AiW Guests: Korranda Harris & Birhanu Gessese
Maaza Mengiste is an Ethiopian-American writer who has published two novels: Beneath the Lion’s Gaze (2010) and The Shadow King (2019). Mengiste’s fiction paints engaging portraits of life and engages with the themes of war, memory, sacrifice, and familial bonds. In particular, her fiction explores often overlooked histories of her native Ethiopia, paying tribute to the history of its hard-won independence.
Named as one of Time’s must-read novels of 2019, The Shadow King has received rave reviews and been praised for its striking look at the cost of war and female strength. Narrated by the orphan-turned-soldier Hirut during Mussolini’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia prior to World War II, Mengiste presents a wonderfully layered tale about women at war and the lengths one will go to for freedom.
We had the opportunity to speak with Maaza Mengiste about The Shadow King, the complex positioning of women in times of war, the competing narratives of history, and her evolving literary voice.
Korranda Harris & Birhanu Gessese for AiW: In The Shadow King, there are many-layered stories and histories. Why is that composition integral to the storytelling, and what is the bigger role it plays?
Maaza Mengiste: One of the things that I decided, very, very, very early in my approach was to write a book that reflected history as a series of voices that sometimes conflict. I didn’t want to tell a story that was linear. History itself is not linear. It has different narratives colliding, intersecting, and joining, which leave gaps. It means myths, legends, and falsehoods. I really wanted to reflect on the mythic quality of memory and history as one of the many ways that we remember, even if it may not necessarily be the way it happened.
So here in The Shadow King, the chorus steps in. The chorus was also reflecting and paying honor to the Ethiopian Azmari [a traditional singer-songwriter who uses the Masenqo, a single-string bowed lute], who traveled from place to place, singing history. They know the people, they know who’s having a child, who has lost a husband, who’s having an affair, who is doing this. I wanted to reflect on the way they preserved the memories and histories of a community. The structure came as a result of the consideration of history, narratives, and storytelling. I was really looking at Ethiopian culture and the ways that the Azmari and music have helped continue our stories for us, even when we might have forgotten them.
What is the importance of storytelling in a contemporary context? Do you think you are doing the same thing as the Azmari?
I thought of this book as a song. I laid it out as a series of voices that come into an overall piece. I’m really interested in the ways that we remember. For example, Haile Selassie was known for his memory, but I am almost convinced that he was using the methods that Simonides described as a Memory Palace. This is the way the Jesuits taught the students, the children of royal families, and Haile Selassie was trained by Jesuits. Memory can also be a weapon. It was taught to the children of royal families because this skill to remember is a skill that can help you take, or get, power and maintain it.
There is a phrase that runs through the book, that ‘there is no way out but through it’. We are wondering how you would characterize your use of this. Is it a refrain? A commentary on life as a woman? Or is it just a phrase specific to women at war?
Initially, I was thinking what would be the refrain that goes through that might be repeated at different levels, different octaves? The characters repeat this phrase in different contexts: they say it before they are soldiers, and then while they are soldiers. It’s something that represents, on one hand, what it means to be a woman or a girl facing something. And something that you know that you can’t get out of it: so there’s no way out but through it. But I also gave that same line to Carlo Fucelli and to Ettore’s father because I wondered, how does each person interpret this? All of them become stuck at some point. I was curious to see how that refrain played out in these other voices.
In the New York Times review of your novel, Namwali Serpell notes that the ‘problem of the woman at war [lies in] the fundamental opposition of being the ultimate cause versus the ultimate victim, of power versus precarity’. How did you respond to this dilemma in your novel?
I think the women in my book, but also just women in general, have been both the trophies as well as the casualties in the context of war or conflict. When an invading force comes into a town, a city, a village, one of the first things they do is take and rape the women and the girls. Women are contested territory as much as land is. And the enemy will assault them and inflict violence on them because those women represent other men; they represent that land. So there is that situation that Serpell is talking about being both victim and caretaker. I was looking at this middle ground where women actually begin to do something as a result of what they know will happen to them. I do see those two extremes, and we’ve always spoken of war and women in those two extremes, but I knew that there were other instances where women were doing something unexpected.
We see in the novel that there are conflicts between women in Kidane’s household, between Aster and Hirut. Do you find it difficult to write uncharitable women?
I don’t think it’s difficult for a writer — it’s fun. You want those complicated characters because women are complicated; human beings are complicated. It is literally the most boring thing to make a character who’s completely terrified or completely victimized because that’s not who we are. And Aster would like to think of herself as a legend and mythic, but she is really complicated and not so nice, especially the way she treats Hirut. I’m not sure that Aster necessarily completely changes as the book progresses, but she does begin to understand something about herself and about Hirut. When we’re speaking about Aster, we’re looking at somebody who was subjected to the rules of patriarchy. We’re also looking at somebody who benefited from those rules and then inflicted her own power on women like the cook because she was of a higher status.
Speaking of the cook, would you mind giving more insight into her voice and characterization?
She’s so many women I know in Ethiopia, in other cultures too, whose worth is completely tied to their usefulness in the household. Even when they have names, they remain nameless; they’re interchangeable beings within the house. I wanted a character who was like that but who stood up and said enough. She has a code of ethics, despite everything, which I found very interesting to work with. I find her as complicated as Aster and Hirut, but because she seems to be establishing her own codes of living, she seems to have more control over herself by the end.
Considering African literature’s appeal to the international market, what approach have you taken to utilizing multiple languages?
When I submitted the book I was paying close attention to what my editor would say about the languages. I wondered if she would say ‘Well, we don’t understand this Amharic, you have to put the English translation.’ Nobody said anything. And I said, ‘Okay, I am leaving it.’
I’ve just had a really interesting conversation with a Habesha woman at Asmara-Addis Literary Festival here in Brussels. She speaks Amharic and said, ‘Thank you for not translating some of the things in Italian. You made me sit in my confusion. You chose not to translate these things and I appreciate that.’ I thought that was really interesting. I think American or European audiences are used to reading things in their own languages; they don’t know what to do with their confusion when they see a different language. Those of us who speak more than one language are quite comfortable reading within context. I wanted the book to force a little bit of that on the non-Amharic speaking audience by using those words without feeling like I was exoticizing the book. I’m using more Amharic than I was using in Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, but I didn’t want to move into this other territory where audiences decide to pick up this book because of all the Amharic words in it.
In an interview for The Guardian in 2020, you mentioned authors including Homer, Vladimir Nabokov and Shel Silverstein as points of inspiration. We were wondering if you have any particular Ethiopian influences? For example, the expansiveness of your work is evocative of Bealu Girma.
I’ve been educated within either a British or an American system. My introduction to Ethiopian literature came really on my own: finding things by myself when I was in high school, in college and then continuing after that. I wish that my writing was in any way connected or reminded anyone of Bealu Girma. That’s such a compliment!
Ethiopian writers that are important to me include Dagnachew Worku. I remember reading him at some point in college for self-designed independent study, so I could live with Ethiopian literature. The allegories that were within his stories seemed simple, but they were not so simple, and I was influenced by that. There’s so much more than what you think you’re looking at. You have to look at it again and again and again and think about the context, the cultural and historical context. I was really inspired by that.
I also find Tsegaye Gabre-Medhin’s work rich and powerful. I quoted him in Beneath The Lion’s Gaze, and continue to look at his works.
But for me, partly it’s also Ethiopian music. And it’s the way that Ethiopian singers can convey emotion across different notes happening almost at once. They do it in a way that I’ve tried to describe in my writing. I see it as a type of language. I’ve thought about the way that a voice moves from one note to another and shivers. How can one language do something like that? When I’m saying something but it’s actually registering in these different notes as well? In that sense, my work has been influenced by my culture.
But I have to be honest, I think that most of my literary influences come from the stories that my parents and my family would tell sitting around a table. I grew up with fantastic storytellers, my aunts can still make me laugh. It’s just the voice, the inflections, which are not in English. The way the voice goes higher and higher when something funny is going to happen. I want to write like that. They have been my influence, these storytellers. They are writers, but they don’t need paper. What I hold close are their voices which I would hear when I was writing; I’d think about how I could make language sweep up and down in a rhythm like they speak.
This speaks to the rich potential of Ethiopian language and literature in relation to storytelling. Ethiopians have stuck to their own repertoire, which may be why they have not seen much inclusion in a wider African literary canon. Do you believe this has to do with the history of colonialism, where English has not necessarily taken root in Ethiopia?
Look at Ghana or Nigeria and their availability in the United States and England and wherever English is spoken. It goes back to that history of colonialism, to the languages taught in the schools, to the migrations that were happening as a result of the presence of Britain in these countries. Think about the history of migration in Ethiopia. People were not leaving until the mid-70s. We’re just coming into a generation, or maybe the second generation now, of the children of these immigrants in the US who are beginning to explore the liberal arts.
It’s slowly happening but I wish it would happen faster because we do need that. Storytelling is a skill and a talent that is in Ethiopia. It’s in the diaspora.We need to encourage those who want to do this and figure out ways to provide training and exposure.
Toni Morrison often spoke of embracing the title of a ‘black’ author and accepting everything that came with it. Do you embrace the title of an ‘African’ author?
I’ve had people ask me, ‘Are you an Ethiopian? Are you an American?’ And I would say, ‘I’m both’. It’s almost like asking, ‘Are you a child of your mother or child of your father’. It’s very possible to be completely one and completely another, and to be both at the same time, and to be something that is unique because of the combination of those two. I see myself as an Ethiopian. I’m black. I’m an immigrant. I’m American.
If we do not put a hyphen between Ethiopian and American, I would agree with that. Some people want to say I’m an Ethiopian writer. I don’t take offense at all to that because I am. Someone wants to say I’m an American writer, I say okay. I’m pushing the boundaries of what it means to be American and I’m forcing a new kind of definition and that’s also good. We need to broaden our view of what makes an American, especially now. So I‘m less concerned with these issues.
When I was a new writer, the idea of African-ness was loaded with what I felt were a lot of stereotypes that I would have to answer to at festivals before I could even speak about my book. I became frustrated with that. Now there are so many other writers from the African continent, from the diaspora, really forcing conversations to get more sophisticated. We’re forcing the audiences to become more sophisticated. There’s still a lot of work to do and it still can be frustrating. But I’m less concerned with it and just comfortable with who I am. I find it interesting when audiences need to figure out what I call myself before they can read my work. And that, for me, is a deficiency on the part of the audience, not mine.
How would you say your literary voice has evolved over the ten years since your first novel was published and, in the light of that, how would you expect it to evolve over the next ten years? Do you see a pattern of evolution?
I have been working on pushing myself as a writer so that nothing stays static. Partly because as a human being, I’m growing. I’ve read more books than ten years ago. All of these influences — the music, the books, the theatre that I see, the places that I travel, the conversations I have with people — have formed me these past ten years. And you know no one stays static, so language should not be static. As a writer, I should not stay within a comfort zone. My goal is to continue to push myself. I pushed myself with The Shadow King particularly in terms of structure. In the first book, I was writing in such a way to prepare myself to do something different in the second book, in the second book I was writing in such a way to prepare myself for something different in the third book. It’s all a progression. I’m not writing just one book, I’m trying to work towards growth as a writer in general.
Korranda Harris is an American junior studying Communications and Professional Writing at Purdue University. She is an avid reader and writes short fiction in her free time with the hopes of publishing her first short story collection. She has written for the Purdue University’s Exponent, serves as a committee member of Purdue’s undergraduate literary journal The Belltower, and a member of the Haraka Writers, a spoken word performance ensemble.
Birhanu T. Gessese is an Ethiopian junior studying Bachelor of Humanities at Kenyon College, USA. He was born and raised in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He is currently on a year abroad studying English Literature at the University of Exeter. He likes to compose stories, work with the camera and illustrate using an ink pen.
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