Booker’s shocker shortlist

Paying tribute to women on the front lines of war

Maaza Mengiste’s great-grandmother was among the women who fought against Mussolini’s invading Italian army in 1935, but her tale was untold because of the low importance accorded to women’s stories.
Maaza Mengiste’s great-grandmother was among the women who fought against Mussolini’s invading Italian army in 1935, but her tale was untold because of the low importance accorded to women’s stories. PHOTO: NINA SUBIN

In the home stretch of writing her second novel, The Shadow King, author Maaza Mengiste and her mother returned to her birth country of Ethiopia for a 10-day road trip.

The Shadow King brings to light Ethiopia’s unsung women warriors, who took on Mussolini’s invading Italian army in 1935. Mengiste, 49, did not want to turn in her final draft without revisiting the land in which those she wrote about had fought, bled and died.

It was on the 10th day, as they returned to Addis Ababa and prepared to go to sleep, that Mengiste’s mother said to her casually: “What about your greatgrandmother?”

Mengiste was stunned. She had spent nine years working on the novel. In all this time, she had had no idea that her great-grandmother had gone to war; that she had been thought too young to enlist but did so anyway; and that because the military did not provide weapons, she had sued her father for their family gun and won.

“Why didn’t you tell me this?” Mengiste demanded. “This is such important news for me.”

“Well,” said her mother, “you didn’t ask.”

“It makes me think about all of the stories that get lost, because the stories of women are not counted as history,” says Mengiste in a telephone interview.

“It’s the stories men tell each other at a party, in the classrooms and boardrooms, that get written down in textbooks and become history. But what women share with each other in kitchens, in homes, in the places they gather, is not looked at as history. I hope that begins to change.”

She is speaking from her home in Queens, New York. From time to time, a siren rends the air. The city, she says, is having a fresh surge of Covid-19 cases.

Born in Addis Ababa, she was four when her family was forced to flee during the 1970s Ethiopian Revolution, a period she writes about in her first novel, Beneath The Lion’s Gaze (2010).

They moved to Nigeria, Kenya and finally the United States.

While she remembers very little of her early years in America, she has startlingly clear recollections of Ethiopia, some of her happiest memories – birthday parties, playing with neighbours – mixed in with those of gunfire in the night, curfews and the way people became afraid to speak freely.

Her parents made sure she grew up with stories of Ethiopian history, such as the 1935 war. “In the United States, where racism is such an issue, other Americans – other white Americans – did not let me forget I was different. But because my parents reminded me, I believed that my difference as an Ethiopian was nothing to be ashamed of.”

Women have been active in war long before 1935 and all over the world, she notes, but these stories often go untold. “War is what makes a boy into a man. So what does it mean to have a woman at war? All these definitions of masculinity get completely upended.”

In the classic war stories, such as Homer’s The Iliad, women are the cause of war, its trophies and the territory on which it is fought.

“I wanted to think about the realities that I know, how myths could change if they were adapted to what actually happened. I wanted those women to rise up and push back.”

When her editor called her to tell her she had been shortlisted for the Booker, she began screaming into the phone. Then she started shaking all over.

“It was affirming,” she says. “It told me that I was part of a conversation, that I was not alone in this, that there were other people who wanted to know more.

“There have been women and girls who have come to me and shared stories, not necessarily connected to war but maybe to sexual assault, or to acts of resistance in different ways, to stepping forward when no one thought that they should even speak up.

“It makes the world feel smaller, and it reminds me that in many ways, we are a community.”

Review: An existential take on the many ways people inflict hurt on others Forgotten history of Ethiopia’s women soldiers

The first line of Maaza Mengiste’s The Shadow King sets the lyric tone for this Booker-nominated book: “She does not want to remember but she is here and memory is gathering bones.”

There is much to admire in this tale, which excavates the forgotten history of Ethiopian women soldiers in the 20th century.

The fractured narrative follows five main characters who are caught up in Ethiopia’s protracted conflicts, from the Italian invasion of 1935 to the Ethiopian Civil War of 1975.

Hirut is the orphaned girl whose arrival disrupts the privileged household of the high-strung Aster and her husband Kidane. She becomes an object of suspicion for Aster, who doubts her husband’s reasons for sheltering the girl. Hirut is oblivious to the undercurrents, much to her detriment, as the story unfolds.

Also woven into the narrative are the tales of Italian photographer Ettore Navarra, who is trying to conceal his Jewish ancestry, and Emperor Haile Selassie, depicted here as a melancholic, enervated classical-music fanatic.

As the threat of an Italian invasion looms in 1935, Kidane becomes a resistance leader, rallying people despite a fatal lack of resources and state support. Aster too finds a role – if not a calling, then a new obsession, as the focal point of the women in the resistance.

There are moments of poetry even as unspeakable events unfold: A hanging, “behold the rebellious silhouette spinning in a burning sun”; a rape, “a thing that is only folded flesh to be forced apart and used and disposed of at will”; a battle charge, “a bloom of white dresses, skirts rippling in the wind”.

There are lines here that readers will want to remember – beautiful phrases that belie the horrors of war and violence the words depict. This is the book’s strength, and also its weakness.



    By Maaza Mengiste
    Canongate/ Paperback/429 pages/ $21.95/Available at
    3.5 stars

Ethiopian-American author Mengiste is a professor in the Master of Fine Arts programme in Creative Writing & Literary Translation programme at Queens College, and some of the chapters here feel like carefully crafted exercises responding to the writing cues so beloved of structured writing workshops.

Yet there is no doubting the deep well of emotions that feeds this elegy, an inchoate outpouring that meanders and gets lost in its own detours.

There are too many characters who dip in and out of the periphery. The main characters themselves sometimes feel like players in a series of beautifully terrible tableaus, posed and moved for maximum effect.

Perhaps such fractured shards of narrative are the only way to capture the multiple horrors endured by the African continent in the modern era.

Mengiste is well-versed in the mythic language of the colonists, quoting Greek legends and Biblical verse to great effect.

If she wins the Booker Prize, which is quite likely given how this work bristles with hot-button topics, Mengiste will also have reasserted the memory of Africa’s forgotten but deep intellectual history.

As one of her characters reminds an Italian colonel: “You can find an Ethiope in the earliest books. We are older than this Roman culture you’re so proud of. We existed before you, when you were all just peasants, not even a people.”

This reminder alone makes this work worthwhile.

If you like this, read: Uzodinma Iweala’s Beasts Of No Nation (John Murray Press, 2015, $19.94, available at The Nigerian-American’s 2005 debut tells the gut-wrenching tale of Agu, a boy soldier, in a distinctive argot that conveys appalling, apocalyptic images with horrific intensity.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 25, 2020, with the headline 'Paying tribute to women on the front lines of war'. Print Edition | Subscribe