Naming the Dead

Novelist Maaza Mengiste discusses the erasure of women’s war stories, photography as a weapon of subjugation, and her new book, The Shadow King.

Lauren Goldenberg
October 17, 2019
Photo: Nina Subin

Maaza Mengiste’s engrossing second novel, The Shadow King, is set during the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in the 1930s. Mengiste centers the stories of the Ethiopian women who fought in that war, interwoven with the story of an Italian Jewish photographer forced to document Mussolini’s army’s atrocities in the region as race laws strip Jews of their citizenship back in Fascist Italy. The Shadow King captures two sweeping stories of 20th-century violence that, though deeply connected, are rarely encountered together.

Born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Mengiste is also the author of the novel Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, named one of The Guardian’s Ten Best Contemporary African Books. We met in a quiet corner of the New York Public Library one afternoon in early September to discuss The Shadow King. This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Lauren Goldenberg: In the author’s note at the end of the book, you explain that this novel was inspired by learning that your great-grandmother fought against the Italians when they invaded Ethiopia. Could you tell me about this discovery?

Maaza Mengiste: The uncanny thing is that, when I discovered this history, I was already creating two of the women characters, Hirut and Aster, and as I developed them, I was trying to find stories of women who had fought in that war. I knew that they were out there: I had found a stray line here, a photograph there. At some point, I was talking to my mother about my research, and out of the blue she said, “Don’t you know about your great-grandmother?” I could not believe it. All those years, I was thinking: I know these women exist. And all along, not only did they exist, but I had one in my own family. Once I knew that, I felt able to move into the novel with more confidence.

LG: After reading your book, I read Svetlana Alexievich’s The Unwomanly Face of War. In the introduction, she writes something that seems directly relevant to your project: “Women’s war has its own colors, its own smells, its own lighting and its own range of feelings.” When you first learned the history of what had happened in Ethiopia in the ’30s, did you sense the absence of stories that spoke to women’s experiences of the war?

MM: Since I was a child, I’d only known the stories of heroics and defiance from the male perspective. I would sit around and talk to Ethiopian friends, and they would say, “Well, my grandfather did this,” or, “My great-grandfather did this.” I heard stories about these men—how they wore the traditional white clothes, how they fought against tanks with old rifles or with spears. Nobody in my family even mentioned my great-grandmother.

But eventually I started wondering: What happens on a daily basis when you’re not in battle? What about the women? I started asking questions, but nobody had answers. That part of this history doesn’t exist. Alexievich is talking about the ways that women would pay attention to different things. This was certainly true in the Ethiopian context, because the women were fighters, but they also had to think about more quotidian aspects of survival in war. They prepared the food, they carried the water. They sewed scarves for the men. 

LG: At one point, the narrator describes Aster, the wife of Kidane (the Ethiopian military leader), this way: “She is one woman. She is many women.” That made me wonder: Is she an amalgamation of historical figures? There are other characters who might fit this description, too. In particular, I thought of “the cook,” whose name we never learn.

MM: With Aster, yes, she’s an amalgamation. I know women like her existed, but I didn’t base her on someone in particular. The same is true of the cook. I think her story’s not unusual. Most people, like Kidane and Aster, would just take their entire household, which would become part of the army. But I wondered about people who were enslaved or forced to work in places that they didn’t want to work when this war started. What if you didn’t want to fight? What if the so-called enemy, Italy, is telling you: “We’ll free you if you fight with us”? 

For me, the reason she isn’t named in the book is because she didn’t want to be named. When she was stolen from her village and made to work as a slave, she made a decision. She told herself: “They will not get my name. They may take me, but they won’t do that.” So this one part of her remained autonomous. 

LG: We start in the Ethiopian story, and we’re rooted there for the first half of the book. Then you introduce Ettore, the Italian Jewish photographer. At one point, Ettore, confronting the fact of his Jewishness as a soldier in a Fascist army, thinks: “How natural it has been to swerve into cruelty.” What interests you about this swerving? Why create this character?

MM: I wanted to explore this phenomenon of a decent human being suddenly swept up into cruelty—finding weaknesses in his own character, or maybe his own fear, guiding him further into that cruelty. What is that like? 

I was particularly interested in creating a Jewish character. First of all, because I wanted to put into conversation the Italian Fascist attempt to create an empire in East Africa with the whole context of ascendant fascism in Europe, and the way that, because of these forces, both Ethiopians and Italian Jews were bound by a similar fate.

I knew—from research, and also from talking to friends of mine who are Italian Jews—that the Italian Jews who were part of the Fascist army and went to Ethiopia or Libya were soon caught off guard when they learned about everything happening to Jews back home, because they identified so strongly as Italian—they were as Italian as they were Jewish. So what does “enemy” mean when you’re considered one thing one day, and something else another day? I wanted to explore that.

LG: The inclusion of Ettore and his father Leo, who has his own hidden traumatic past, allows you to place the narrative of the Holocaust alongside the history of Ethiopia in the late ’30s and early ’40s; while Ettore is stuck in Ethiopia, he grows increasingly worried about his father living under newly-instituted anti-Jewish policies. One of the points of contact between these narratives, it seems, is the idea of the silence that often surrounds trauma.

MM: The idea of Ettore’s life and his father’s secret past came out of something I was thinking about when I was writing my first book, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze—how much I didn’t know about my own family’s history during the Revolution, and how, as soon as I started talking to other people in my generation about it, they would tell me, “Oh, I’ve asked my parents about what happened to them during the Revolution, and they won’t tell me about it.” You hear this again and again, how parents often shut children out of these traumatic experiences. In some ways, this is the nature of survivors: “I’ve lived through something and it’s done.” I wanted to explore that a little bit with Leo. What will survivors of trauma tell, or not? What are we humanly capable of reliving in narratives?

LG: You successfully weave together layers of history and mythology and fiction. What was that process like? For example, were the specific acts of cruelty by the Italians that you portray in the book lifted from archival material? 

MM:  The prison camp that Carlo [a military commander] builds—it was a site of execution. The Italians had these black sites, secret prisons that were really just a holding place before they executed prisoners, to get rid of them as quickly as possible without the world knowing. They were dotted in towns across the country. A lot of Ethiopians didn’t know that this was happening. I saw some of the photographs from some of these sites, which helped me to feel comfortable writing about them. I didn’t even cover most of what the Italians did in Ethiopia. I simplified it. 

LG: Photography is very important in the book; you use it to explore the idea of what is hidden and what is purposively seen and captured.

MM: I actually started collecting images way before I started actually writing this book. I started looking through photographs from this war, taken by photojournalists who were sent by the New York Times or Mussolini or others. Often, scenes that they would shoot were staged. Because maybe there wasn’t a battle happening, but they had to meet a deadline, so they would set up some soldiers and have them point their guns, and those would be what we would get through the wire. And often, those images had to pass through censorship offices.

I’m fascinated by the terrain between what’s visible and what remains invisible, but may still be discernible. I wanted this book to consider the concept of photography—and more broadly, the concept of the image—and complicate it by thinking about it as a weapon of war. Photography has been used to define, redefine, and subjugate people for as long as it’s been in existence. The era of the Weimar Republic was the first time that people had handheld cameras instead of those big, bulky things. All of a sudden, soldiers were taking their cameras to war. 

Mussolini was well aware of the power of cameras when he was deciding to invade Ethiopia. Soldiers would take their own cameras, and develop the rolls in Asmara or Addis Ababa, or maybe not until they got back to Italy. Those were the photos I was interested in. From those kinds of images, I was able to piece together what really happened in the war. Those were the uncensored images—often grotesque—that became personal albums and personal possessions, and also postcards. I wanted to tell the story behind those kinds of images. I wanted to use Ettore as someone conflicted about his role as a photographer. I wondered: What does taking those photos do to a person?

LG: In the novel, there are two main ways for the characters to document the casualties of war. There’s the Album of the Dead—which contains Ettore’s photographs of the Ethiopians as they’re being tortured and killed by the Italians—and there’s the ledger with the names that the cook and Carlo’s mistress keep of all the Ethiopians who are being killed at the Italian prison. Is this novel supposed to serve as an Album of the Dead? 

MM: I was inspired by the Croatian writer Daša Drndić—particularly her beautiful book Trieste, in which she writes about the Holocaust and the fate of Italian Jews, people living right at the border of Croatia in Trieste, Italy. In the middle of the book, she includes pages and pages of names, listing about 9,000 Jews who were deported from Italy, or murdered in Italy or in an Italian-occupied country, between 1943 and 1945. She introduces the section with this line: “Behind Every Name There Is a Story.”

I wanted, in some small way, to nod to that, to the act of naming as an affirmation. I wrote The Shadow King thinking about all the people who died who remained nameless. Historians may remember people like Kidane and Aster, who were considered worthy of remembrance. But what happens to all those people—the farmers, the peasants, the poorest of the poor who fought—who are just never spoken of again? In this book, I wanted to remember them.

Lauren Goldenberg is deputy director at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. She is a member of the Jewish Currents Board of Directors and of the Jewish Currents Council, and her book reviews and author interviews have appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books and Music & Literature.