A trip to Italy on a Fulbright fellowship provided the subject for Ethiopian-born writer Maaza Mengiste’s second novel, The Shadow King (Norton, Sept.). Originally, she had planned to use her time in Italy to research the Fascist invasion of Ethiopia during WWII. As she looked through the archives, something bothered her. “Working with these documents that had been kept through Mussolini’s era,” says Mengiste, “I quickly realized I was reading a history that had been approved by censors. And all of these things—the newspaper accounts, the photographs that were taken—were part of a propaganda machine.”
Mengiste started combing through journals, letters, and photo albums at flea markets to find personal photographs taken by soldiers and other records of the past not approved by officials. She found a photograph of an Ethiopian woman with a rifle. “I’d heard of these women,” Mengiste says, “but it wasn’t part of my consciousness. I started looking through old newspapers, and I suddenly found a line in an article about an Ethiopian woman who picked up her husband’s gun during battle and led his army.”
That inspired Mengiste to write about women’s role during wartime against the backdrop of the hardships faced in Ethiopia during WWII. “I want to reshift the masculine perspective on war,” she says, “so that we can begin to reframe women at the center of world history.”
After Mengiste started writing the novel, she mentioned her discoveries to her mother. “My mother said, ‘Don’t you know about your great-grandmother?’ It turns out that as a young girl, my great-grandmother, who was wed to a man much older than her—she was much too young to be married—sued her father for his rifle so she could go off to war, as opposed to her husband whom she didn’t know very well and didn’t like.” So coincidentally, the very sort of woman who inspired her novel was actually part of her own heritage.
The last time Mengiste attended BookExpo was a decade ago, when her debut novel, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, came out. “I’m excited about seeing booksellers and librarians again. They are champions on so many different levels—these people invested in literature and books and what books can do. Most writers remember books that completely altered our perspective on things, and that’s thanks to a librarian or someone else who put a book in your hands.”
Today, 3–3:30 p.m. Maaza Mengiste will be signing at the Norton booth (1521).