Literatea is an interview series which brings together prominent and emerging voices in African writing, editing, publishing, translation, marketing, distribution, and retail to discuss the craft of bringing African storytelling to the continent and the rest of the world. From award-winning novelists and poets to literary agents and editors, from indie publishers and booksellers to prize juries—Literatea pours the first cup and stirs the conversation.
In this second interview, film, political power, archival memory, and the role of fiction in historical representation are stirred together by Maaza Mengister, the author of an ambitious book about war, memory, and violence—the Booker Prize-shortlisted The Shadow King (2019).
Maaza Mengiste is a novelist and essayist. Her debut novel Beneath the Lion’s Gaze (2010) 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 has held 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, and Rolling Stone among other places. She was a writer on the documentary projects, Girl Rising and The Invisible City: Kakuma.
The first part of this interview can be read here: Literatea 02 – Part 1: The Journey Is The Joy.
RÉMY NGAMIJE: You know what? When I was young I thought the past was black and white because the historical documentaries I watched did not have colour. I thought colour was something that started much later, or that it was a sign of the present. It never occurred to me until much later that history’s depiction was dependent on the means available to record and represent it. Now, of course, everything is rendered in high resolution and with sound. I am curious to know what it was like working with the photographic archives from the Italo-Ethiopian War as you were conducting your research for The Shadow King. Did the aged photographs feel distant and bygone? Or did your imagination imbue them with all the features of immediacy? Because in your writing there is plenty of colour (and interplays between light and dark).
MAAZA MENGISTE:You know what? Now I feel like a historical remnant! But seriously, when I was young, my first exposure to the present was through black and white studio photographs that were hanging in our sitting room in Addis Ababa. One of those photos was of me, and so I imagined a part of my existence in black-and-white.
MM: I did not consider there was a stark difference between the color-version of myself and the black and white version. They could exist simultaneously. I find the high-res, volume-up rendering of some of the images popular today to be jarring, as if we need amped up color to substitute for emotions that may not have been present in the photos on display. As if happiness and colour can be interchangeable.
When I looked at the photographs that inspired The Shadow King, I went back to a way of seeing that I used as a child: open, seeking, assuming this, too, was part of the present. Colour often feels distracting to me. It leads my eye away from what I should be seeing: the actual event, and I begin to think about how good something looks next to something else.
There are people who have become famous for colourising black and white photographs. They seem to do it without hesitation. As if to view in colour is a given, as if there is no other way to see something. As if we are incapable of comprehending a moment without having it translated for us. Do we need something colourised to feel emotions for the past? What does colour do except reflect a part of our current world back to us? Do we need that to comprehend the past…a mirroring? I wonder what has happened to our imagination if we cannot sense the past—especially past catastrophes—without the help of colour.
RN: Do you find that black and white photography generally has an archival feel? Like, if something is black and white then it is real-real. Historic. Factual. Indisputable. With a lot of my current work, especially my portraiture and street photography, I find black and white to have a documentary feel, if that makes sense.
MM: I used to, but I do not anymore. Partly because I have seen so many contemporary artists working with black and white. And maybe because I do, too. I find black and white film wonderful to work with. I enjoy shooting with my old camera, and I think part of the appeal is the way it slows me down and makes me push aside all else except the lines, the light, the shadows, the subject. I love that you are working with black and white, too. I think, in general, we imagine photos in black and white to be stripped of artifice, which colour is assumed to contain. Black and white photos move us out of the world of “Oh it’s so pretty” to “Oh this is important”. Of course, that is not necessarily true. There are photos in colour that hold historic and important value. Those in black and white can be simply pretty. Such photography has a gravitas because it harkens back to the days of the past, to those images that made some of the noted photographers like Gordon Parks, Malik Sidibe, Tina Modotti, Jean Depara, Re Soupault, and others so famous. Yet it also feels like a direct approach to whatever idea I am considering as I make a photo. It is undiluted, in a sense.
RN: That “undiluted” nature of black and white photography is, I guess, the elusive phrasing I was looking for. You explain it wonderfully.
In The Shadow King you render Ettore’s work in prose. I am hesitant to call the descriptions captions because they do much more than that, especially when they are combined with the absence of the physical visual narratives. For me, this had a strange effect: instead of that old cliché about a picture saying a thousand words (meh!) I found myself trying to fill your words with the proposed imagery. Of course, I could not accurately imagine the horror captured in Ettore’s photographs. Fam, that was some serious and, probably, harrowing writing for you. What process did you use to select the photographs that would form part of the narrative? And how did you choose what to describe?
MM: Bruh, this is a difficult question.
RN: Yaas! I am finally one of the literati!
MM: I have to think about this.
I was guided by the narrative when thinking of what photographs (word images) to include in The Shadow King. I had certain images in my head when I first started the book, images that would really render the horror of Italy’s invasion and the war. I wanted the brutality to be crystal clear, without a doubt. But you know, as I moved into the book, I decided to go where the story led me and I worked with what my characters laid out for me. What unfolded was a more brutal horror than I could have imagined because of the intimate nature of the violence. It was a deliberate series of actions meant to break the spirit of a community, of a nation, by destroying human beings one at a time. I had not imagined that before. I thought of the violence in large sweeps: happening at a distance, impersonal, cold. But I was confronted with how deeply connected the violence was to who the perpetrators were, and who the victims were. Acts of cruelty were tailored. It was a breathtaking and painful realisation. I did not want to use real photographs to depict this, I wanted the subjects to speak back, to offer us a closer glimpse into the intimate, particular nature of what was happening to them.
RN: The personal nature of the violence in The Shadow King is one of the things that made the story transcend the distant, impersonal, cold, and sweeping nature some historical narratives have. It is not that some large, unknown mass of Ethiopians were killed (which is what I know from the general history) but that a boy, a man, a woman, twins, an old man were killed in calculated ways; it is a visceral reading experience. In writing that sequence of events, did you imagine the possible effects it could have on the reader?
MM: I was experiencing some of those possible effects writing those scenes, and I did not think that words alone could convey what I was imagining. I felt the inadequacy of words in those moments. I did not convey enough, not enough to really illustrate the extent of brutality and suffering. I felt I had reached the limits of language, or at least my abilities with language. I was a little surprised to learn from readers later that they felt the impact of the violence. I felt, instead, the distance between words and the imagination. So thank you for telling me how those moments read to you.
RN: Tracking back to the archives, I am curious to know what you think of the distance between the histories contained therein and the people who are recorded and portrayed in them. Part of Namibia’s history is locked in archives many Namibians will never see. I have this weird feeling that our own Shadow King is locked away in some box somewhere in Germany. In writing the novel, I think it was some way of bringing the archives out of their slumber and making this particular story and its take on history more accessible to readers (Ethiopians and Africans in general, and everyone else in particular).
MM: Librarians are my heroes. So many have worked so hard to make archives available online to the rest of us. But there is a lot of work to do and the process of digitising archives is just one step. We need to provide access to those files to people across the world, particularly across Africa. I had to travel to archives ten years ago. Some of those archival materials are still not available online, and worse, they have been moved and shuttled between institutions and now it is hard to find them.
RN: This is something I think about often; not knowing where the heck such information is even kept. And even if I did, would I be able to get to it?
MM: How do we change the difficulties of access and use? Those archives tell an African history and those countries who were documented by colonizing forces now need direct and free access to their own stories, however distorted or incomplete they might be.
RN: That is the whole sermon right there.
Fam, we need to talk about Fifi. Where did you find this woman? Hirut, obviously, is the star of the story, and we will get to her shortly. But Fifi is my favourite character for many reasons, chief among them being her proximity to danger throughout the story. Do you think it was just her femininity which helped to shield her (like small Hobbits from the Eye of Sauron—mandem should have kept ten toes in The Shire, now see his life!) from Carlo Fucelli?
MM: A thousand songs need to be made for women like Fifi. No one asks about her, really, so thanks for asking!
I knew women like her existed: women who know their power rests in their sexuality and intelligence, and they are expert at using both. Sauron told Frodo, “There’s no life in the void, only death.” Bruh, Fifi knows this too but she was willing to walk—no, saunter— into that void and fight in her own way.
RN: We need to normalise Lord of the Rings bars in literary conversations!
MM: Fifi’s relationship with Fucelli is complicated by emotions that proximity and intimacy breeds, and I did not want to shy away from that.
Is it love? Is it need? Is it something else?
The cook sees it, but she comes at it from her own perspective of feeling unloved, the beloved of no one but useful to everyone. Fifi recognises something of herself in the cook, she sees they are kindred spirits and she draws the cook into a form of sisterhood that comes from existing outside the center. And yet, so much of what she does could make her complicit in Fucelli’s actions, as his witness. Fifi is a badass, I did not want to dull her edges in any way.
RN: Fam, there is nothing dull about Fifi. Or the cook, for that matter. Her small acts of mercy for Fucelli’s prisoners were acutely painful; but also so fiesty: she was determined to rob Fucelli of his prisoners’ fear and shame at great cost to her own life. (I am doing all I can not to drop Samwise Gamgee comparisons.) What you said about Fifi and Fucelli’s relationship is a good place to ask this: where do Kidane and Hirut fall on that need-love-something-else spectrum?
MM: Initially, Hirut adores Kidane. Why would she not? She has heard stories about him from her mother. Her mother and he were close, her mother treated him like a little brother and also cared for him like a mother. Hirut has been told to love him because her mother loved him. When he takes her into his home after her parents die, she sees him as a protector. He betrays and violates that trust and love—iit is an act of violence that she cannot get over. Nor should she. She reminds him that she is a soldier, to the very end.
Kidane’s need for Hirut stems from more than sexual desire. His feelings for her are connected, in my mind, to all he thinks he lacks in life. He has no heir to his name. He has no legacy to leave and he is convinced he will die in the war. He feels he is not enough, as he is, and he will take Hirut and make her fill that empty space in him. There is no love there, and if there is need, it is a need that is dangerous for its selfishness and cruelty.
RN: Of all the characters Kidane was my least favourite. Maybe because there is a danger of thinking that everyone on the right side of history did everything right all of the time. I was not rooting for Kidane from page uno. What would you chalk his character to? He is certainly no Maximus when it comes to being a captain of captains. And, yet, he was necessary in the story. Is that it? That when war arrives good men will fight bad men and women will have to fight both?
MM: He is complicated. He is someone whose every ambition and thought have been shaped by the position into which he was born. He was cursed by his social status, it has made him into who he is. And though he can see Aklilu and suspect there is more to life, he does not know what that could be. He catches glimpses of it when he watches Aklilu and Hirut interact and it confirms his solitary path in life. That kind of person, who has everything and yet nothing seems to also be merciless in his demands. O! Maximus! So much like Homer’s Hector in his love of family and home. Kidane’s love was his own legacy.
RN: I am almost tempted to say “Hirut, 50 marks. Go!” and leave it at that. Her role in The Shadow King was so treacherous, a weaker writer would not have been able to keep her spirit or energy believable. When you conceived her, what came first: when she yawns at Kidane (because, damn) or the moment when she “sees” the Shadow King (because, double damn)? I think those were my favourite Hirut moments. What went into creating this female protagonist who was fighting so many wars internally and externally?
MM: The fury is the hope. Hirut does not realise until later in the book that she was born a soldier. She was born a fighter because she understood her worth, even if she did not always have the words to express it. She knew when something was wrong and she pushed against it. I wanted to create a character like that, who was also representative of so many women and girls I have known in my life. They were often overlooked, discounted, pushed aside as insignificant because of circumstances of birth, and yet, they survived and did more than survive. They created a world around them that bent in their favour. They made the world fit their demands. I wanted Hirut to emulate that, to honour them.
RN: Ken Burns made a wonderful documentary on the Vietnam War in which combatants from both sides provided testimony of their accounts of the conflict. The American side was all-male. But on the Vietnamese side there were men and women. It was the first time I heard female soldiers talk of war: about training, about killing, about being courageous. Riveting stuff. In bringing Ethiopan women to the fore of the resistance all I can think about is how many undiscovered Hiruts have played pivotal roles in various wars around the world, especially in African wars of liberation. I know, for example, that Namibia had a lot of female PLAN soldiers during the country’s struggle for independence. While most aggressor and invader narratives often seem to be male, do you think women’s stories are more likely to be found on the defensive side?
MM: I have to watch this documentary! I think women’s stories are on both sides of the battle line. They were both the aggressor and the resistance fighter. I think we have to stop assuming that women’s roles in war had to necessarily be the most morally upright. The female Nazis that worked in the camps should remind us of the abhorrent roles that women have played throughout history. Gender does not make one any kinder or gentler. It might make us more vulnerable in certain situations, and that can inspire acts as cruel as any man could commit.
RN: Good point. And, of course, there is Aster. Perhaps I was too cold and unfeeling to her in my first reading. On the second, I was much kinder. She juggled two opposing duties: being a dutiful wife and being a tough woman leading other women in battle. Given that she was raised to do a lot of the former and never expected to be the latter, I am curious to know the choices you had to make as a writer to prevent her from disappearing into these two huge responsibilities and roles. I think I would have given up and written some lazy line about her being transformed, reforged anew: Aster, goddess of the battle and left it at that. There would have been a sunset involved too. Because Rémy and sunsets.
MM: Can we pause to wax poetic on sunsets?
RN: So Zukiswa Wanner and Troy Onyango can troll us? No thank you.
MM: I had fun developing Aster: both fierce and frightened of losing her husband. She wants to be more than she was born to be, and yet she also likes the luxuries and power that her life affords. She is of the system but yet fights it. I wanted to create her as a character trapped by tradition, but also trapped by what has grown out of tradition: love. She learned to love Kidane, despite everything, and that is what I wanted to keep central to her character when I was writing her. She loves him, and that makes all the difference. Because the greatest of these is love.
RN: Which do you think is stronger? “Learned love” or the other fiery kind that had a certain unnamed writer composing really bad poems at 21?
MM: Dang, who is this poet? There is a love that settles after the fiery kind and I think that is a love that comes from time, from compromises, from learning. I think that is the love that lasts.
RN: Never mind about the poet’s identity. While on the subject of poetry, during the long months of lockdown you used to tweet excerpts from poems you were reading. What does this medium offer you as a fiction writer?
MM: Poetry puts into words thoughts and emotions I do not often have the vocabulary to express yet. I need those abstractions and the exploration of ideas that poetry allows. I especially needed it during those early months of the lockdown, but it was a habit I developed even before that. It has guided my writing process.
RN: And, of course, one has to ask: is there a secret notebook of poems hiding in some drawer in your house?
MM: Perhaps. Kidding! I handwrite poems that move me, or passages from books I would like to remember. I keep a notebook for my readings. It helps me put what I am currently reading or thinking about into conversation with books, essays, and articles I have read in the past. These are ongoing conversations with myself, a way to challenge and develop my thoughts.
RN: I remember reading a Washington Square Review interview in which you had recommended a nearby photographic exhibition to your interviewer as a precursor to your conversation. You recommended The Battle of Algiers, the 1966 historical war film about the events of the 1954–1962 Algerian War, as the hors d’oeuvres for this second part of the interview. It was quite unflinching. Firstly, thank you, Ennio Morriconne is one of my favourite film score composers; I loved his work in the film. Then this: did the film help you to characterise Carlo Fucelli?
MM: I have come back to this film multiple times throughout the years. I was watching it long before I was writing The Shadow King. When I was working on Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, it informed my understanding of political movements, or the complex realities and consequences of an uprising. It has helped me come to terms with a kind of cruelty that exists alongside obedience and this has helped me develop Carlo Fucelli. Also Kidane. Plus, the music! The scene in the cafe, just before the bombs go off…
RN: Morricone’s compositions are intense. In reading This Is What The Journey Does, one of your nonfiction works published in The New York Review of Books, you write about migrancy, about its effect on personhood. You write about your subject matter in more than documentary terms. You are invested, in a way, by having movement of some kind in your past. How come Ettore lacks this investment in the work he does? I understand he is a soldier. But he is also a storyteller, right? And he is also facing persecution at home as an Italian with Jewish heritage. Is he not supposed to be more sensitive? Or is this an unnecessary burden to place on anyone with a camera or a pen?
MM: I think Ettore’s focus—his entire sense of being—is deeply connected to his father. I would not say he lacks investment in the work he does; I would say he is merely a soldier who brought a camera that his father gave him to war. He did not understand how he would be used. Talent is not a virtue. Owning a camera does not mean you understand what you are looking at. He is caught up in something bigger than him, and eventually the momentum threatens to take him, too.
RN: “Talent is not a virtue.” The bars write themselves, huh?
Back in 2020, when I was a young troll, I remember asking you a strange question in the first instalment of the AfroLit Sans Frontieres Literary Festival: Which prize are you most disappointed not to have won? (Man, I was living my best under-the-bridge troll life this time last year! Remember entanglements with August?) Anyway, having had The Shadow King shortlisted for the Booker Prize amongst other literary awards, I would like to update that question: what do you think is a proper and healthy relationship between writers and literary prizes? This, my friend, is what we came for: the tea, the whole tea, and nothing but the piping hot tea!
MM: Are we sipping from porcelain or china?
MM: I think the healthiest relationship that writers should have with literary prizes is one of appreciation but not worship. I am so thankful to have been on the Booker Prize shortlist. I told you, months before that all happened, that prizes can affirm work but they do not help you write the next book, or develop into a stronger writer ot thinker. That is work that happens outside of the prizes cycle, and it is the most important work. Prizes are tricky beasts, political, picky, unpredictable. So much depends on the jury. On the moment in history. On so many factors outside of writing. Somehow, I managed to make a shortlist or two. It is fantastic and I am honoured. But there is work to do on my new book and that keeps me going and excited.
RN: New what? Yo! I need to get serious with my life and get going on mine.
You know we met before, right? Way before AfroLit. It must have been in 2019; I was reading The Granta Book of the African Short Story edited by Helon Habila. Page 129: A Good Soldier by yours truly. You wrote the heck out of that short story. And the line-up in the anthology was crazy: Aboulela, Adichie, Chikwava, Gurnah, Lalami, Mabanckou, Wainana, Wicomb. Is short fiction a medium you will return to at some point in the future? Or do you find the novel to be the best vehicle for the stories you want to tell right now?
MM: Thanks for reading that! I find the short story form to be beautiful and daunting. I wish it came easy to me, but the minute I start anything, I sense the pacing of it is more conducive to a novel, or maybe a novella. I have to shift my thinking, narrow the field of focus, and learn to move into the short story with a nimbleness that a novel does not often allow me.
RN: Regardless of the medium, I am certain many of your readers—both old and new—look forward to reading your future works.
You have successfully quoted Omar Little from The Wire; Maximus from Gladiator; and The Lord of the Rings. We cannot leave this church without hearing from the gospel according to Marco Rubio. You have been trolling the man for months and months!
MM: Bruh, it is not me, it is the LORD. And the LORD shall smite the foolish man.