South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday)
The detective work behind Mengiste’s ‘Shadow King’
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.
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.