“This History Has Not Had its Reckoning Yet”: An Interview With Maaza Mengiste

Maaza Mengiste

Since mid-2019, it’s been a busy literary time for Maaza Mengiste. Her novel The Shadow King, recently released in paperback, is set in Ethiopia in 1935, when Italy invaded. Blending a bold historical scope with questions of identity and gender, the result is a thrilling read — and one which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. This year also saw the release of the new anthology Addis Ababa Noir, which Mengiste edited; it’s a taut collection of thrilling stories that encompasses modes from the realistic to the uncanny. I spoke with Mengiste about her recent work, translation, and what’s next for her.

Relative to other anthologies of crime fiction or other volumes in the Akashic Noir series is,I was struck by how the stories here range from very realistic to more uncanny. How did you define noir for the purposes of this book?

Noir is not really a genre that’s familiar in Ethiopian literature. It’s not really part of it. One of the things that I had to do was figure out a way to explain it without hindering what kind of interpretation might come from that. I told the writers that noir stories were detective stories, they were stories with a mystery, some kind of suspense, but there was no moral at the end of the story. There’s no “this is the way to live.” It’s not Aesop’s fables. I told them that they could take this in any way they wanted, and that these stories tended to highlight disruptions and disturbances in society; they were dark stories. I said, how would you interpret that? And that’s all the direction I gave them. What they came back with was fascinating. 

How familiar had you been with the writers with whom you worked with for the project?

I know some of them personally, like Mikael Awake, Hannah Giorgis, and Mahtem Shiferraw; we had communicated, or we’d met, or I’m friends with them. Sulaiman Addonia — I knew him, knew his work. But there were others, like Adam Reta, who is like an institution in Ethiopian literature. He is very well known. He’s brilliantly talented. Everyone knew him in Ethiopia, but no one knew him here. I didn’t know him personally, but of course I knew of his work. He was one of the people that I got to know as a result of this anthology. And then there were people like Lelissa Girma, whom I knew a little bit by name, but got to know. Linda Yohannes — I was aware of her work and had communicated with her before. Since this anthology, Girma Fantaye and I have worked together on a couple of projects.

Did your idea of what the book was going to be change over the course of your work on it? 

Akashic has a pretty standard Noir edition. I knew the format and the structure of this anthology, but as I started working with the writers and started editing, the stories really started to take shape. I wanted them to push themselves a little bit to explore whatever thing the story seemed to be nudging towards, but not quite doing. I wanted to encourage them to take some risks, and not be afraid to write what they wanted. And so in that sense, from the first edits to the final edits showed a vast range in terms of what the writers were doing. It was fantastic to watch; really inspiring. 

You mentioned that some of the writers you were working with in this book are well-known in Ethiopia, but not necessarily in the States. As an editor, is there a challenge in realizing that the work that you have commissioned may be certain readers’ first encounter with an author who has a very imposing body of work behind them? 

I think that any way to get these writers out into a wider audience was welcomed — on my end, and I think on theirs as well. I mean, you have someone like Adam Reta, you have Lelissa Girma. You have Girma Fantaye, who’s written four or five novels already, and they’re in Amharic. To have this short story translated into English, I think it was an opportunity for him to be read in English. And since then, his work has been translated in several languages. That one story has been translated in Brazil into five or six different languages. I think those are positive steps with this. And Lelissa Girma has had work published now in the Johannesburg literary review. So I think that the stories are getting legs and traveling, and I’m happy about that. And I really hope that publishers and editors see the talent that’s in this anthology and reach out to these writers. 

Are there a number of people working to translate between Amharic and English in the literary community today?

Not yet. And I really, really hope it changes. I think that that is one of the things that those of us interested in Ethiopian literature need to work on and develop. It’s something that Girma Fantaye and I have co-founded — Addis Ababa Literature House in Addis Ababa. This pandemic slowed things down, but we want to create workshops for translators in Ethiopia. Ethiopians translating Ethiopians in more than just Amharic — in the different languages that are being widely used in the country. I’m well aware of the dearth of that and am hoping to promote and develop that.

Photography plays a big role in many of the stories in the anthology. Photography also plays a big role in The Shadow King. And I was curious to know your thoughts on the relationship between photography and fiction,and what it means to write about one artistic discipline in the context of a different artistic discipline. 

Both of them are narratives. Photography is a narrative; it’s a visual language. And when that merges with literature, with fiction, I think there’s an opportunity for more complicated discourse. I think one can reveal and expose the trappings of the other. I found it in The Shadow King and also in this story that I wrote for the anthology. I’ve found that really interesting territory to explore: the visual, how we see, and how we begin to communicate what we see. I think those things still have to be explored, because that’s played a really big part in how we imagine ourselves, how we imagine our past, and how we imagine other people from different countries, how we’ve looked at them.

Since The Shadow King was first published, I’ve been reading more and more about Italy’s occupation of Ethiopia in the 1930s. Recently, I was reading about the protests surrounding a statue of Indro Montanelli in Milan. What was it like to release this book — set at a particular moment in history — and then see an increased awareness of that same moment in history that you were writing about come to pass? 

This history has not had its reckoning yet. The book got published and it felt like the conversations just exploded to the forefront — but really, these conversations were developing and in Italy already with Italians who could trace their heritage to Ethiopians and Eritreans and Somali. These conversations were already there, but it’s an uncomfortable history for most Italians and they would rather choose to ignore it. And I’m not the only one writing this history. There’s also Igiaba Scego and Gabriella Ghermandi. We’ve been in conversations with each other personally, but also through our work about this moment. It feels like everything has come to a head because the world is creeping back into authoritarianism. 

Italy is beginning to recognize itself in these steps. It’s recognizing its past history in the way that the right wing has come up under Salvini. And people are taking notice of those statues the same way we are here in the United States. The Black Lives Matter movement and the protests and uprisings have forced a reckoning with what we have chosen to honor through art, through sculptures, and how we want to shape memory by the way that we recreate these men into statues and in the history books. So it feels like my book is part of a series of conversations that have already been happening.

But I have to tell you that when that Indro Montanelli statue was defaced — he was one of the first Italian books I read. He wrote about his experiences in the war and they were so twisted and so racist and so condescending and violent. I thought, it’s about time. I didn’t even realize the statue was still there in that park. So it was an uncanny coincidence, but it’s as a result of all these other conversations. 

The Shadow King deals with a particular historical moment, and then factors in another one due to its structure. And a number of the stories in the anthology also deal with particular moments in history. Is there a period of history that you think you might be drawn to for future projects, or do you see yourself exploring the contemporary moment going forward? 

When I got done with this book, when I sent off that final manuscript, I sent it to my editor and I closed my computer and I said, I’m done with historical research. I’m done. I’m never going back into the archives. And, I’ll never say never — but I think I’m right back in it. I didn’t think I would have the energy or the excitement that I do about certain moments. I’m looking at what I might really want to settle into, but the energy is coming back and that excitement, that enthusiasm, is growing. And I did not think it would. So I think history is back again. I hope it’s shorter, though. 


Photo: Nina Subin

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