Maaza Mengiste | Ethiopian-American author says ‘My 20-year-old self never realised you could become a writer’

by Hester Lacey | Financial Times

Maaza Mengiste, 49, was shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize for her novel The Shadow King, which draws on women’s experiences of the 1930s war between Ethiopia and Italy. She was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, from where her family fled during the 1974-91 civil war, and she has subsequently lived in Nigeria, Kenya and the US. A professor of creative writing and literary translation at Queens College, New York, she is also the author of Beneath the Lion’s Gaze.

What was your childhood or earliest ambition?
To be a musician. I made a guitar out of a shoebox and rubber bands. I thought I was going to be a rock star.

Private school or state school? University or straight into work?
I have a hazy memory of being in a school in Ethiopia, learning the Amharic alphabet. I learnt English initially in Nigeria. In Kenya, I learnt how to read. In the US, I went to school in Colorado and to the University of Michigan, which showed me how literature could change the world. I was working in advertising and I thought I could maybe move into the film industry. I thought film would be my dream job — but I hated it. I felt the way the film industry was run was the antithesis of creativity. I was working at a studio that went for big blockbusters. It wasn’t for me. But I learnt about storytelling, how to build characters.


Who was or still is your mentor?
Trieste by Dasa Drndic blew open my parameters, my sense of what could be done with a novel. My conversations with Drndic had a profound effect.

How physically fit are you?
I am active.

Ambition or talent: which matters more to success?
Discipline is right there with talent. You have to work towards inspiration — those moments before you get there require discipline.

How politically committed are you?
I’m very engaged and committed to the wellbeing and the functioning of this country that I’m in. The work of politics also involves the work of language — we’ve seen the deterioration of language in the way we can’t trust what has been said or how it’s been said. Language needs to regain the seriousness it once had.


What’s your biggest extravagance?
I have artworks I’ve picked up in different countries, not necessarily expensive, but when I’m writing they’re absolutely inspiring. It feels extravagant, but also necessary in terms of the nourishment I need to keep going.

What would you like to own that you don’t currently possess?
A beautiful old leather-bound copy of The Iliad.

In what place are you happiest?
Something opens up inside me when I’m in the highlands of Ethiopia — a feeling of wellbeing but also vastness that I haven’t experienced anywhere else.

What ambitions do you still have?
Writing The Shadow King terrified me. The next book that I write, I want it again to scare me. I would like to gather more stories about the war between Italy and Ethiopia. I don’t think I’m done with that yet.

What drives you on?
Reclaiming spaces for those stories that have not been heard yet.

What is the greatest achievement of your life so far?
The family around me, both in the US and Ethiopia. We may not always agree, but we love each other.

What do you find most irritating in other people?
Hesitancy. That thing where you know someone is capable of doing something that they haven’t done yet.

If your 20-year-old self could see you now, what would she think?
She’d be overjoyed and proud, but shocked, because she never realised that it was possible to become a writer. She had never met a writer.

Which object that you’ve lost do you wish you still had?
Family photographs. I have some of these images in my mind from when I was a child. I ask my mother where they are and she doesn’t know.

What is the greatest challenge of our time?
The establishment of a world that recognises the contribution, the lives, the history of black and indigenous and transgender people. A world that is more just, that reflects the human beings that live here. That goes hand in hand with policies that protect that world.

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Do you believe in an afterlife?
Yes, because it does me no good not to believe. I’m open to leaving this as an unexplained possibility.

If you had to rate your satisfaction with your life so far, out of 10, what would you score?
High. Let’s say eight.

“The Shadow King” by Maaza Mengiste is published by Canongate

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Maaza Mengiste is an upcoming guest on our podcast, Culture Call, where FT editors and special guests discuss life and art in the time of coronavirus. Subscribe on AppleSpotify, or wherever you listen

Read from source Financial Times