a different part of the city as a setting for their story, and the stories they wrote: dark, mysterious, thrilling, suspenseful and sometimes, disturbing, showcase a part of Addis Ababa we don’t often see in tourist brochures: complex and exciting, but also built upon layers and layers of history, some of it brutal. These stories are riveting to read altogether. Addis Ababa Noir reveals a different kind of city, full of ghosts of the past, and sometimes, wicked humour.

Do you remember what inspired you to become a writer?

I didn’t know any writers or have any plans to write novels, but Ethiopia’s story kept nagging at me. I worked in advertising, but started to think, “If I’m writing about cereal and cars for television, maybe I could write something else that might mean something to me.” I briefly worked in the film industry in Los Angeles and learned how to craft a story there. Then I was accepted to NYU, which was completely unexpected, but once on the course it was the first time I felt like I could be a writer.

And now you’ve ventured into the world of visual storytelling…

That’s right, with Project 3541. It’s an online collection of photographs and memories dealing with the 1935-41 war between Ethiopia and Italy. It is an educational and artistic endeavour (and a labour of love) with a goal to help develop and grow the conversations surrounding this history. I’m asking people to share their family stories and photographs that come from this period. The stories that I have received have been incredibly powerful and fascinating, and they span the globe: Ethiopia, Somalia, Eritrea, Italy, Britain, Kenya, South Africa, and so on. This was not a regional conflict, this was a global war and I am realising it extended beyond East Africa.

You are very passionate about your human rights work. Can you tell us a little about that?

I write extensively about the plight of refugees and migrants, and about photojournalists who are making images of conflict areas. I really look at their images, try to break them down and see what it is we’re supposed to understand. Someone asked me, isn’t this really depressing stuff? I don’t think I could do it if I wasn’t hopeful about the ability of people, and the ability of writing and art to change things and raise awareness. I’m on the board of directors for a journal called Warscapes; it looks at literature coming from areas of conflict, allowing people from these places to tell their own stories. I find that incredibly inspiring.

Mengiste's Project 3541 is a visual storytelling porject about the Ethiopian Italian war

Ethiopia's story inspired her to become an author

At times of difficulty and conflict, there is often a flurry of great music, art and literature. Why do you think that is?

I think artists and writers naturally understand how important the imagination is, how there’s another space we can travel within. As oppression grows and various freedoms are denied, it forces people to become creative in how they express themselves. This gives painters, musicians and writers an opportunity to become innovative, to be daringly subversive.

As a professor at Queens College, New York, does it feel good to be able to inspire the next generation of writers?

Definitely! My students come from very different backgrounds. At one point in my class, I had 18 students; one day, I paused the class and said, “I just want to know how many languages we speak in this room.” And I counted over 18. All of the students had one other language besides English. I find that inspiring. I hope I inspire them too. Probably not when I’m giving grades but when I’m teaching and in the interactions I have with them outside of class, because it’s absolutely inspiring for me.

What are your recommendations for anyone going to Ethiopia?

Spend a little time in Addis Ababa. It can rival New York for traffic, but there’s so much to do. Get out of the city and take a short flight up to the highlands. Go to Sidama or Hawassa in the south, and Harar. There are so many places in Ethiopia; it surprises people. It’s so green, with stunning scenery, and you can get that just a half hour out of the city centre.

What about Ethiopians visiting New York?

Oh, visit the Center for Fiction in Brooklyn. Walk around Fort Greene. Go to Bryant Park and Central Park. See the museums. There are some great restaurants here. Harlem is a fascinating place to explore, and it also has some Ethiopian cafes, so go have some injera somewhere. Eat with your hands. It might not be the same as at home, but it will be wonderful.