Maaza Mengiste on her Booker Prize-longlisted book The Shadow King.
Maaza Mengiste talks to us about her 2020 Booker Prize-longlisted novel, writing about the Italian invasion of Ethiopia and the authors who have influenced her writing.
How does it feel to be longlisted for The Booker Prize?
It feels surreal to see my name on this list with others whom I admire so much. Some of these writers have taught me how to re-imagine the possibilities in my own work. I am inspired and humbled by the astonishing range and depth of every book listed, and to know that The Shadow King is amongst them is an honour that I still cannot quite believe has happened. In the years that I spent writing and revising The Shadow King, I was afraid I would never finish. To see it now on the longlist is a dream I didn’t dare to have. To say I am happy is an understatement.
Some readers won’t be familiar with the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. What drew you to this period?
I grew up hearing about Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia. Logically, Ethiopia should not have won the war. It was poorly equipped and faced one of the most powerful forces in the world. Yet, Ethiopia won, and for a child, that held all the fascination of the most gripping epic. But I’ve always been fascinated with WWII, this period that seemed to define and redefine what we understood of human decency, cruelty, and courage. Then when I discovered that Ethiopia women fought in the front lines against fascists – and learned that my great-grandmother was one of those women who enlisted – it burst open the possibilities of what was really happening during this war, and what this war could teach us about what it means to face a larger, stronger opponent not only on the battlefield, but also in the most intimate and domestic spaces. It was all the things I didn’t know, about something I thought I understood, that sent me to my desk and kept me there, writing.
I have questions that the books I’ve written have complicated, rather than answered, and I want to see what unfolds with this next one— Maaza Mengiste
Your novel illustrates the experience of war from a female perspective. What inspired you to bring their stories to light?
These women and girls stepped forward out of the shadows and made themselves known, they refused to be ignored any longer. Is recognition a form of inspiration? Because I recognised them as soon as I encountered them in a stray line or in faded photographs. It wasn’t inspiration as much as a familiarity, an “Oh, there you are,” when I didn’t even know that I had been searching for them. I often said I wrote this book surrounded by ghosts, I could feel them rise up at certain moments, demanding their turn to speak. To become remembered, to be ushered into the rooms of the honoured. Is this inspiration? I folded into their demands and they were often angry and relentless and perhaps this, too, is what inspiration means: this channeling of energies not your own in an attempt to steady the ground beneath you, to right a skewed part of the world as we know it. I wrote with a fury that was theirs. Perhaps this, too, is inspiration.
Which authors have influenced your own writing?
The list is long: Ama Ata Aidoo, Toni Morrison, E.L. Doctorow, Homer, Edward P. Jones, Dagniachew Worku, Han Kang, Jenny Erpenbeck, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Danilo Kis, Dasa Drndic, Simone Weil, my family of storytellers who knew just how to start and end a story to hold an entire room rapt. I’m interested in writers who break form, who find ways to make sentences do more than one thing at once. I’ve found myself seeking writers who published during authoritarian regimes, those who understood the layers beneath the first meaning are often the most potent – and dangerous.
What can we expect from you next?
I made a promise to myself with The Shadow King that I would take risks in my writing. I’m holding myself to that promise as I move into my next book. That book continues to explore conflict and war, and positions Black women at the centre of global events. I have questions that the books I’ve written have complicated, rather than answered, and I want to see what unfolds with this next one. And while I research and write, I want to push myself to reject safety in favour of greater structural leaps.