The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste

I was eager to read The Shadow King (shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2020) to learn more about the history of the country, although perhaps if I am honest, I am more interested in the people and the culture, without reference to another culture that is trying to invade or colonise it. Ethiopia became one of only two African nations to have never been colonised, despite attempts following the Berlin Conference of 1884-5 when 14 European countries divided Africa among themselves.

Ethiopia Flag the Shadow King

Photo by Kelly Lacy on Pexels.com

For the culture, the people and their history are so much more than the slim chapters that get all the attention, when power hungry regions and men look for prestige and/or revenge and the media (with its inevitable bias) makes everyone look. And if those nations that invade come out looking bad, or worse humiliated (especially by women), then you can be sure the stories will be buried and/or rewritten so as not to offend the innocent of their own country.

Italy Invades Ethiopia 1935

Ethiopia defeated Italian forces at the Battle of Adwa in the nineteenth century (1896), saving them from Italian colonisation, so their subsequent aggressive incursion in 1935, one that provides a framework for this novel, might be seen as revenge or an attempt to boost Italian national prestige by exercising this second attempt to assert control and join their European brothers in having a colony of their own.

The Shadow King Maaza MengisteBut the novel isn’t about politics, it concerns a few players and characters, who we are given glimpses of, in a style that is like a series of snapshots, a narrative that therefore has gaps and not the fluidity of a traditional story, nor enables us to really get to know too well the characters, limited as we are by this kaleidoscopic technique.

A Photo or A Thousand Words

I heard/saw Maaza Mengiste during the (online) Edinburgh BookFest this year and learned that she was indeed aided in her research and imagination by a set of photographs, something that reminded me of On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming, an author who also used photographs to aid her storytelling ( a memoir of her mother), however Cumming shares the photographs with the reader and Mengiste  shares two, requiring the words to work even harder for the reader. I found this device here a distraction, not expecting a literary device, I had expected more of a character lead historical narrative, a warning not to create expectations before reading. In the talk she gave, she showed some of the photographs that had inspired some of the narrative, she had surrounded herself with them as she wrote.

A Woman’s Lot & What She is Capable Of

We meet orphaned Hirute, who works as a maid for a husband and wife of nobility, Aster and Kidane, brought into their family due to a promise made to her parents. A fractious relationship exists between the three of them, there is dependence, resentment, attraction, jealousy and comradeship. A heady mix. With the nation at war, and tired of waiting for Kidane to return, the women decide to participate in the fight, an inclination also connected to the gun Hirute was left by her father, one that Kidane took from her, that she is determined to retrieve and use.

Ethiopian Woman The Shadow King Maaza MengisteOne evening they listen to the radio and hear the (now) famous words of Empress Menen of Ethiopia disclosing the aggression to the World Women’s League,  appealing to all world nations:

“We all know that war destroys mankind, and in spite of differences in race, creed, and religion, women all across the world despise war because its fruit is nothing but destruction.

War kills our husbands, our brothers, and our children. It destroys our homes, and scatters our families. At this hour and in such a tragic and sad period, when aggressors are planning to bring a heavy war into our lives, we would like to bring this to the attention of all women through the world, that it is their duty to voice and express solidarity against such acts.”

Women participated in this war, not just an historical fact, but one that Mengiste discovered lay in her own family, (her great-grandmother enlisted to fight). It was a subject few talked about, and one that history books seem to have omitted, to the point where few female veterans remain, whose stories can be told. One can see how easily their experiences are relegated to myth and the author is to be commended for the 10 years of perseverance it took to bring this story to light.

Though she uses her imagination, it is historical fiction after all, this is not a fantasy or adventure, and the role these women took on and the sacrifices and risks they took in doing so, meant they were heroines not in the traditional masculine sense, but that they showed solidarity towards keeping these invaders away and presented an image of provocation and strength, one that no European army, likely had ever seen.

“I realised that the closer I looked at women, the more I began to understand the many different battles that they were fighting; the conflicts were on the battlefields, but they also happened in the military camps. Women had to contend with multi-layered violence; there is fighting as soldiers, but there is fighting as women whose bodies are imagined to be the territories for their compatriots.”

Space is also given to a conflicted soldier in the Italian army, who, while fighting under orders from his own country, learns that his own survival is under threat, when all soldiers are asked to complete a census. Though he states his religion as none, his  name makes him a target of another European aggression going on at that time. He provides a counterpoint to the aggression and his occupation as photographer, a man who sits for hours in contemplation of his subject, often under orders, is a source of both horror and soulful reflection.

Never Admit Defeat, What About Forgiveness?

In an interview, Mengiste tells of a visit to Calabria in the south of Italy for her first book (set in 1974), when a man stood and asked if he could talk to her about 1935; it was a tense and emotional moment from a man asking for forgiveness for what his father had been involved in.

Italy has not talked about this history; it’s still difficult for Italians to comprehend what they did in east Africa. A few people grumbled for him to sit down. But he was visibly shaken and emotional. He told me that his father was a pilot during the war. He said: “My father dropped poison on your people. How do I ask for your forgiveness?” And he started crying.

It was at that moment that I said to myself: “My God, this history is not done, this war that feels distant but is not distant. There’s still the question, How do we bridge this gap between us?”

The Shadow King goes some way towards bridging that gap and opens the way for more to seek answers and ask more questions and to remember that women are not a mere footnote in history, there are thousands of untold stories from the past of their endeavours.

This was a slow moving, challenging read, many may not have the patience required to read it, but I’m glad I persevered.

Maaza Mengiste, Author

was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 1974. Her family fled the Ethiopian revolution when she was a child a history she explores in her first novel, one I’m looking forward to reading.  A Fulbright Scholar and professor in the MFA in Creative Writing & Literary Translation programme at Queens College, she is the author of The Shadow King and Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, named one of the Guardian’s Ten Best Contemporary African Books. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, Granta, and the New York Times.

Further Reading

New York Times Interview : The ‘Detective Work’ Behind a War Novel by Wadzanai Mhute Nov 12, 2020

Guardian Interview: The Language of War is Always Masculine

10 Surprising Facts About Ethiopia

All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu

All Our NamesFinding a book like this on the English language shelves of our local French library, is one of life’s small pleasures in a world that offers few escapes these days from tragic reality.

A book like this, by an author named Dinaw Mengestu, winner of the Guardian First Book Prize for his debut novel Children of the Revolution, chosen as one of the 20 best writers under 40 by The New Yorker in 2010, born in Ethiopia and raised in the suburbs of Chicago – well I cast all other reading plans aside and jumped right in, relishing the feel of the hardback, admiring the simplicity of such a striking cover and anticipating a joyous, literary ride.

The title All Our Names, reminded me immediately of Zimbabwean author NoViolet Bulawayo’s  We Need New Names, hers a reference to the move to America, while Mengestu delves further back and makes us realise just how deep and far-reaching the naming ritual is.

“On the bus ride to the capital, I gave up all the names my parents had given me. I was almost twenty-five, but by any measure, much younger. …I tried to think of myself as a revolutionary in the making, though I had come to the capital with other ambitions.”

Library Entrance

The Library Where This Book Lives

Ill-prepared for the world that awaited him, he assumed the few Victorian novels he had read would prepare him for studying literature, having been inspired by reading of a conference of a group of African writers and scholars in a newspaper that had belatedly arrived in his village.

“No one I met believed I was a revolutionary, and I didn’t have the heart to claim I wanted to be a writer.”

Right from the opening pages, when he meets the young man who tells him his name ‘for now is Isaac’, we are made aware of the significance and dispensability of names.

“Isaac” was the name his parents had given him and, until it was necessary for us to flee the capital, the only name he wanted. His parents had died, in the last round of fighting that came just before independence. “Isaac” was their legacy to him, and when his revolutionary dreams came to an end, and he had to choose between leaving and staying, that name became his last and most precious gift to me.

UgandaThe story is narrated in alternate chapters, one entitled Isaac, the other Helen. Isaac takes place during a short period in the life of the male protagonist after he has left the family village somewhere in Ethiopia, planning never to return, arriving in Kampala, a city in Uganda where he hopes to study at the university.

It is there he meets the young man named Isaac, recognising in him a similar ambition and humble origins, though in his presence he is also aware of an undercurrent of fear and trepidation, not yet realising, but intuiting the dangerous depths Isaac is capable of descending  into in order to achieve that ambition.

The Helen chapters take place in a small midwest town in the US, Helen is the social worker assigned to him when he arrives from Africa; she installs him in accommodation and helps him to adjust to the new life as a foreign exchange student.

The relationship becomes complicated when boundaries are breached, as the two offer each other something of an escape from their very different pasts.

It is a simple story possessing its own undercurrent that pulls the twin narratives along, the emotional pull in Helen’s story, her struggle to navigate the space between her feelings for him and society’s expectations and in the Isaac chapters, a mounting tension as student protests and harmless revolutionary activities turn sinister and violence becomes the shortest and most effective negotiating tool to obtaining power.

Set in the 1970’s during the Ugandan post-colonial revolt, this novel was hard to put down and offered a unique insight into one example of the kind of experience that might have occurred to any refugee fleeing a violent uprising. Equally, it aptly depicts the discomfort of even the most liberal, unjudging character, raised in a quiet, conservative town, whose wavers between ignoring and following her instinct to abandon all she knows in order to follow her heart.

“I wonder whether, if before meeting Isaac I had tried to challenge the easy, small-time bigotry that was so common to our daily lives that i noticed it only in it extremes. I might have felt a little less shame that evening. It’s possible that I might have been able to release some of it slowly over the years, like one of those pressure valves that let out enough steam on a constant basis to keep the pipes from bursting. It’s also equally possible that such relief is impossible, that, regardless of what we do, we are tied to all the prejudices in our country and the crimes that come with them.”

The Burgess BoysIt reminded me a little of Elizabeth Strout’s The Burgess Boys (read and reviewed in 2013), which I was a little disappointed by, this is the kind of book I was expecting, but understandably, she wrote it from the perspective of the Burgess boys, whereas Dinaw Mengestu gives us both perspectives and the story is all the more powerful for it.

Mengestu writes in an engaging and flawless style, his storytelling and insights are enough to convince me I will definitely be reading more of his work soon.