South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday)

The detective work behind Mengiste’s ‘Shadow King’

- ByWadzanai Mhute

When Ma az aM engi ste found out that shewas a Booker Prize finalist for her novel “The ShadowKing,” “Iwent fromscream­ing into the phone, when my editor toldme, to just sitting downvery quietly,” she said in a phone interview.

“I couldn’t speak, I couldn’tmove,” Mengiste added. “Iwas just shaking.”

The book, about a young Ethiopian woman whobecomes a soldier in the Second Italo-EthiopianW­ar in 1935, features some of the characters Mengiste introduced in her debut novel, “Beneath the Lion’s Gaze,” including Haile Selassie, Ethiopia’s emperor during that time. She spent yearsworki­ng on “The ShadowKing.”

“Iwanted tomake sure that I knewenough to develop a full history,” she said. “Iwas tryingnew things, and I toldmyself to forget everything, forget theway you think you’re supposed towrite a novel and do what you really want to do.”

Mengiste spoke about the book, the difficulti­es of researchin­g such a fraught period and the photograph­y she found that helped inform herwriting. These are edited excerpts from the conversati­on.

Why did you choose the title “The Shadow King”?

Iwanted the title to represent several things. The obvious one— there is a body doublewhot­akes the place ofEmperorH­aile Selassie, whofled to the United Kingdom. Emperors ofEthiopia have been called the “suns unto their people,” and when the sun leaves, the country is in shadow. There is a Bible verse in Isaiah:“Woe to the country that shadows Ethiopia withwings.” But it also felt tome like itwasn’t just one king, and this is something that the book begins to develop— that all thesewomen­that rose up replaced the king.

Another layer I thought of is photograph­y, and what does a photograph­er do butwork with shadowand light? We haveEttore, the Italian photograph­er, who calls himself the archivist of atrocities, but he is also in a darker sense a king wholives in the shadows.

Canwe discuss photograph­y andEttore and whathe represente­d in this story?

Iwas really interested in the role of photograph­y in colonizing­wars. Italy’swars to subjugate human beings, to enact violence upon them— the camera came first, and the photograph­s developed a narrative of those groups of people thatwould justify the violence.

Mussolini was wellaware of the power of photograph­y, thepower of visuals. That fascist period was anexplosio­n ofpropagan­da, of posters, of films. Hewaswell-aware ofwhat hewas doing, andheknew that sendingcam­eras into thewar to take photograph­s would justify thatwar.

I started towonder howto speak about this in

the book because I knew that therewere photograph­s that the soldiers brought back with them. I wanted tomake a character a photograph­er/soldier. What is it like to witness and participat­e and perpetuate violence all at the same time? Can the camera really be a shield for somebody or is it an instrument of complicity? Where is it that those lines start to blur?

Iwanted to explore throughEtt­ore this act of looking, and also a blindness I think racism and

bigotry enforces on human beings, that they cannot see what it is they are staring at. Iwanted to explore the world of the visible and also theworld of the invisible through photograph­s.

Canyoutalk about your research, particular­ly with photograph­y?

The official archives that Iwas looking at in different places in Italywere helpful in someways, but I quickly realized that in order for meto find history that had not been censored by the fascists, I needed to become inventive.

I started speaking with Italian friendswho­were the descendant­s of soldiers whohad been in thewar. I discovered that those soldierswh­ohad been in thewar often had a camera or they bought or traded photograph­s and postcards. They also had journals, diaries— those things thatwere not censored. I decided to look for those artifacts, and I started going to flea markets.

At almost every flea market across Italy there is at least one table that is selling fascist parapherna­lia. I would go to that table, and I would ask them if they had any photograph­s, anything dealing with the colonial period inEast Africa.

Iwould get one of two reactions. The first reactionwo­uld be bending over backward to try to help mebecause they either recognized IwasEthiop­ian or East African, and they thought thatmight bewhy Iwas interested in this. I developed good friendship­s with some of these vendors whowould then textme if they had something interestin­g.

But then therewas also the other reaction of them seeing this Blackwoman coming up to them and wanting this history that they did not thinkwas mine. And a lot of them were rude. Somewould try to pushmeaway from the table. Sometimes they would grab whateverwa­s inmy hand and tellmeto get away. I alwayswent with an Italian friend, and sowhen that happened, I would justwalk away and tellmy friend to buy the things I saw. I have a pretty good archive now.

Youwere dedicated.

This history is not just theirs. It’s mine too. These people are part ofme, and it’s African history. Who has a right to push an African away fromAfrica­n history?

Whenhistor­ians or writers start to look at documents fromhistor­y, we’re moving in contested territory. There are huge gaps, andwe are in danger of falling into pits, ifwe don’t knowwhere to look. We still have to decolonize the archives.

 ?? NAIMAGREEN/THENEWYORK­TIMESPHOTO­S ?? “To be anAfrican or to be a part of any group of people that has been colonizedw­henyou’re researchin­g in the archives,” Maaza Mengiste said,“it’s not just research— it’s detectivew­ork that you have to do.”
NAIMAGREEN/THENEWYORK­TIMESPHOTO­S “To be anAfrican or to be a part of any group of people that has been colonizedw­henyou’re researchin­g in the archives,” Maaza Mengiste said,“it’s not just research— it’s detectivew­ork that you have to do.”
 ??  ?? “I’m captivated by theway she stands there andwears her dress as if itwere armor,” Maaza Mengiste said of this undated photograph in her archive.
“I’m captivated by theway she stands there andwears her dress as if itwere armor,” Maaza Mengiste said of this undated photograph in her archive.

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