A version of this conversation was broadcast on Writers & Company on CBC Radio One in 2020, produced by Sandra Rabinovitch.
Maaza Mengiste was born in Addis Ababa in 1971, just a few years before the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie, who had ruled Ethiopia for more than forty years. The 1974 Marxist-backed revolution not only ended the monarchy but replaced it with a brutal regime that destroyed hundreds of thousands of lives. Mengiste was four years old when her father, who worked at Ethiopian Airlines, moved the family first to Nigeria and then Kenya, where she lived until she was seven. Because of the continuing threat to her safety—three of her uncles lost their lives—she was sent to the United States, where she’s lived more or less permanently ever since.
When she wrote her first novel, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, she set it during that turbulent time of political tensions and terrible violence in Ethiopia. Revolving around a single family in her own family’s neighbourhood, the story probes the moral complexity of political engagement, and Mengiste writes with intelligence and compassion. As novelist and critic Claire Messud puts it, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze is “an extraordinary novel . . . which tells stories that nobody can want to hear, in such a way that we cannot stop listening.”
The book was named one of the best of 2010 by various newspapers, and Mengiste won a Fulbright scholarship, among other fellowships. Now she has a new novel, The Shadow King, which she describes as a sort of prequel to Beneath the Lion’s Gaze. The setting goes back to 1935 and the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, part of Benito Mussolini’s fascist expansion of Italy’s empire beyond Libya, Eritrea, and Somalia, an attempt to colonize the last remaining free country in Africa.
The Shadow King is ambitious in its exploration of history and memory, class and gender, through the lens of a conflict that many consider to be the beginning of the Second World War. The Shadow King has already been dubbed a modern classic, with Salman Rushdie proclaiming it “a brilliant novel, lyrically lifting history towards myth.”
Maaza Mengiste lives in New York City, but I spoke to her from London in early March 2020.
Eleanor Wachtel: Your novel The Shadow King is set in 1935 during the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, a period you say has always fascinated you. Why?
Maaza Mengiste: I grew up with the stories of a poorly equipped Ethiopian military confronting one of the most technologically advanced militaries in the world at that time, and for a child this was a story that felt epic. It was mythic. We were not supposed to win, and yet we did. I grew up imagining these heroic figures, and I brought those figures with me when I left Ethiopia and eventually settled in the United States. They helped me understand what it meant to be Ethiopian, what it meant to have a history. The stories and the myths, the legends, my images of those soldiers carried me through some difficult times as an immigrant, as a young girl who was Black in a town that didn’t understand her.
Wachtel: What is the narrative or the mythology around the war in Ethiopia? I mean, this is the only country in Africa that was never actually colonized, apart from those five years of occupation, during which Haile Selassie lived in exile. How do Ethiopians look on this period? How is it taught, for instance?
Mengiste: The confrontation with Italy, both the first one in the late 1800s and then the one in 1935, helped establish Ethiopia as a place, a country that other Africans and other African Americans could look toward with pride. It helped Ethiopians figure out a way to define themselves: the people who were supposed to be conquered and yet were not. The people who were independent. It established a way to think about the country and the people, and I grew up with some of that rhetoric, that legend, the myths. And it’s something that went beyond Ethiopia as well.
Wachtel: In what way? What do you mean?
Mengiste: It helped define a way of Blackness, a way of being African, which was very different from stories of colonialism, of being enslaved. These were people who fought against colonizing forces, who fought against Europeans, who fought against the white men, and won. That was a source of pride for people across the world, from Harlem all the way into Nigeria and Ghana.
Wachtel: As you say, you realize that if Italy had its propaganda machine, you had to accept the fact that Ethiopia had its mythologies about this war. There’s an element of myth that the Ethiopians defeated the Italians on their own. They eventually needed the help of the British and other forces to finally defeat Mussolini.
Mengiste: You’re absolutely right. Ethiopia had its own myths. Those men I imagined charging down hills, constantly heroic, always defiant against superior Italian weaponry, I never imagined them scared. The reality was that there were people who were deeply frightened of what was happening. There were people who were collaborators. There were people who wondered, Well, wouldn’t the Italians be better for our country than what we have right now? Ethiopia was not as unified as the myths and legends would want us to believe. The country is complex. It’s diverse. That gets lost within that mythic narrative. And you know, the British came in at the end, but I have to say that if Ethiopians had not continued the guerrilla warfare, Britain would have had a much more difficult time with Mussolini and Ethiopia. The poorest of the people, the people who were farmers and peasants in normal daily life, were the ones who kept up the war.
Wachtel: Many people consider the Italian invasion of Ethiopia to be one of the first real conflicts of the Second World War. You’ve said there’s been a kind of silence about what really happened. Why would that be?
Mengiste: The silence about this war, I think, is many-layered. Once Haile Selassie came back in 1941, he said that we need to forgive our Italian brothers, let’s open our arms to them, the person who is really responsible for this is Mussolini, and let’s keep moving on. The Italians went back to Italy understanding the horror of what they had done, and many of the men who fought never spoke about what actually happened in Ethiopia. So you have this war that was in many ways silenced after it was finished. And Hitler invaded Poland soon after this. The world’s focus shifted to him. Ethiopia was all but forgotten. I think many people did not realize that everything that happened in Ethiopia was helping to dictate how Britain and France would relate to Mussolini and Italy as Hitler began to take control of Europe.
Wachtel: What kinds of stories did you hear about your own family’s experience during this time?
Mengiste: I heard the stories of men in my grandfather’s generation who fought. I heard the stories of the ways women took care of the wounded, buried the dead, the medicines they made, the way they made scarves for the men, they collected water. I heard the stories of people in very traditional roles of warfare, but I had no sense that women did much more in that war. I had no sense that those stories also were running in my own family. I grew up with people telling me, Oh, your grandfather’s friend, he did this, or Your father’s uncle did this. Your cousins’ fathers did this. No one had ever talked about the women. When I would ask what happened to women during this time, I would hear about the traditional role of the caretaker, but I didn’t really hear about the experiences of women in war. It was only through research that I happened to stumble upon a woman here, a woman there, who was actually a soldier.
Wachtel: You also weren’t aware that your own great-grandmother was part of the story. Tell me about her.
Mengiste: I had no idea. I wrote The Shadow King, did my research, searched for women who were fighting in this war, without any sense of my great-grandmother’s story. When the book was almost done, I was in Ethiopia doing a last-minute research trip while I was in the process of editing the book. My mother went with me on this trip, as she has done on several other research excursions I’ve made in Ethiopia. I happened to be telling her about another photograph I found of a woman in uniform and how excited I was about that because it confirmed what I had always thought, which was that these women really existed. And she really casually said, Well, what about your great-grandmother? I didn’t know anything. I turned to her, and it was almost as if she had spoken in a foreign language. My brain couldn’t conceive it. And she told me the story of my great-grandmother, who had enlisted to fight in the war, who had taken her father before the village elders, the village judges, and demanded the gun that was his and would eventually be passed down to her, but she wanted it right then. And she went to war. I had never heard this story before, in all the years of working on this book. I had met my great-grandmother. I had been in the same room with her before she died. No one mentioned this.
Wachtel: What was she like?
Mengiste: I knew her when she was very, very old. She was bedridden at that time, but even being in the house where she was, the stories around the room when we were gathered together were all about how stubborn she was. She was very small, she was petite, but everybody said that she could beat up a man, and apparently she had before. And those were the stories I heard, but I never heard the story of her as a soldier.
Wachtel: And do you understand why your mother never mentioned it? She knew the book you were writing. You’d been working on it for years.
Mengiste: I asked her, Why didn’t you tell me this? And she just matter-of-factly said, Well, you never asked. So it has really made me think about the places of women’s stories in history, the place of history within the world of women also. I am convinced that we have histories that are told and passed down in the kitchen, or in the spaces of women, but those stories are not regarded as history with a capital H the way we might regard other things we find in books or in the speeches men give in public places. There are narratives we need to listen to and search for.
Wachtel: It makes me wonder about your relationship with your mother because it feels almost perverse for her to withhold this!
Mengiste: I have no idea. We were on roads, we would drive eight or nine or ten hours to battle sites. At some point, I talked to all my aunts to verify these stories, the details, the facts of my great-grandmother, and they corroborated, separately, all these details, and I’m just surprised that I didn’t know. My brother didn’t know about it. We didn’t know this stuff. I’ve talked to other Ethiopians, interestingly enough, since the book has come out, and I have asked other people, readers, to please ask your families about stories. I just got a text from a friend of mine saying, I talked to Aunt So-and-So; she just mentioned her grandmother went to war. These are stories that still are not being discussed.
Wachtel: And the way your great-grandmother asserted herself—the story is that she actually had to sue her father because he wasn’t going to give her this rifle. He was going to give it to the man that she was betrothed to, a man that she didn’t want to marry anyway. Would the way she did that have marked her? Would there have been repercussions within the family?
Mengiste: You know, it’s really interesting that you’re asking this because I had a conversation with somebody who knows this history as well, another Ethiopian, and he asked, What region of Ethiopia is your family from? What region was your great-grandmother from? And I gave him that area, and he said, Oh, my family’s from the same area, and there are laws of inheritance in that area that are very different from other parts of Ethiopia. That gun was your grandmother’s inheritance, and she had a valid right to that gun whether she was female or not. That gun belonged to her because it was her father’s, and she had legitimate cause to take him to court. So the judges, these village elders, saw that, based on the laws of that region, that was her gun. And that’s how she got it.
Wachtel: You honour your great-grandmother by giving her name to the mother of the central character in your novel The Shadow King, the young woman named Hirut. Hirut herself is a heroic figure. She has to fight to claim that role, that space. Can you talk about her situation, the struggles that she faces as a young woman of little means, an orphan?
Mengiste: Definitely. But I want to say one thing: I gave Hirut’s mother the name Gaytay, not even realizing that that was my great-grandmother’s name. I called her Taytay. It’s uncanny. I had Hirut fighting to get her father’s gun, not understanding that my great-grandmother had gone through that. So it’s been a bizarre and moving and powerful experience to see the book unfold in the way it has and see the many ways it kept looping into my own family history. Hirut is a character I was really interested in exploring and developing. She is a maid. She is orphaned. She has been taken to live with a nobleman, Kidane, and his wife, Aster. Her life has basically been planned for her: she will serve them until they pass away. And then she might get married and have a child, but this is her role in life. It was her mother’s role in life as well. And Aster early on in the book tells Hirut, You seem to think the world is going to be bending in your direction, but you were made to fit into the world. You need to know your place. And I think Hirut hears it but doesn’t quite believe it. When the war breaks out, Aster sees it as an opportunity to be something more than a wife. But I think Hirut also sees it as an opportunity to be more than this girl who was born into a specific place in the world. She wants to make and remake her own world, and the war gives her that chance.
Wachtel: Aster is a very complicated character as well, as the wife of Kidane, who has taken Hirut in as a servant. She has her own struggles, her own source of anger: she was forced into a marriage at a very young age, and that’s not that uncommon in Ethiopia, even now, you say.
Mengiste: Ethiopia has been working very hard to completely eliminate forced early marriage. But in the time of Aster, it was common. It was common in my grandmother’s time. In my mother’s time, it was starting to change, but mostly in Addis Ababa, in the bigger cities; in the villages it was still practised. Aster is one of those girls who at a very early age was married off to a man so that the families could form an alliance, and she understands her place in the world, but she is angry about it. There is a moment pretty early on where the chorus, which is a narrative voice that goes through the book, says something to her about making your sorrow into children, the way so many other women have done, and learning to live. But Aster has other ideas about what her worth is and what she can do and wants to do. Her son dies early on in childhood, and that seems to break her in certain ways, and also free her from certain norms about what women can and should be.
Wachtel: As you mentioned, your novel features a chorus commenting on the action, celebrating the valour of women. Why did you want to use this?
Mengiste: I am in awe of the Ethiopian troubadours, storytellers called azmari, azmariwoch. The azmari are in tiny bars scattered across Ethiopia. They have their musical instruments. If you walk into these places where there is honey wine that’s served or different kinds of alcohol, women or men are walking around the bar with their masenqo—a stringed instrument—and they’ll stop in front of you and instantly make up a song based on what they see of you, what they imagine. The songs are often bawdy, they’re raunchy, they’re funny, they’re entertaining, but they’re also poetic and really creative, and I think in 1935, those azmariwoch were the keepers of history. They learned what happened in their communities, in their neighbourhoods, on the battle sites where they lived, and they learned to make those events into song that then became remembered history. They created legends and myths through their music, and I wanted to honour them in the book, so I called them a chorus.
The other reason I really was interested in a choral voice: I love the Greek tragedies, the Greek myths. I have read Homer. The Iliad is one of my favourite books. I wanted to emulate the voice of the chorus in my book because both with the azmariwoch and the chorus—this Greek chorus—I wanted voices that answer back to history, to the way narrative is established as history. If my book is historical fiction, but if I also believe that history is a series of narratives created by fallible human beings, then I wanted another device in the book that responds to what I’m writing or to what my characters are saying about certain things.
Wachtel: The heroism of Ethiopian women is just one aspect of history that’s overlooked or omitted from the official narrative. You also found that the brutality of the Italian occupation is not well covered in Italian history books. Did that surprise you?
Mengiste: It did not surprise me. I lived in Italy for a while to do research for this book, and I have gone back regularly for almost a decade. The one thing I discovered is that Italians don’t want to talk about this moment. Their grandfathers, their uncles, their fathers, their brothers, those men who came back from the war in Ethiopia returned and refused to speak about it. There was a silence that happened in that country. When Mussolini fell and World War II ended, it was an embarrassment: that Mussolini ran the country, the war with Ethiopia, and the defeat were all looped into that shame. So no one talked about it. But I am finding that, you know, Italians really do want to understand this history, they want to know about it. There are generations of Italians who can trace their background: they are Italian Ethiopian, Italian Eritrean, Italian Somali, Italian Libyan. They are aware of this history, and they are doing work on the ground to make sure this history is better known.
Wachtel: But the shame is not just the embarrassment of defeat but the brutality of the way the war was fought. I only discovered from reading your book about the use of mustard gas, which wasn’t admitted to by the Italian Ministry of Defence until 1996, sixty years after the fact.
Mengiste: Sixty years after. Italy still has not apologized for that. And even now, some Italians might say, Well, yeah, we were there, but we were the good people. Italiani brava gente. Italians are decent people. They are saying, We are different from the British, different from the French, very different from the Belgians. We were the good people that came in. We built roads. We built communication lines. We loved Ethiopians. We were kind to them and then we had to leave. We’re not even organized enough to really have a war. We just want wine and good food and music. So there’s the stereotype, which completely belies the brutality of what happened. The concentration camps, the execution sites that were set up all across Ethiopia, the massacres, all those things. It was in my research that I really was confronted with how bad it was because the Italians didn’t talk about it and the Ethiopians knew some of it, but when Haile Selassie came back to Ethiopia in 1941 and said, We need to forgive our brothers, it was really Mussolini who did this thing, he never raised the topic of the brutality. Eventually, generations that knew of it didn’t talk about it, but even in Ethiopia that history was silenced.
Wachtel: You also point out in the novel during this period there were complicated relationships and divided loyalties among Ethiopians themselves, and between the Italians and the Ethiopians. Can you outline some of that conflict?
Mengiste: Yes. There were people in Ethiopia, different ethnic groups—like members of the Oromo ethnic group—who said, We are under Amhara rule. This is like a Solomonic Dynasty. Haile Selassie? Why do we want him? We want our own people to rule. Haile Selassie is not treating us well. People were enslaved. And the cook in my novel represents some of these dissenting voices. She has been taken from her family, stripped of everything, and forced to work in the home of Kidane and Aster. She refuses in my book to give her name. She’s just called the cook because, she says, They have taken everything else away from me; I am not giving them my name. When the Italians promise all the people who are enslaved, all the people who are under the domination of Haile Selassie, We will give you your rightful place if you come on our side, the cook is one of those people who says, Yeah, of course I’m going to do that. Can anything be worse than the way I’m being treated by people like Kidane and Aster, people of the ruling class? So the idea of a unified Ethiopia is not 100 percent correct. There were substantial groups of people within the country who wanted something different and saw the Italians as an opportunity to have that.
Wachtel: There were also soldiers known as askari from Eritrea, Somalia, Libya, and even Ethiopia who fought for the Italians, with the Italians. Were there repercussions? Were they regarded as traitors?
Mengiste: Yes, by Ethiopians they were. They were deeply hated. If an askari was captured by an Ethiopian, their limbs were cut off. It was one arm and one leg, on opposite sides. They were in essence hobbled. It was brutal. And one of my characters, Ibrahim, who was an askari, tells his men, You do not want to be captured by the Ethiopians. It is much better to die. So within the Ethiopian community there were different tensions because of the presence of Italians, because of collaborators, because of people who were seen as traitors, and between Ethiopians and Eritreans were similar tensions.
Wachtel: You were drawn to photography, you said, from an early age, even before you had a camera. That interest has found its way into The Shadow King through the character of the Italian photographer Ettore and in the stand-alone passages that describe his photos. What did you want to explore through this theme of photography?
Mengiste: I went into this book well aware of the power of the image, and also of the way photographs have been used to define people from different colonized nations: Africans, Asians, and so on. The photographs have contributed to a narrative that has helped to enforce or validate violence against groups of people. And Mussolini was aware of the power of photography as he was getting ready to invade Ethiopia. He knew that in order to garner support for this war and for this invasion, he had to convince the Italian people this is a good war, that they need to do this. And so he sent journalists and photojournalists throughout Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia to take photographs and bring back to the Italians these images of an “uncivilized and primitive people” who needed the helping hand of the generous Italians to lead better lives. This invasion of Ethiopia was framed as a civilizing mission, as a way to free people who were enslaved, but also to elevate people they considered uncivilized. It was all done through photographs. And as you said, I’ve always been interested in photography. I’ve been interested in images and what they frame, what they leave out, that grey area in between, and what we can discern by really, really looking at that. It felt like a natural choice for me to make one of my characters a photographer because my questions, looking through the images that the Italians left behind of their war in Ethiopia, were often, Who is this photographer? What was he thinking in this moment? What did he imagine of himself, and what changed or didn’t change as a result of being the taker and the maker of these images? Ettore for me was a fascinating character through which I could explore some of these questions.
Wachtel: And The Shadow King includes descriptions of Ettore’s photos. Are these actually existing images or are they a part of your invention?
Mengiste: I’ve been collecting photographs, taken by Italians, for almost two decades now, so some of these photographs really exist. I own some of them. Others I’ve just seen through my research. There isn’t anything really that doesn’t exist in a photograph. I have, for example, a photograph of a young boy who was captured by the Italians and hanged, and those are the kinds of photographs I saw again and again.
Wachtel: Ettore the photographer stands apart from the other Italians in this story not only because he looks at the world through the lens of his camera but also because he’s Jewish; he assimilated but nevertheless, even though he’s in Africa, he’s not immune to the increased restrictions on Jews imposed by Mussolini back home. Why did you want to bring that element into this story?
Mengiste: I knew this war was colliding with so many other world events and so many other events in Italy. As the war was happening, there was a census being passed out across Italy and then into Italian territories in Africa, and there were antisemitic laws created, and I wondered, At that time, if you were a soldier in the military, what happened to you? And what I found out was that those soldiers who were Jewish in Mussolini’s army eventually were shipped back home because all Jews were banned from public office, from schools, from universities, and from the military. They were shipped back, and then once they arrived, of course, most of them were later sent to the concentration camps in the east, and they perished. I wondered what it might have been like to be a soldier in East Africa, enforcing laws that subjugated one group of people, and then the next year you find yourself subjected to the same laws.
Wachtel: The characters in your novel are often forced to make tough moral choices, but Ettore is asked to document atrocities committed by his countrymen in Ethiopia. On the instructions of the colonel, he photographs Ethiopian prisoners: first a hanged man, as you were alluding to earlier, and then countless other victims forced to jump off a cliff. How does he handle it? How does he justify it?
Mengiste: As the book progresses, I think he becomes aware of the tenuous position he is in as an Italian Jew. Ettore is a soldier, and obedience is one of the basic tenants of being a soldier. And when the colonel, Fucelli, says, Ettore, bring your camera, this is what he does. He does this because he wants to remain a soldier. He doesn’t want to get sent back to Rome. Who knows what will happen to him there. So he finds himself in this very complicated position. I think in retrospect he’s living with this burden of guilt and responsibility and remorse, and he’s trying to figure out how to get beyond that. The war changed him, as well as everyone else. No one was untouched by that, both by the brutality he witnessed but also the brutality he helped enact.
Wachtel: Ettore’s act of photographing each prisoner is a form of bearing witness. So, too, is the recording of their names. And this is something that happens surreptitiously by Ethiopians at the prison before each victim meets his death. Names are very important in this novel and in the culture. Can you talk about that?
Mengiste: There’s something that sticks in my mind of growing up in Ethiopia: periodically I would hear people say, I am this and this, the child of this and this. I am not going to allow this to happen, or This will happen in my name. People swear oaths on the names of people who are deceased. My mother will swear an oath on her mother’s name, which means this is really true, she is not kidding now. Naming and names and where you come from and how you call up the spirits of people who have gone on, based on just saying their name, has always been an important element of identity for me. My last name, Mengiste, is my father’s first name, and because I know his last name, I know his father’s first name. And then if I know that name, I am learning generations of my own lineage through names, and I have always found it a foundation to stand on. It makes me feel solid in this world. Naming is important in Ethiopia. It’s one of the reasons the cook refuses to give her name. She understands the power of that. So when I have scenes in the book of characters who are saying their name before they die, I think to me it’s grounding for them. It’s forcing recognition of who they are but also where they come from, the people they have come from. And I wanted those echoes I’ve heard in my own life to register in the book.
Wachtel: One of the characters in The Shadow King who has many names, many well-known names, is Emperor Haile Selassie. He also appeared in your first novel, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, set in the 1970s. He’s a real person who at the same time is almost a mythical character. Can you talk about your portrait of him? What did you want to convey of his character, his stature?
Mengiste: Haile Selassie is a complicated, controversial figure. When I was thinking of him, in 1935 . . . he’s a young man. He’s hungry for power. I think he’s ruthless. I was trying to figure out, Okay, I think he’s necessary in this book. How do I look at him? One of the early decisions I made in the book was to look at this particular history through the lens of women and girls. They are the centre of the book, of this history I’m writing about. I discovered early into my research a fact I had no idea about before, which was that Haile Selassie had a daughter by the name of Zenebework. She was married at fourteen to a man who was close to fifty years old. Haile Selassie arranged this. He did it for power. He did it to create an alliance with a rivalling family. He thought if he gave his daughter in marriage to this family, to this man, it would solidify his power because then there’d be no more real contention. So this girl was used as a bargaining chip. She did not want to be married to this man. She did not want to be part of that other family. She was sending these messages back home saying, Please, please get me out of here. They’re not treating me well. I’m not doing well here. Haile Selassie chose not to get her. It probably would have caused a lot of disruption between the two families. And she died two years later.
Wachtel: Do we know how?
Mengiste: The common story is that she died in childbirth, but that’s just what everybody says because it’s easier to say that, and lots of women and girls died in childbirth. She was way too young anyway. People have said she died under suspicious circumstances. But what I realized is that she was all but erased completely from the history of that family and from the history of Ethiopia. I’ve only been able to find one photograph of her, which was before she was married off, and even now when I speak to historians, most of them don’t know about her. Haile Selassie never spoke about her. And so I found her as a way into him, into who he might have been in 1935, as a leader who wants to keep power and as a father who knows he has done something really, really wrong, but also as a ruler who feels like he did what he had to do.
Wachtel: I was wondering about the emperor’s devotion to the opera Aida. I know it’s set in a time of war between Ethiopia and Egypt during the rule of the pharaohs. The title character is an Ethiopian princess enslaved in ancient Egypt, in love with a great warrior, Radamès, while longing for her homeland. What do you make of Haile Selassie’s response to the opera? How do you imagine it spoke to him?
Mengiste: I think Haile Selassie was aware of the place of music in wartime as well. I’ve already mentioned the azmariwoch, who could inspire and galvanize communities to believe in the war, could raise morale. Before Ethiopian soldiers went into battle, they sang; they sang of heroism and what they were going to do to the enemy. Women who followed behind the men during battle, collecting the dead, moving the wounded out of the way, sang songs to encourage the men who were up ahead to keep fighting. If anyone turned around to retreat, the songs were so humiliating, I’ve heard, calling that man a coward, saying many different lewd, rude things. Men were terrified of the songs that would be made of them if they retreated. So those songs were pivotal in war.
Haile Selassie was aware of the songs that the Italians sang coming into battle: the songs of what they would do to him when they captured him, the cruelties they envisioned through their music. There was also a song they would sing about Ethiopian women, what they would do to the women and how glad the Ethiopian women would be to have these things done to them. Those songs were syncopated, they were rhythmic, they were catchy tunes, they were played across Italy, they were recorded. Music was instrumental in the war. I remember the first time I saw Aida, of course I liked it. Its pageantry, its pomp and circumstance. It’s this magnificent vision that ends up onstage. The second time I went, I started really paying attention to the story, and it struck me then, How would this young princess, this girl, this Ethiopian woman, who has been enslaved by Egyptians during wartime between her country and Egypt, fall in love with the man who is killing her people? And I thought, I wonder how this might change if an Ethiopian were thinking of this story? How would this change if an Ethiopian rewrote Verdi? And then I thought about what the emperor might think as the father of a princess who was sent somewhere else and kept until she died? How would he read Aida knowing that the Italians were marching in, getting ready to conquer his land and take women and girls? How would he look at Aida when he knew the songs they were singing and also knew that many Italians knew the opera of Aida? He might think, Did Aida shape the way these men think of Ethiopia and the women, and what can I as an emperor learn from Aida by listening to its music and to the music of the Italians? Will the music give me a way to understand the Italian mind? So he becomes fixated on Aida and listens to it again and again and again, both as a distraction and, I also think, as a way of mourning his daughter and trying to come to terms with what happened to her. And as he says at some point in the book, They will never sing of their own defamations. He is well aware of how music also cloaks cruelties.
Wachtel: The Shadow King is framed by scenes from 1974, nearly forty years after the Italian invasion and during another tumultuous period: the political revolution that saw the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie and brought in a repressive, brutal Marxist regime. This was the setting for your first novel, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze. You were a very young child in the 1970s during the Ethiopian revolution, but the events of that period left an impression on you. What do you remember?
Mengiste: They really shaped me, when I think about it. I was in Ethiopia during the early days of the revolution. I was a toddler. I should not remember as much as I remember, but it left its mark on me. I was aware of the tensions and the fears that enveloped my home but also my neighbourhood and my community. I understood that there were police everywhere, there were soldiers everywhere. I understood that people were being arrested. People would just disappear and we never saw them again. I remember the ways that the violence invaded our own home, through soldiers breaking in, and I wasn’t sure what they were looking for, but I knew they were looking for something. When those soldiers broke into our house, trying to find whatever or whoever was in our house, one of the first things they did was come and ask me. They separated me from the adults and asked me because they did not imagine a child could lie, and I knew we had something we were not supposed to have, but I told them we didn’t. That left a mark. I never ever forgot that. When I tried to speak with my parents about that night or other moments, or I tried to talk to my grandparents, nobody wanted to answer my questions. No one wanted to admit that it was possible for me to have remembered that, so I couldn’t piece my memory together with any concrete knowledge, and I think that’s why it haunted me for all these years and I read everything I could on the Ethiopian revolution. I read everything I could on other revolutions around the world, trying to understand my own history and answer my own questions because my family would never talk about it with me.
Wachtel: Your family left Ethiopia when you were four. What happened?
Mengiste: Well, we went to Nigeria. And then we went to Kenya, and we were lucky in the sense that I know people say I fled or My family fled, but my father worked for the airlines, and he requested a transfer, and we got out that way. So I never saw that as fleeing. It was a transfer. We were people who could leave on a legitimate basis, even though it was done in a time of danger and my father asked because it was dangerous. So even now as a writer I think, Is it fleeing or is it leaving? It’s the same question Haile Selassie asks himself. Did he flee or did he leave when he went from Ethiopia to Bath, England? He had a dictionary in Bath that he kept next to him in his bedroom, and I always imagined him opening the dictionary to the words flee and flight and leave, trying to understand his own nature of departure, and that for me is the same case: in all my travels from Nigeria to Kenya into the United States, I have grappled with the questions, Did I leave or did I flee? Am I a refugee or am I an immigrant?
Wachtel: You had an uncle who was killed in Ethiopia.
Mengiste: I had three.
Wachtel: Three. And then when you were in Kenya, you were only seven years old when your parents sent you to the United States. What happened there? Why was that?
Mengiste: My uncles were disappearing and being killed. And being in Kenya, we were not that far away from Ethiopia. The government still had their people in Kenya looking at all the Ethiopian communities there, trying to find revolutionaries or counter-revolutionaries. People were afraid for themselves, so they were turning in other people. I don’t want to get into too much of it, but my family was in that community of people who were deeply afraid, and then slowly we were hearing news of what was actually happening back home, and there were not very many safe spaces at that time around Ethiopia.
Wachtel: Why did they send you alone to the United States?
Mengiste: My mother and my father could not imagine leaving their own families in the state that things were in.
Wachtel: I mean, you were only seven years old. Was it traumatic?
Mengiste: You can imagine, you can imagine. But, you know, I made friends with students from Libya. They took me under their wings. They were fleeing Gaddafi. They helped me understand what was actually happening in Ethiopia because hearing their stories, I understood what was going on with my family. They were terrified when the phone rang. When I was much older and I was talking to other Libyan dissidents, they said, Yeah, Gaddafi’s people would call us. There were spies everywhere, and their people would find where we were, and the phone would ring, and we’d be terrified of who would be on the other end. I would watch these men, these students, pick up the phone and start breaking down in tears because they were being threatened from the other side. I understood that. I saw that. And I never once thought or wondered, Why am I here? I knew why I was in the United States. But I also wished I could go back. I never fully left, even though physically I was in the United States. They helped me really understand that. They became like my brothers—I was their little annoying sister—and I understood through them the connectedness of our history, but what also felt to me very specifically Ethiopian. So it made it much, much easier. I understood exactly why I was there.
Wachtel: And how did they find the place to send you? Because you grew up in this group home run by a Christian couple in a small town in Colorado.
Mengiste: Yes, because other Ethiopians had gone through there, people who were also fleeing the government. Word got around. People were looking at safe houses, safe places.
Wachtel: And you never lived again in Ethiopia.
Mengiste: No. No. And eventually I settled into this American world, American life. I would go back for visits. I stayed connected to my family. It always felt like a home. But I did not live there. The revolution in Ethiopia made any kind of thought of settling there nearly impossible. The dictatorship fell in 1991, and then there was a new regime that was in place, and it was only recently that Ethiopia seems like it might be conducive to actually living there. I know a lot of my friends have gone back in recent years, people who had similar histories to my own. This is what war and conflict does to families. I go back often; I stay for extended periods when I can. So maybe now Ethiopia might change, but my mother was joking with me, or maybe only halfway joking, not long ago, and she said, If America gets too bad you can come home.
Wachtel: What’s it like for you to spend time there, just to be, not to be researching but just to be there?
Mengiste: I like it. I really feel at home there. I think Addis Ababa has changed so much; the traffic is terrible, it’s worse than New York City. You know, it’s a metropolis. It’s cosmopolitan. It gives me a headache because it’s so crowded, but I still feel comfortable there. But when I go to the places where I have done research, when I go to the countryside, when I go into the highlands, I feel something there that I have never felt anywhere else, which is that I belong. Not in Addis. Addis is too chaotic. But when I go into these other places where some of my characters live, it feels like home to me. And that’s a great feeling.
Wachtel: I have a funny question. What do you wish you could have asked your great-grandmother about her experiences during the war?
Mengiste: I was thinking about that the other day. I think I would ask her what it was like to come back. What did it feel like to go as a soldier, with your father’s gun, and come back as a reluctant bride to a man that you do not like, that you don’t know very well?
What was that transition like? For women in warfare, women in Ethiopia and everywhere else, whether it’s these movements of liberation or revolution, when those women come back, who are they and what does that feel like to go back to the home after you’re on the front lines? I would ask her that.
Wachtel: Although you know that she left that husband.
Mengiste: She did leave.
Wachtel: So you know that piece of the story.
Mengiste: We know how she felt.
Eleanor Wachtel is the host and co-founder of CBC Radio’s Writers & Company, now in its twenty-seventh season. She has also published five books of interviews, most recently The Best of Writers & Company (Biblioasis).