by Rhianna Walton, September 12, 2019 12:31 PM
Photo credit: Nina Subin
From its first beautiful sentence — “She does not want to remember but she is here and memory is gathering bones” — Maaza Mengiste’s magisterial The Shadow King
drew me into the stark, dusty sweep of the Second Italo-Ethiopian War. Drenched in the blazing light of near-equatorial Africa, a light that feels almost omniscient as it slants through the narrative, the novel focuses most closely on a female servant named Hirut who becomes a hero of the Ethiopian resistance. Hirut’s evolution from servant to soldier is partly influenced by her masters, Kidane and Aster, both fierce patriots, but also by her anger at her position in Ethiopian society. As a young orphan from a non-aristocratic home, she is subject to servitude and rape; she is, as Aster tells her, born to fit into a world made by others. In Mengiste’s hands, this colonial dynamic — between making the world and being forced to inhabit it — extends, brilliantly, into all of the novel’s relationships, from the nuptial fears of a child bride to the tension between a homicidal army commander and the soldiers wavering between disbelief and submission. The Shadow King
’s scope is vast and cinematic, weaving between Ethiopian soldiers, Mussolini’s troops, Emperor Haile Selassie, and a diverse group of women. It questions the theatre of war and what it means to obey; it questions the roles of women in war, and the various battlefields they traverse; it questions the line between witness and perpetrator. It is the finest and most fascinating novel I have read in a long time, and I hope it lands in many readers’ hands. Powell's is proud to feature The Shadow King
as Volume 82 of Indiespensable
: Though the events in The Shadow King
precede those in your earlier novel, Beneath the Lion's Gaze
, in many ways The Shadow King provides a continuation of certain key themes. For example: the human capacity to inflict and receive violence; the notes of sympathy or tenderness for people who are very wicked, like Colonel Fucelli; a demythologizing of the concept of hero; and an interest in the qualities of light.
I was wondering what it is about these themes that continues to engage you?
Maaza Mengiste: You start with really good questions in the beginning.
Mengiste: I, like every other writer, and maybe every other human being, have my own preoccupations in life. I have the questions that constantly nag at me, because these are questions that I haven't been able to figure out in my own life. These are questions that continually grow more complicated for me the longer that I live, and observe people, and interact with people that I come across in daily life who are strangers, and also people that I love.
I've been really interested in our capacities for violence and compassion. I've been asking these questions through my characters. I'm not sure what prompts that kind of curiosity about the world, but I do feel like we're currently living in a global system that is forcing all of us to question how bad it can get, and how much people and leaders are willing to inflict on each other.
I'm seeing that in real life. I've seen it in Ethiopia, during the early days of the revolution when I was living there. I've also witnessed it in America as an immigrant, as a black person, and as a woman. I've been constantly asking: How much are we going to do to each other before we realize that we are all human, and we all have these capacities to ache, but also to love?
Yes, the book is a continuation of that, even though it goes backwards in time. As a novelist, I think that it's my duty to push myself in terms of the levels of my empathy. You asked about Carlo Fucelli. I want to see in my characters the things that make them very human or very vulnerable — not necessarily nice, but vulnerable — even in their most evil moments. I was working towards that with Fucelli.
Rhianna: I suspect you're going to get a lot of questions about the use of light in The Shadow King. I've never read a novel in which light plays such a cinematic and pivotal role; and it seems to function on many levels.
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It’s a nod to the complex role of photography in the text and the cinematic self-regard certain characters have for themselves; it’s evocative of the Ethiopian climate; and — for me, at least — it seemed like the narrative’s way of highlighting certain fleeting moments, like sudden shifts in a character’s physical position or emotional attitude, that hold a great deal of meaning. In a way, the light often functions the way a photo does: it captures a moment in time that would otherwise be easy to miss.
I know you have a background in film and photography, and was wondering if light plays a large role in the way that you observe the world, and if that’s partly why it’s such an essential element of your writing as well?
Mengiste: I have always been immersed in one way or another in a visual world, whether I understood that that was what I was doing or not. The first time that I wanted to start taking photographs I was just a child. I didn't have a camera.
I gravitate towards images that are black and white. My first memories of my grandfather's house in Ethiopia are memories of me sitting on a sofa and looking up. There were black and white photographs of me when I was a baby, and my mom when she was in high school, and my grandmother and grandfather.
[As I was writing] I thought of memories as snapshots. I was looking at life as if it were, not necessarily framed, maybe, but this interaction between light, and shadow, and a frozen image. I didn't realize that I was doing this until after I had written my first book. I went through it and I said, Oh my gosh. There is light and shadow here. I'm talking about light and dark all the time. For me, it felt like not just a metaphor but also a very physical reality of the world.
I wanted to extend the way I looked at photographs, thought about memory, thought about interpretations of memory, into The Shadow King, and play with art, with photography, and with history as a series of photographs and images.
There was also a saying in Ethiopia that the emperor is like a sun unto his people. There's a Bible verse in Isaiah that says... I'm not going to remember the exact thing. I think it's Isaiah 18:1. It mentions, "Woe to the country that shadows Ethiopia with wings." I thought of that as a metaphor of Italy coming in with these planes and their wings and shadowing the country.
It also felt like a metaphor built into the story of Ethiopia, speaking of the way that light is in the country. One of the slogans of Ethiopian tourism is "It's 13 months of sunshine." Our calendar has exactly 30 days [each month], except there's one month that's 5 days. It's the 13th month.
Thirteen months of sunshine, and I've grown up with that. It felt natural to work all of my interests into this metaphor of light, and also of shadow, and see what I could do with it.
Rhianna: Regarding photography, the novel features several brief chapters, mostly concentrated in Book 3, that describe Ettore’s photographs. I was wondering if they're based on photos that you've seen.
It's hard sometimes to sit with the truths of what you do.
Mengiste: Some of them are part of a collection of photographs that I own. I would look at these and then recreate them on the page. But most of them are things that I've made up.
For example, there's an image of a hanging. That is just a common thing that Italians did. They would leave the bodies up on these gallows. They had portable gallows. I've seen those kinds of images, and I wanted to reproduce them in my own way for that scene. I have several moments like that.
Rhianna: I was really drawn to your use of ekphrasis — it allows for both attention to detail and subjective storytelling. In describing the photographs in such detail (for example, one photo features a woman’s lopsided mouth) the narrator is also able to create a story about it (the woman was hit in the mouth by a soldier just prior to the photo). The reader trusts that this is true, but we don’t know for sure. I don’t know if this was intentional on your part, but it draws attention to the ways we extrapolate the stories we want from the photos we see, much like what happens with the photos of Hirut and Aster that Fucelli circulates among the troops and villages.
Mengiste: That's exactly what I wanted to complicate. I was asking myself also, how much do we really know of what we see? I wanted readers to ask that question, not only in reading these sections of the photos, but the next time you see a photograph of somebody that is a victim, or any part of some conflict, or something that has been used to uphold racist ideals or colonial endeavors.
I want to continue to question what I'm seeing, and this is something that I hoped that I could convey to the reader as well.
Rhianna: You do. It's a little embarrassing — I studied modern Jewish history, so I should know a lot about 20th century conflict and atrocity. But I had never thought about the use of photographs as a tool of colonial oppression or genocide. I couldn't believe that I had never come across that idea before.
Mengiste: The Italians really mastered it. This was part of their war machine. The camera was a weapon, quite literally. They had photographs of seminude or nude East African women, and those were part of the tools used to recruit soldiers for the army to invade Ethiopia: "If you come and join us, this is going to be an easy war, and look what you get as a trophy."
Think about the colonial-era images of West Africa and Africa in general — the language of colonialism has also incorporated images. They’ve been so integrated into the way we speak of other people. It's interesting. Even thinking about the way that Nazi-era Germany continued to use images to justify what they were doing to the Jewish population. And then Mussolini looked at that and began to incorporate not only how the images of Africans were being used, but slowly, you begin to see the incorporation of anti-Semitic images into the Italian pamphlets that were talking not only about Africa, but Italy’s Jewish population.
Rhianna: Ettore’s photography could fit into what’s sometimes called the art of atrocity; he’s proud of his ability to “turn a starkly hideous moment into something else.” As a novelist whose work often engages with violent historical episodes, I was curious about how you approach this act of turning something hideous into something really beautiful that explores that hideousness.
Mengiste: It's interesting, because I think Ettore, at some point, understands that he's an archivist of atrocity. I believe he says something about being an archivist of the dead or the dying. He thinks what he does, by crafting these images in such a way that they become beautiful, is something that might absolve him of his actions.
As a novelist, I can see why he might think that. It's hard sometimes to sit with the truths of what you do. But as a woman who looks at those images that are often beautiful, I realize that it's not catering to some higher purpose, necessarily, other than that the assumed male viewer gets something very nice to look at.
It doesn't complicate the subject; it merely dresses it up nicely. I think as a novelist, as a writer, what I want to do with these images is not only craft them in a way that might be beautiful, but I want to complicate them at the same time, so that I make the experience as uncomfortable as possible. So that once you leave the page, you're considering it the next time you see someone else objectified or subjugated.
Rhianna: I was so impressed by how diverse and nuanced the cast of characters are in this book, from Hirut to Ettore to the female chorus. One of my favorites was the cook — she’s so unusual, enigmatic, courageous, and self-serving at the same time. What inspired her, and how did you develop her character?
Mengiste: I think that I've known women like her. While writing this book, I've often thought, I don't know if I know weak women. I know women who have been pushed off to the side, and I know women who, in one way or another, have been silenced. I'm not sure that necessarily makes them weak. I wanted to craft the cook as this character who hasn't been able to make her own decisions in much of her life, but she is going to make the decisions that she can, until she can finally do exactly what she wants.
I've known women like that. I've known women who have been of such low status, like the cook, servants in households, who have been mistreated, pushed aside, ignored, and yet, in the end — I'm thinking of at least one or two — I have seen them just say, "Enough." They move on, and they have their say.
I wanted to honor them, but also honor people, particularly in Ethiopian society, which tends to be very class conscious and conscious in terms of ethnicity, who have been ignored, been shut down. But that doesn't mean they're weak. That means at some point, they'll have a voice. The cook has that.
Rhianna: Was the cook hard to write? Did you find yourself spending a lot of time on her?
How much do we really know of what we see?
Mengiste: I really did. I was struggling with how to convey her in a way that was complicated and that would pull out the parts of her that I found confusing, but attractive, confounding, and fascinating. At some point as I was writing her, I almost heard her voice say, "I can't believe that you don't realize how angry I am."
I was like, Oh, my god. She's angry. Then that changed everything as soon as I had that emotion. She still felt a sense of loyalty, in some ways, to Aster, but I think for the cook, as much as she despised the position she had been put in in life, she didn't want to see other human beings suffer the way she had in any way. She acts with that regard.
Rhianna: Another character I’m intrigued by is Emperor Selassie, because he's a historical figure and one whom you've written about before. How much freedom did you give yourself in crafting his personality, thoughts, and actions, and how closely did you feel you needed to stick to the historical record?
Mengiste: My rendering of Haile Selassie is really a fictional character in many ways. I have chosen to think of him as somebody who is in many ways enacted upon by history, partly because I want to put him under pressure and see what he does as a fictional character.
Meaning, I've stayed close to history in terms of his movements, but I've always been curious about why he left Ethiopia in the middle of the war, or what was called the end by Italy. Ethiopia had not officially surrendered. There is one side that says, "Well, he left because this war had to be fought on a diplomatic level, as opposed to a purely military one." Then there's another side that says, "Ethiopia has never fought without their leader, and this emperor fled. He ran away."
I wondered about what he might feel, understanding that those were the two sides. I wanted to render somebody that felt the tug of both of those choices: "I have to go, but who can deny that what I've done is actually flee?" I wanted to force those questions on him. I don't know if that's what he thought, but I think it's a question that he had to have dealt with or answered. I wanted to push along that path.
In terms of his return to Ethiopia on May 5, 1941, that is accurate. I've wondered what he felt like, looking at all these fighters who fought when he didn't, and what he might have thought when he saw the women who were also a part of that. I am pretty sure there were women that greeted him also, female fighters.
Rhianna: In your author's note, you mention that your great-grandmother successfully sued her father for his gun and the right to be a soldier, which is an incredible story. Given that women have largely been written out of Ethiopian military history and that — at least within the world of the novel — they were often subject to domestic oppression and abuse, it amazed me that she could win and she could fight within that context.
Mengiste: I know. When I heard the story, I was really surprised. It did not compute with the rights that a child bride would have.
I don't know what arguments she presented before the judges. Those are gaps in family history that I have. All I know is that she went to these judges in her area, and she won. Who knows? The judges may not have liked her husband.
Also, in Ethiopia, girls are married young, but they can leave their husbands without any stigma. My great-grandmother could marry again, if she wanted, and marry of her own choice. That was something that women, girls, did once they got out of a marriage. At some point early on, she returned from the front lines, or from helping with the war, and said, "I don't want to marry him anymore," and it was fine. That's just how it is.
Rhianna: That helps put the Selassie narrative into perspective for me, regarding his relationship with his daughter Zenebework.
Mengiste: She had all of these other obligations; she wasn't just a girl; she was also representing a ruling family. There was no way he was going to let her marriage fall apart.
I was talking to somebody, an Ethiopian who has children. I was telling him this history about Haile Selassie, which is not really known. I don't know if Haile Selassie ever really wanted to talk about Zenebework after her death. When I was telling him this, he kept saying, "What father would do this to his daughter? What kind of father would do this?" Not letting her come home or even marrying her to a man who's 40-something? It's a question that I wanted Haile Selassie to ask. He didn't let her come back and she died.
Rhianna: Knowing that culturally her return was allowable deepens his guilt.
Rhianna: Speaking of the domestic sphere, in different ways, Aster, Hirut, the cook, Fifi — and judging by the Chorus, many Ethiopian women in the world of the novel — wage ongoing battles for autonomy, power, and in defense of their bodies. I was fascinated by how their domestic battles could occur in tandem with their elevation within the resistance army, and by how — thinking especially of Hirut’s relationship with Kidane — the battlefield became a place to act on private grievances.
Mengiste: Yeah. In answer to the first question about how the fighters still had their own personal battles to fight domestically, I was thinking also of the history of revolutionary fighters, freedom fighters, resistance fighters around the world, where women are a part of these groups. There are countless stories of women going out and fighting with the men, and then coming back and being treated as sexual conquest, sexual objects. Because they were still, in the end, just bodies, either for war or for pleasure.
This felt, to me, like something I needed to convey as honestly as I could with these characters. I wanted to see how each of them contended with it in their own way. Hirut begins to understand that her body is a battleground, that she is contested territory as much as the ground she's running across is contested. If she can't control her living body, maybe the only thing she can do is make it dead. I think that that's part of the impetus for her as a fighter in battle.
Rhianna: In a lot of the advance press for The Shadow King I’ve seen references to this being a female narrative or a women-as-heroes story. I see where that reading is coming from, but, for me at least, it restricts the novel unnecessarily. Although the book features heroic women, it’s the collective that’s ultimately the book’s hero: the prisoners and fighters who together were the power behind the Shadow King.
It's my duty to push myself in terms of the levels of my empathy.
Is this a female story to you? How do you feel about it being framed in that way?
Mengiste: That's very funny. Thank you for asking that. That's astute.
I don't see it as just a story about women. I understand that Hirut is at the core of this story and Hirut is a soldier. Aster is a soldier, and Fifi is a fighter in her own way, so we have these female characters.
I wanted to write a book that felt almost symphonic, that felt like an orchestral piece, where each thing was working together to create a whole.
Midway through drafting this book, I just hit a wall. I wasn't sure how to render Carlo Fucelli; I wasn't sure how to get into the character of Ettore. It was difficult for me to think about how to move in the skin of a racist and misogynist like Fucelli, how to move into Ettore and what he was doing. I thought, Let me just put them aside. What if I just cut them out of the story completely, or Kidane, and let them go, let this be a story that's just about women?
I couldn't do it, because I started realizing that if I wanted to tell a story about this war, and tell a complicated story, I needed to incorporate these complex voices that would push against even the female characters and force them to develop even more. I needed Ettore and I needed Carlo and I needed the male figures. I needed Aklilu and Seifu, I really needed them in this story, because this is what war is, this is conflict. It's more than just one group of people.
Rhianna: I like the fact that you just used the words "orchestral" and "symphonic," because that's exactly how it felt to read it.
One of the things that blew me away about this book is that you were able to successfully incorporate so many disparate narrative elements and techniques, like the ekphrasis we spoke about, and the interludes and chorus, which are borrowed from music, and the complex cast of characters. The Shadow King is such a lush, symphonic novel that models and conveys the complexity of what it must have been like to be in Ethiopia at that time.
Mengiste: Thank you. Those were elements that felt central to the way that I approached my questions about history and memory, about how we remember, why we remember. We remember what we see and we remember what we hear. We remember things that tend to be put into song.
One of the first things beginning language learners will do is learn music, learn songs, so that, once the words are put into a rhythm, you can remember them and then you can learn to translate them. From that, I was thinking of the opera Aida, and then of the songs that Italians would sing as they marched into war, and then the battle songs that Ethiopians would sing as they marched into war. This all just felt very natural. The trick was to make it work.
I spoke with Maaza Mengiste on August 15, 2019.
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Maaza Mengiste is a novelist and essayist. She is the author of the The Shadow King, called “a brilliant novel...compulsively readable” by Salman Rushdie. Her debut novel, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, was selected by The Guardian as one of the 10 Best Contemporary African Books and named one of the Best Books of 2010 by Christian Science Monitor, Boston Globe, and other publications. She is the recipient of fellowships from the Fulbright Scholar Program, the National Endowment for the Arts, and Creative Capital. Her work can be found in The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, Granta, The Guardian, The New York Times, Rolling Stone, and BBC, among other places. Maaza’s fiction and nonfiction examines the individual lives at stake during migration, war, and exile, and considers the intersections of photography, memory, and violence. She was a writer on the documentary projects, Girl Rising and The Invisible City: Kakuma.