Maaza Mengiste is one of PEN World Voices Festival‘s speakers for 2017 where she will speak about “Women and War”, and “Identity in the Age of Globalization: an African Diasporic Perspective”. Her new novel is forthcoming.
In the years since Maaza Mengiste’s Beneath the Lion’s Gaze—her acclaimed 2010 novel about families caught up in the Ethiopian revolution—the Ethiopian-American writer has become increasingly fascinated with photographs, and with the power of the visual to transmit, transmute, and transform violence. Even before she was a novelist, in fact, she had worked in film, although she laughs and tells me she hopes no one ever sees those short films she made, years ago; she’s a better novelist than filmmaker, she says. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that her writing attends to visual textures with the attentive care of a cinematographer. Her constant subject is violence, but she finds it in the shifting interplay of images and words: in a perfect figure for the combined sensuality and muted violence of her prose, she describes shadow and light as “knives carving different forms from what we see.”
In a recent phone conversation, she spoke about her increasing focus on the visual vocabulary of violence. In part, she said, it has been a necessary response to the times we live in: Black Lives Matter is so much more than YouTube clips and photographs, but no one could deny how proliferating images of police violence have catalyzed the movement for black lives. At the same time, she quotes Orwell and suggests that a failure of the language we use to describe violence—to respond to its images and moving pictures—has in many ways allowed the United States government to become what it has become.
“We didn’t find a way to describe 9/11 in anything but the most simplistic nationalistic terms, and so we couldn’t find a coherent way to address the ISIS videos. The language has been co-opted and melded into discussions about migration and religion. In this White House administration, we’re seeing language boiled down to its most base and basic elements, simplified to reflect back our initial moments of fear and shock. Again and again, we’re reminded of that first moment of encounter with violence but without any tools except violence and anger to work through the effects. It’s an endless loop.”
In an essay on “The Writer’s Place in A Violent World,” she lamented “language forced into the service of violence,” and how the “rhetoric of desperation and devastation has been molded into the incomprehensible, then vomited out in images and words that we cannot ignore.”
What is “our responsibility, our duty, in the face of those unspeakable and unheard-of things?” she asks. “How do we begin to construct a vocabulary if all we can do is stand in numb and silent grief? What I have begun to think: that before the word comes the image, that before we describe, we must first be willing to look.”
In the novel she’s currently working to complete—provisionally called The Shadow King—the title is a riff on an old Ethiopian adage that the emperor is “like a sun shining on his people.” Like Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, it will be a historical novel, set during the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, at the very start of the global conflict that would become WWII. By focusing on Mussolini’s invasion of northern Africa—a fascist effort to make Italy “great” by annexing Libya, Eritrea, and Somalia—she wants to expose a history of colonial violence that Italy has never faced up to. “Italy’s efforts to shroud the bloody side of imperial ambition don’t make it any different from other colonizing countries,” she observes, but “the near-absence of this history from textbooks and national dialogue” is striking, especially given the rising tensions (and death count) of North African migrants who cross the Mediterranean.
But though “The Shadow King” has been her working title for many years, she became unsatisfied with that title: despite its political and poetic resonance, she tells me, she has started to contemplate a title that could emphasize the women that she finds herself writing about. The other side of the novel is the story of ordinary Ethiopians who resisted fascism that captured her attention, a story which includes women. Indeed, when she attended the “Women’s March” after Trump’s inauguration, as she describe to me, she found herself meeting other Ethiopian woman—finding each other in the crowd—and as they marched together, reflecting that “We were marching like our grandmothers.”
Mengiste struggled to find these women in the official archives, however; history records the nationalist heroism of men, not women, and those grandmothers have been mostly forgotten. After spending a year working in the fascist archives in Italy, she found few written traces of the Ethiopian women who fought fascism alongside their husbands and brothers. Even if they were written out of the official narratives, their images survived, however. Photographs exist of arms-bearing Ethiopian women to show the gap in the historical record. Mengiste even owns a few. And though these photographs were taken by men who found it funny to see women carrying guns, those images can tell a different story, one whose resonance reverberates even today.