By Carolyn Okomo

August 2013
Exclusive Interview 

Ethiopian-born author Maaza Mengiste

Ethiopian-born author Maaza Mengiste

READING ROOM — Ethiopia’s last emperor, Haile Selassie, was deposed almost 39 years ago in a military coup lead by the opposing Derg regime that ended the nation’s 3,000-year-old rule by monarch. What followed was almost two decades of intimidation and genocide that saw an official end in 1991. The legacy of that violent period is captured in the fictional work of Ethiopian-born author Maaza Mengiste, whose 2010 debut novel “Beneath the Lion’s Gaze” earned her a spot on The Guardian’s 10 best contemporary American books in addition to several other notable honors. The book tells the story of a family divided both physically and emotionally as a result of the movement against Selassie’s rule and subsequent regime change. Mengiste was also one of nine world-renowned authors to participate in director Richard Robbin’s “Girl Rising” documentary film. The project brought Mengiste back to her country of origin to write the story of a teenager named Azmera—a girl who made the decision to break with her culture’s tradition of forced early marriage in order to pursue an education. The author, who’s currently at work on a second novel, spoke with The Africa Bazaar about her work, her native country and what it means to be an “African writer.”

Q. How did you get involved in the “Girl Rising” documentary project?

I was living in Rome at the time and researching my second book, and I got an email, first from my agent and then a friend of mine who said that a director named Richard Robbins was interested in contacting me about a documentary project. I read the email — it told a little bit about the project. I was fascinated, but not quite sure that it would actually happen. It sounded almost too good to be true. But, I emailed back. I contacted Richard and we had a chance to talk and he told me they wanted me to write about Ethiopia, ‘would I be interested?’ He told me that they were thinking of looking into forced early marriage but wanted my opinion on whether I thought that was an urgent enough issue.

Even though I’m from Ethiopia, I’ve only been in the city, so I started doing research and, once I looked at statistics I realized Ethiopia is the number-one country in Africa for forced early marriage and then I called my mother just to ask her if this was an issue and she said, ‘Yes, you know they still do this. This happened to your grandmother. This happened to your great grandmother. This is how it’s been done and it’s still happening in the countryside.’

So I became really invested, not only having that insight, but also understanding that it was a part of my own family history.

Q. For the project you were partnered with a young Ethiopian teenager by the name of Azmera. As someone who has been geographically and culturally removed from the country for some time, what were some of the biggest challenges you encountered while filming?

When I met with Azmera and her family, they had been used to Americans—foreigners—coming in because Richard and the crew had been there before on a trip to meet Azmera for the first time, so they were a little bit used to the visit but when they saw me, an Ethiopian who speaks English and also acts very American, it took them a little while of simply sitting and staring at me to just, I think, to try to take it all in that it is possible to be this kind of Ethiopian also, or this kind of American.

Meeting them was really an eye-opener for me also because I [until then] haven’t really had any type of interaction with people who live like that. I’ve been living in America for most of my life—but whenever I would go back to Ethiopia, I went back to my family in Addis Ababa and I, like most people, never leave the city and have not gone really far into a village except for maybe for 50 kilometers, 60 kilometers to go on a vacation at a resort. So when I went to the countryside, it was stunning and a moving experience for me because what I understood was that the countryside is not the way that it has been depicted on television and through the media.

Once we broke down the awkward barrier between us, I was able to connect with them. My Amharic is not perfectly fluent but I can communicate and could understand them, and we were able to talk and I was able to ask questions. In the days that I was there, I got to know the family well and I grew so fond of them. When Richard went back for a third visit, they sent me their own greeting on video, which was just lovely.

Q. Do you have plans to see them in the future?

I have my own personal plans to do that at some point when I go back. We haven’t arranged it yet with the producers of the film. But I know that area also happens to be where my father comes from just by coincidence and so that was another point of connection with Azmera’s family. And so I’ve wanted to go there anyway, again, with my own family and maybe there’s something that can be worked out.

Q. How has the film impacted your life?

On a daily basis my life is the same. Personally, it’s been a rewarding experience to be part of it. But in terms of being a writer and a creative person, it’s been rewarding and it’s been a powerful experience to be part of something that can make an impact. Writers—we tend to sit in our own world, we tend to isolate ourselves for weeks and months at a time working on a book. Then the book goes out and someone buys it, but reading it becomes another solitary experience.

This film has been a collaboration from the very beginning and that’s been a very different thing and when people watch it, they don’t watch it by alone. It is being watched with a group of friends at a theater or at other locations, and after it’s done; then you talk about it. All the stories then become a point of discussion and it’s created a sense of community between the writers of this film and the production team. The film has gone out—the work has been done, but it’s also shown me a different way of creating. A different avenue for creativity and it’s been wonderful.

Q. How vital a role does education play in empowering girls around the world, especially in developing nations like Ethiopia?

I think education is the answer. It’s the key to mobility—social mobility, to financial stability, to a sense of emotional well-being. But, I think in the U.S., we think education is high school, college, masters, Ph.D. I think one of the things I do want to clarify is that when we speak about education and really what we’re talking about is literacy—we are working on getting Azmera the very basics of education so she can read and she can write and then she can make the next step—and if we can think of education in that way, if we think of it in terms of helping people decipher what they need to in order to become more than where they are right now, which is really at the level of literacy. I think it’s absolutely vital.

Q. What aspects for “Beneath the Lion’s Gaze” were drawn from your own personal experiences?

Beneath the Lion's gazeI began writing the book just based on memory. I left [Ethiopia] very young but I had very clear images of what was happening even though I didn’t understand the historical and political context. Even though people didn’t explain to me what was happening when someone was taken away in a police car or when soldiers would break into our house. Or when we couldn’t go outside and play because we could hear gunshots. I remember those things but I didn’t understand what was happening.

What I did understand was that people suddenly became afraid. That suddenly there were soldiers everywhere—on every street corner. That we couldn’t go into some buildings without showing identification. That sense of apprehension, kind of like a society under surveillance—I remember very clearly, even though I lived here during most years of the revolution.

I was eventually able to go back and visit during the time of the dictatorship, so I also had those memories as older child and also as a teenager. And I understood more clearly at that point what was happening on my visits. And, those were the things I incorporated into my book.

Q. What in particular made you curious about this specific period of Ethiopia’s history that you depicted?

I think it was just the sense of having unanswered questions about what I remembered. The fact that there were gaps in my childhood. I mean, I couldn’t piece a narrative together that involved these images that I just told you about in any type of a comprehensive story of my life because I didn’t know enough. And finding myself in America and wishing I was back home with my family. I think maybe like every immigrant, we begin to say, ‘Why am I here? What brought me here? Was it better to stay or is it actually better to be here?’

And, those were the questions that kind of fueled me into beginning to do research and, again, once I saw or began to understand the human elements in some of my questions about history and politics, I became really interested in writing the story down.

Q. As you’d recently wrote for The Guardian, the question of whether you consider yourself an African writer is one you tend to receive a lot. Why do you think people like to place these types of characterizations or labels on literary works?

I’m not sure. What is it that you’re interested in or afraid of in a book? That question helps to clarify it. You know, when I pick up a book, I want to know what the book is about. I’d like to know what the writer has written before that I have liked. I’m reading, right now, a writer. I’m halfway into the book and I liked what she was doing with structure and craft. So I looked her up and she’s from Scotland. But I didn’t care about that. I wanted a story.

So I feel like when these questions get asked, it seems in many ways—I think it’s a shorthand. It’s an easy way for people to try to figure out the kind of story they’ll be reading. But that also carries implications that I feel are narrow: What does an African writer—so-called African writer—write about? What should they be writing about?

Q. Where do you think your work fits into the greater scheme of literary works?

I think that the book that I wrote will fall into African literature, into Ethiopian literature, into East African literature, but written by someone from the diaspora. Written by a writer who is Ethiopian-American or American-Ethiopian. If I choose to write a book that’s based in Brooklyn, do I then become one of the Brooklyn writers that everyone is talking about? If I choose to write about something that doesn’t involve Ethiopia, that has no Ethiopian characters at all, then does that mean that I’m characterized based on what I write? Or, can the book stand on its own?

And I think those are interesting questions. I think they can get complicated. I’m very aware of the complications of this but I think we do have to begin to state the fact that it’s a complicated question. That it’s not an easy answer for everyone and no one will have the same answer.

Q. You’re working on a new book, and it’s going to focus on the Italian invasion of Ethiopia during World War II. Can you tell us anything about that?

The little that I can say about it is that it is set during the fascist invasion of Ethiopia and the subsequent war and Italian occupation. My characters and men and women, Ethiopian and Italian. And so I kind of bring them together and try to imagine what those interactions must have been like through every phase of this conflict.
Copyright © 2013 Imek Media, LLC, All Rights Reserved. First published in magazine August 2013