Maaza Mengiste was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia but left her homeland at a young age, when her family fled the Ethiopian Revolution. She grew up in Nigeria, Kenya, and the United States. A 2010-11 Fulbright Scholar, Mengiste holds an MFA in Creative Writing from New York University, and currently lives in New York.
Her debut novel, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze was published in January 2010, and was recently named Runner-up for the 2011 Dayton Literary Peace Prize. In this interview, she talks about her writing, and why it is important to tell the stories of individuals who are often the faceless victims of wars and other tragedies.
When did you decide you wanted to become a writer? Was this something you always aspired to do?
Most writers will say they have always known that they wanted to write. For me it was different. I knew I liked to read and I knew early on that I could write reasonably well but I didn’t ever consider becoming a writer. I couldn’t fathom what it meant to write books or how to do it. It wasn’t until college that I started to think that maybe I could work in the world of words. Still it took a while before I felt I had what it took – in terms of craft, dedication and discipline to be a writer. At the time, I used to write lots of non-fiction for my class work, and one of my professors kept encouraging me but I needed to find a job after I graduated, I needed to earn a living and I set aside that idea, but I continued to read, to consider what made a book work for me, or not.
Is this what prompted you to go to writing school?
Several factors led to my going back to school. One of them was the fact that I was working in an industry I thought was a dream job, and I hated it. I realized I had to make a change. This was around 2003. I was living in Los Angeles at the time. I still thought about writing, and I thought often about a way to write about the Ethiopian Revolution but I wasn’t quite sure how to take a story as powerful and tragic, and turn it into a work of fiction. Then I read an article in the Los Angeles Times about Argentina and what life had been like under the military junta. The journalist had focused on one mother’s experience, and he also told about the lives of some of those who had been students at the time. He wrote about those who had lived through that violence, and those who hadn’t made it. I remember looking at the old high school photos of those students – they looked like those students in Ethiopia who had been part of the revolution: the bell bottoms, Afros, wide-collared shirts, the earnest look in their eyes. I recognized their stories. I was struck by how the journalist humanized the Argentine war through the story of individuals. It gave me an idea about a way to approach the Ethiopian Revolution.
After that, I started working in earnest to write something and apply to writing programs. I was lucky enough to get accepted and enroll at New York University to do my MFA in Creative Writing.
How much of your book, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, is drawn from actual events? Is this all a work of fiction, considering you write about a revolution that actually happened?
When you write a work of fiction, you can do anything you want with historical fact. My characters in the book are all fictional. I didn’t know a Doctor Hailu, and my own family didn’t go through the same circumstances. But I worked within a historical context, taking what I remembered growing up during the time of the Ethiopian Revolution,as well as listening to the stories of so many who’d been a part of those times, to develop the story. I wanted to respect history and the lives of those who gave so much So, I also did research and asked questions. But in the end, this is a work of fiction.
So what went into researching the story? Did you have to travel back to Ethiopia?
Initially, I worked from my own memories of the early days of the revolution; they are those of a child. I compare them to photographs, just snapshots of moments without any sense of what happened before or what came after. I remembered soldiers breaking into homes, and people being taken away, the general fear, the soldiers everywhere. After I wrote the first draft, developed the characters, and plotted my story line, the research began. I eventually went back to Ethiopia and did more detailed research. It took five years of work to pull the book together.
What would you like readers to take away from your book?
My best childhood memories are of Ethiopia. I remember how happy I was as a young child – the sense of family and togetherness despite the difficult times. For me, the book is a story of love, of people who are there for each other. There are far too many stories about Africa that paint the continent as one where people are constantly at war. It is as if one ethnic group is fighting another without any historical or political context. It is a fallacy to depict people as naturally prone to violence, and the truth is much more complicated. I wanted to write a book that acknowledged complexities and the plight of ordinary people trying to maintain their dignity in difficult times. We don’t hear those stories enough but they happen; they are happening now.
When we read about Africa and, particularly, about war-torn countries like the Congo, Sierra Leone, Somalia, and others places, we often lose sight of the people and tend to blend their stories into a single narrative. We forget that there is an individual out there feeling pain, and who like the rest of us, is not used to watching people die, or at the very least, does not want to get used to it. Just because a mother lives in Somalia does not make her different in the way she feels the sorrow of losing her child. Her loss is no less personal, it is no less intense. I wanted to be able to humanize the individual in my story.
For a first-time novelist, you’ve had an incredible roll in the last 18 months. First your book came out, then you were nominated for the 2010 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize, and recently, you were named a Runner-up for the 2011 Dayton Literary Peace Prize. What is is it like to be in the spotlight?
I have to say, it’s been an incredible honor to be runner-up in the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. It means so much that people understood my book was about more than revolution and war, that it speaks to loyalty and family, to love. Plus, I am absolutely thrilled to be in the same company as Chang-rae Lee, I find his writing breathtaking.
The spotlight you mention is more of a strobe light. It’s temporary, never on you for long. In between, life is normal, you’re the same person you were the day before. When the book came out, I was a little overwhelmed by the initial attention. When I opened my email, there were interview requests or some place to go or a question to answer. But I also understood that soon, life would quiet down and I would be back at my computer, staring at a blank screen, working through another new scene, getting another story developed. One of the best moments of all of this was having my mother and father fly from Ethiopia for one of my first readings. It was also very touching to meet people who would come to me and ask how I knew their story. Seeing people connect with the book in such personal ways has been humbling. I have had opportunities to meet people from so many countries and listening to their reactions, I have been struck by how much we have in common. I don’t mean just through suffering, but in the small moments that families share, in the ways people are kind to each other, in the stories we tell to keep ourselves sane.
In general, my life is quiet, and I spend a lot of time reading and writing. I’m very boring. Many of my friends do much more exciting things.
What has been the response to the book in Ethiopia? Have you been back since the book came out?
I’ve been to Ethiopia twice since the book came out. Last year I was part of a conference in Addis Ababa. It was one of the most powerful experiences I’ve had with the book. I was surrounded by people who had lived through the time that the book speaks to. I had written about events, but they had been through it.
There were lots of interesting questions. I remember a journalist who interviewed me on one of the radio stations. Midway through the interview, she turned and asked, “Why did you write this book? We have such a great history as a country, why this story?” She started crying, and I tried to explain why it was important to me. It was so those lives that had been silenced would not remain silent, so people beyond Ethiopia knew about the revolution. Then she told me the story of her two friends who had been imprisoned by the regime in circumstances very similar to what I had written about. They had both been tortured in rooms next to each other and heard each other’s cries. Yet, when they left, neither of them ever spoke a word about their experience, not even to each other. At the end, the journalist turned to me and said, “Thank you but I haven’t been able finish your book.” I understand this, I respect it.
Beneath the Lion’s Gaze raises difficult memories for some people – memories that they have tried to put away. Some see this book as an unnecessary reminder of their pain. But as a writer, I feel the loss in being silent. Borges tells a story that says whenever we remember someone who has died, a small part of them continues to live. I think literature has the ability to revive, not just the sorrow, but also the best parts of ourselves. I have to say that overall the majority has been supportive. And the response from the children of those former students who fled Ethiopia has been overwhelming. I mean those who came to live the USA, European Union to escape the revolution. For the children born in the diaspora, the book has helped them to finally understand a little more about their parents.
What is it like to be a writer? Do you do this full time?
When I wrote Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, I was juggling jobs and school, and trying to write at the same time. I covered much more ground in the summer breaks because then I had more time.
Right now, I am working on my next book and I am writing, but the juggling still continues. I was fortunate to win a Fulbright Fellowship last year, which allowed me to travel to Italy where I’ve spent a year doing my research and writing.
Is it too early to tell us about the book?
Yes, for the most part, it is too early. Readers will have to wait until the book is out. All I can say, for now, is that the book goes back to the pre-World War II Fascist invasion of Ethiopia. The book is not just about Ethiopia but also about Rome and Italy.
Are there other African writers that you like, or books by African authors that you have enjoyed reading in the past?
I most recently read Binyavanga Wainaina’s new book, One Day I Will Write About This Place. It’s excellent and I’d strongly recommend it. Laila Lalami, Hisham Matar, J.M. Coetzee, Uwem Akpan,Mia Couto, Ubax Cristina Ali Farah, I would recommend any of these, and the list is so long. The book that opened my eyes to the power of literature, the flexibility of language and fiction, was Our Sister Killjoy (by Ama Ata Aidoo). The ground shifted when I read that book, it changed me.