Literatea is an interview series that 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.
Photography and creative identities, rule-breaking and staying in lanes, and confronting writing’s powers and seductions make an appearance in the first part of a wide-ranging conversation with Maaza Mengiste, 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.
RÉMY NGAMIJE: All of your biographies state that you are a novelist and essayist. How come none of them say you are a photographer?
MAAZA MENGISTE: Bruv. You start with the hard ones first?
RN: The ancestors would not have it any other way.
MM: I don’t know if anyone’s asked me this, but I’ve asked myself this question and here is the answer: I respect the craft and the art of photography. I don’t think picking up a camera and taking a pretty picture makes you a photographer. There’s a philosophy behind the art and the craft, and I’m still working to learn that. There’s an individual language that’s as distinct as a well-crafted chapter. It’s way too easy to snap a photo: that’s why everyone does it. There’s an “instantaneousness” to those pictures you find on Instagram, with their filters and bright skies and deep colors and high contrasts, that are pleasant to look at. We ooh and ahh, then click to the next striking image. But I’m interested in something else, that thing that gives a photograph its weight and depth. That makes you linger, and take another look, and another. When I see that, I know the photographer didn’t take a picture, they made a moment. I’m still working on that. I’m constantly failing. It’s the effort that I love, though. I use an old camera, I work with black and white film. But what I’m really doing is working with time, with slowing it down and stripping a moment of colour and distraction and seeing what else the world can reveal. I’m not qualified to call myself a photographer, alongside a novelist and essayist. I didn’t throw those identifying markers on like new clothing. I moved into them like skin. I’ve claimed my writing and made it mine. I’m not there yet with the camera, but the journey is full of joy.
RN: Fam, that is the whole interview right there. Thanks. Bye.
But you are correct. Every art form has a surface—the thing we see, hear, touch, or taste—like a photograph. Then, I think, there are the mechanics behind it: shutter speeds, aperture values, ISOs, and the like. With time, anyone can figure them out. Or not. There are plenty of shortcuts to labels and claims. But there is that other layer you speak of, that hidden language of the craft that allows a photographer to produce “a moment.” How would you know when you have reached it? Would it be an internal realisation (I am a photographer, dammit!) or an external validation (Dear Maaza, we at Distinguished Gallery have decided that you are a photographer…)? And is the reluctance to throw on markers an essential part of every young grasshopper’s journey to mastery of a craft?
MM: The effort needed to get to that precise moment of knowing is the journey. There’s a point in creativity when the imagination outpaces us, when our brain races forward faster than we can articulate what is happening. But we have to put the work in, we have to understand the craft, the visual language, and our intimate connection to the subject: all of it has to be there for this transcendence to happen. I feel I reach it more easily with language than I do, yet, with photography. But that effort, the reach towards that point where one tips forward and—rather than falling—rises…that is what I see when I look at the photographs of those I admire. And maybe we shouldn’t grasp onto markers easily, as you imply. That young grasshopper might need to grow.
MM: But the world loves labels—it will throw it on us to assume it knows us, to flatter itself and us—and it’s so easy to give in.
RN: If language is more comfortable for you, is that why the descriptions of the photographs in The Shadow King are written the way they are? They are used exceptional well in the narrative to freeze moments while simultaneously reaching behind the image to its setting in a shifting and moving story.
MM: In rendering word images of photographs, I wanted to acknowledge and examine that space that hovers above every picture we look at. I imagine this space as territory that begins at the visible and extends to encompass the invisible.
A photograph has several layers: what we see, what we feel when we see it, what we feel once we’ve turned away from it, and what we remember after the passage of time—which may not even be what we ever looked at. I wanted to roam in the territory of what we think we’ve seen, and what actually existed, and imagine how what we remember of that image may not have even been there to begin with. Am I making sense?
RN: Of course, fam.
MM: When colonialists—those fucking narrowminded bastards—stepped onto African soil, their intent was to take the land, steal our labor, our artefacts, our languages, our histories, and our futures. In order to do that, they had to write a narrative of Africa that justified their violence and theft. One of their strongest weapons was the camera. Not because they could photograph Africans for posterity, which they did: in front of huts, carrying water, in chains, dancing, etc. But because they understood that once the viewer turned away, what they would remember most vividly was this transcendent fact: the African was not like the European. Hence, they were not civilized. Hence they were in need of civilization. Hence, any action by a civilized person on someone uncivilized was justified, even murder, for the sake of the greater good.
RN: I have always felt this way about colonial photography. Your essay about the violence of photography for Africa Is A Country explained the concepts so well.
MM: But let’s imagine that those same photographs land in the hands of someone once deemed uncivilized, who knows better. Let’s say they’re African. They’re smarter than that. They know Europe’s history and their African history. When they see that image, they see what was never intended because it’s not a dead-on gaze, it comes at it sideways, at an angle—it’s a prismatic gaze, sharp as a knife because that person must also wade through the ghosts of those African dead to get a better look.
I wanted to render photographs in the book so that those ghosts came alive, so that the photographs moved and spoke their own stories and defied stillness.
RN: You certainly achieved that. I keep thinking about their positioning in The Shadow King and how whenever they make an appearance they have all of this hanging space around them: Did Hirut want to be photographed? What did Aster say after this? And Ettore, did he know what these photographs would carry out into the world? So many questions that add to The Shadow King‘s reading experience.
I am curious to know how you integrated the photographs into the writing process: were they the route markers for your writing or were they experimental additions which then found structural appeal?
MM: Aha! The chicken-egg question!
RN: I am a simple man. I am more interested in what comes after: the omelette, wings, or nuggets?
MM: Contemplations on the aftermath…But seriously, an examination of photos was part of my thinking relatively early in the writing. I wasn’t sure how to use them, though. My instinct was to avoid physical photographs. Once I started considering what pictures were intended to do during any colonial expedition, I knew they had to be integral in the writing. Then, I thought of re-creating images through words and letting the subjects move within the frame, and reassert their authority and humanity. It happened rather organically from that point. I have to admit, though, the first time I wrote one of those photo moments into the book, my thought was: Oh shit, can I do this?
RN: It is interesting that you came to that realisation—that you could actually do it: write a moving photograph. Many pieces of writing advice are couched in prescriptive language: do not do this, do not do that, leave adjectives alone—that kind of thing. But in The Shadow King you broke numerous writing rules. Like the absence of speech marks to delineate direct from indirect speech and character thoughts. The experiment works wonderfully, I think. It presents a seamless narration that is free of reading cues. He said. She said. They thought. (Oh, and of course, that Twilight series chuckle that has more range than Mariah Carery’s vocal chords—from light to dark, from heartily to wryly, there is nothing that vampirical chuckle cannot do.) What is your take on all the “rules of writing”, especially since many stories readers enjoy, and many recent award-winning books freely engage in rule-breaking? I am thinking of Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings and Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other here. Y’all ain’t about that rigid punctuation life.
MM: To break the rules, you have to know them. You have to know what they intend to constrain before you can properly free those constraints and move of your own accord. You also have to know why you are doing it, why the ideas you are developing in your book demand a form that resists those rules. The writers I gravitate towards, like Marlon James, Bernandine Evaristo, Toni Morrison, E.L. Doctorow, Dasa Drndic—the list goes on—understand language and form at the most intimate level. They have claimed it in such a way that they wield authority over it and bend it to their will. They aren’t satisfied with working within the parameters given, but they also know what those parameters are doing, and why. They understand that the questions they are asking in their books about life, about living, about memory demand a structure that mirrors and extends those inquiries. Their subversiveness is an informed rebellion. It says: I see you Punctuation Rule, and I say fuck off.
RN: Fam, I need all the help I can get while singing.
Beneath The Lion’s Gaze “follows the rules”, if I can say that. But The Shadow King does not—it is Ip Man levels of badassery from start to end. (“I want to fight 11 people!”) In your creative writing classes, how do you know when you have a rule-breaker who knows what they are doing—a Bruce Lee-esque student—and one who should probably just stick to the basics and practice their form on the wooden man? And how do you break the news to such a writer?
MM: Fam, you know how much I love Ip Man (all of them), so this is the highest compliment. Even Maximus Decimus Meridius didn’t become a gladiator in just one day. Even though he knew how to fight on the battlefield, with its many strategies and required planning, he had to train to survive in the arena.
RN: This is the whole gospel and sermon. Let the church say amen.
MM: I see new writers trying to break form without building the necessary literary muscles, this requires extensive reading. It’s sometimes done to be different, to be cool but the story falters. I usually have students look at their work and ask: How does form inform content? We start from there, and do a lot of reading of other writers who have broken the rules. I don’t force anyone to change what they’re doing but I do try to give them the tools to understand why they’re doing it, and be able to explain it to themselves.
RN: It is usually at this point in important literary conversations that we pause to make this public service announcement:
“My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions and loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.”—Gladiator (2000)
The bars are GOAT levels.
I have watched Gladiator too many times. I could quote it ad nauseum: “…what we do in life echoes in eternity…”—Oh my god! When we were in conversation for the 2020 instalment of the Ake Book & Arts Festival you mentioned that Gladiator had inspired you to write the first draft of The Shadow King as a series of epic battles which, ultimately, did not have the story needed to make them more than clashes of men on a battlefield. (Michael Bay wants your first draft for his next film. He has 700 pyrotechnicians and 3000 stunt people ready to turn it into a stand-alone franchise.) But you refined that draft, settling on the format we read today: part historical record, part prose, and part memory, all told through a classical framework. What is it about classical literature that is so captivating when it comes to storytelling and how did you adapt the classical framework, if at all, to your story?
MM: I love the Greeks but I wanted to imagine how that classical framework could be re-imagined in an African story. African storytelling is as ancient as Greek, we share some of the same forms of telling-through-song and poetry. It was not really much of an imaginary stretch to recreate this form to tell the story of this world war on African soil. And I wanted to consider different fates for my women than the Greek writers allowed. I didn’t want to punish rebelliousness, I wanted to complicate its consequences.
RN: The female characters in classical literature are totally badass, aren’t they? I always think of Antigone. But we also have Clytemnestra from Agamemnon. My most recent favourite is Madeline Miller’s reinvention of Circe. She goes from a footnote in The Odyssey to, as Lizzo says: 100% that bitch! Also, in that retelling, her WAP is, quite literally, the stuff of the gods. I might be reaching here, but did any of these women play a role in creating the female characters in Beneath The Lion’s Gaze or The Shadow King?
MM: Hello, is that you, Clytemnestra with the killing hand? Those Greek classics feature so many rebellious women, righteously angry, furious enough to kill—and they do. But Aeschylus, Sophocles, those old Greek men, were never kind to their women: those women were quickly punished for their daring. Those playwrights reminded us again and again that women who didn’t know their place were doomed, and society was smart to be wary of them. I wanted to uphold the actions of defiant women in my book. I wanted to let those women step forward and tell their own stories and determine their own fates. In Beneath The Lion’s Gaze and The Shadow King, the female characters are moved by history to act, but they are in control of how far they get pushed—and they push back.
RN: O! And they push back, put that thing on, flip it, and reverse it. Changing course, a little, how was the editing process for The Shadow King compared to Beneath The Lion’s Gaze? Were you more or less assertive about what you wanted in the former? Or is there a general grasshopper mindset you adopt (even with your experience) when it is time to edit a manuscript?
MM: The editing process for The Shadow King, those steps before I sent it to my editor but I was editing myself, was ruthless. I had greater ambitions for this second book. I wanted to push myself further artistically, personally, and emotionally. I wanted to move deeper into uncharted territory and I edited with that in mind. I didn’t want to repeat myself because I wasn’t writing the same kind of story. I had different people reading Beneath the Lion’s Gaze during different parts of the writing process: during grad school, with an agent, in an informal workshop. After I’d done that horrible first draft of The Shadow King and I knew I had to start all over again, I let no one see the new draft as I was writing it. Not my editor, not my agent, no one. I wanted no feedback on the experimentations I was doing with my writing. I wanted no one’s confusion or enthusiasm to taint my own. I wanted to nurture the form and story that was growing in my mind, give it free reign without interference, even mine, for as long as possible. When I sent that completed draft to my editor, it was the first time anyone had read it. I had to consider what would happen if she couldn’t understand what I was doing, or hated it. I was prepared to walk away before I changed it drastically. I was prepared for people to hate it. Criticism doesn’t scare me. Omar don’t scare!
RN: The Wire—and especially Omar —is bae!
MM: What frightened me most was writing a book that did not live up to what my imagination had set out for me to do.
RN: How does being edited inform your work as an editor for projects like Addis Ababa Noir? What do you look for in short stories when you put together something like that?
I love the editing process, as a writer. It’s where the magic happens. The best part of editing Addis Ababa Noir was seeing what came back after the writer and I discussed ideas and story development. Each revision was like a holiday surprise. At times, they would go beyond the original draft in such a way that the revision was a brand new story. They left me inspired and grateful to be working with them. It was also humbling, the trust they put in me, in my suggestions. And you’re right in implying with your second question that the short story form asks different things from a writer. We only had so much space for each story, based on criteria from the publisher, so the writers had to conform to that, if the original draft did not. Short stories need to develop an arc much faster than a novel. You should be able to tell in the first paragraph—the first sentence, really—what the short story is setting up. You have a little more time with a novel to set up the central tension, though it should also be there in the first paragraph and first page.
RN: Earlier you mentioned that you’ve claimed your writing and made it yours. How did you do this? And what is it about this identity—as a writer—that gives you purpose or joy in this present moment in which we find ourselves?
Lately, I’ve been thinking about the way I—and I’m sure others—have reached for books, music, and art during this pandemic. It is a special joy to be in communion with ideas, with someone else’s experiences and thoughts. There were moments when, sitting down with a book during lockdown, I could shake off the anxiety and let the Port of Tangier rise up in front of me as two characters waited for a ferry. (RN: Kevin Barry went off in that book!) I could step away and gather my strength and see how others from other countries and historic moments handled adversities and uncertainties. We writers are able to do so much on the page. It’s awe-inspiring.
The ability to write is a gift. It is a talent that I have to take seriously because it is also a tool, and it can be a weapon. In order to make it mine, I had to embrace all of its powers, which meant I had to put fear aside, and make it truly mine: the gift absent of my very human failings, absent of my ego: all those things that can get in the way of writing.
What could emerge, if I let the gift take over the story?
If I claimed its potential without being afraid that it might go too far, or not do enough, or reveal my weaknesses as a writer?
If I said, I am a writer and this gift is mine, and what emerges will be of me and beyond me, because this is what we call imagination?
I have been thinking lately, too, of the power of the imagination. How it allows us a respite from the burdens of the physical world. It provides us with certain mercies. I think we experience these mercies when we read books that transport us elsewhere. We experience those mercies as writers when we let go and let imagination lead.
Perhaps this is what, in our best moments, we might be able to call transcendence.
The second part of this interview will be published in Issue 5, due in March 2021.