A Short Interview with Maaza Mengiste, Ethiopian-American Writer

To start off the Black Italia Dialogue series, I had the pleasure of interviewing novelist Maaza Mengiste before the event, “Cara Mamma, Sono in Africa”: Camera, Soldiers, Empires, on March 3rd. We discussed briefly about her journey as a writer and about her novel-in-progress, The Shadow King. I was curious to find out the connections between her writing and her relationship with Ethiopia, Maaza’s native country.

“They asked again and again when Ethiopia’s backward slide into the Middles Ages would stop. He had no answers, could do nothing but sit and gaze in helplessness at an empty hand that looked pale and thin in the afternoon sun.”

– Beneath the Lion’s Gaze

I want to say that I admire the work. Simply by reading the first couple of pages of the novel, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, I was hooked! I could visualize myself in this horrific time. I can only imagine how in depth the upcoming novel will be.

My thanks to Maaza Mengiste for giving me and La Pietra Dialogues the opportunity to have an exclusive interview with you.

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Ledwin Martinez: Let me begin with an easy and simple question: When was the last time you came to Italy?

Maaza Mengiste: A year ago. I try to come to Italy at least once a year, if I can.

LM: So how does it feel every time you come back to Italy?

MM: So nice, I love it! I love the country. It is a beautiful country. I like the history… being able to walk somewhere and you are suddenly face to face with history, with something so old that it takes a while to imagine that time. I really like that. It seems like each and every town has its own personality. Florence, for example, is not a little town, but it has something that makes it different from Rome or Venice. I really appreciate those things about the country.

LM: Is there anything in particular that stands out each time you come to Italy?

MM: The people, how friendly they are. I find them to be helpful. I think for me what is also important is the art, the culture that’s here. Also seeing, especially when I go to Venice… I walk around, I see the presence of Black people from centuries ago. It is very evident in some of the cities that Africans were here also. I really like that about Italy. It is so geographically close to Africa that you get some of that culture here.

LM: I totally agree with you. It has only been about a month and every day I go outside I see how people interact with one another. I feel that every time I walk to school or towards the Duomo or anywhere, I am walking into history. It’s fascinating.

MM: Yes it is!

LM: In other interviews, you have expressed how writing about Ethiopia is scary. After all these years and now in the process of publishing your second novel, is it still scary?

MM: I think that in the beginning the scary part of it was, “Oh my gosh! I can’t believe I’m writing a book!” Every day I would sit there in front of that blank page and say to myself “Now what? Where does Dr. Hailu go from here? Where does my character Dawit? What will he do today? What will happen?” And that is a scary feeling when you have to try to imagine all of it and make it fit.

LM: Is it a lot of pressure?

MM: Well there’s a little bit of pressure too. I cannot lie, it doesn’t get easier.

LM: It doesn’t?

MM: No. I thought that when I started the second book,  I said “This is a piece of cake! I did this with the first one!” No. I sit in front of that second book and it is like you forgot everything. And that is because every book is different. It is working on different muscles and separate skills. The second book is scary too. Both those stories for me were really captivating and fascinating. I was interested and curious about that time in Ethiopian history so it just keeps me going.

LM: And that is great! It gives a personal connection to the story and country. So what is your relationship with Ethiopia, since you have been living abroad for so long?

MM: Well, I go back often. I was just back there in December and January. My parents are back there and I still have a lot family there. So many close ties still. I still keep a connection there.

LM: Speaking of connections, is there any relationship between your novel-in-progress and your first novel, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze?

MM: Yes. Actually that is a great question. Yes, the novel in progress is about the moment in Ethiopian history before the revolution, which was the setting for my first book. So in the second book I go back in time, but the first book had Haile Selassie as an 80 year old man. The second book, since I am going back in time, he is now 30 years old. So you will see a younger version, and it also gives a sense of what was happening to the country to get to the 1974 revolution. Maybe I should have done it the other way around, but this was the way it happened.

LM: No, I think it was good, because now you answer questions that perhaps many people were trying to find the answer to. It is a powerful way of telling a story, by just going back in time further.

Now, another question your readers are dying to find out is: When will your novel, The Shadow King, be ready and published?

MM: I am not sure yet. It depends on my editor and what she says. Maybe next year, or the year after. It depends on the pace of publishing. But the book is well in progress, so I am excited about that.

LM: So am I, so are we! Hopefully sooner than we think! So as we reach the end of this interview I have one last question: As a professional writer, a professor and an inspirationalist, do you have anything to say to those students who are looking to find a career as a writer?

MM: If you want a career as a writer, you also have to think about a career as a reader. You really have to read… everything that you can… even books you think you may not like, you should pick up and read; writing just doesn’t happen without a good background in reading, and that is one of the best practices. In addition to the reading, being a writer means that you write. You try to write everyday, even if it’s one sentence, even if it’s a note in a notebook that you carry around. If it’s a paragraph that’s great. Maybe those sentences will build into a paragraph and that will build into a story. But write everyday. It is the same advice I was given when I was starting out. Write and read.

LM: That was great advice! Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me.

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