Q & A With Maaza Mengiste

Maaza Mengiste was born in Ethiopia. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from NYU. A recent Pushcart Prize nominee, she was named “New Literary Idol” by New York Magazine. (Photo © Miriam Berkley)

Tadias Magazine
By Tadias Staff

Published: Monday, January 11, 2010

New York (TADIAS) – In the last few years we have witnessed the emergence of Ethiopian-American authors who are making their mark on the tapestry of American literature. The latest such work comes from Maaza Mengiste, a Pushcart Prize nominee who was recently named “New Literary Idol” by New York Magazine.

Her debut novel, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze depicts Ethiopia in the 1970s, when the country was undergoing a political revolution. The military had just deposed an archaic monarchy system with a promise of peaceful change. But what followed Emperor Haile Selassie’s removal was anything but peaceful. The country would soon plunge into unimaginable violence.

Following in the footsteps of other highly acclaimed works by Ethiopian-American authors including Nega Mezlekia (Notes Form the Hyena’s Belly) and Dinaw Mengistu (The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears), Maaza delivers what Chris Abani calls “an important story from a part of Africa too long silent in the World Republic of Letters.”

The Library Journal adds “Although the depictions of brutality are extensive, they are also realistic and captivating, helping place Beneath the Lion’s Gaze into a small cadre of Ethiopian fiction, including Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone and Camilla Gibb’s Sweetness in the Belly.”

Below is our Q & A with Maaza Mengiste:

TADIAS: Please tell us a bit about yourself. What/who motivated you to become a writer?

Maaza: I was born in Addis Ababa, and lived in Nigeria and Kenya before coming to the US. While living in the US, I made visits back to Ethiopia to see my family. I received my undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan and my MFA from NYU. I don’t know who specifically motivated me to be a writer. I’ve always loved to read and write. I think a combination of many writers gave me the courage to make the move into the literary world, especially world/international writers.

TADIAS: Can you share more about other writing projects you completed prior to this debut novel?

Maaza: Though this is my first major writing project, I have written a few short stories as well as some nonfiction pieces. My main focus over the past several years was this novel, however, and this didn’t give me very much time to do other writing.

TADIAS: Are your own memories of Ethiopia similar to the ones that you describe in your novel? If not, how are they different?

Maaza: Yes, some of my own memories shape this book, but I was also very young. Only after I was older was I able to put events and certain memories into historical and political context. As a child, all that you know is that there are gunshots at night, people are taken away, and you see soldiers, you’re afraid and you sense the fear, but you don’t necessarily understand the reasons.

TADIAS: Do any of the characters depicted in your novel mirror people that you know?

Maaza: Hailu, who is the central character and a doctor in my book most closely resembles my grandfather. However, my grandfather was not a doctor. He (and so many men of his generation) seemed to have a certain dignity and strength that I wanted to convey in Hailu. Most of the other characters are a combination of personalities I know, or purely fictional.

TADIAS: Your book is now part of a growing library of works which NPR has said is coming from a generation of Ethiopian Americans who are “part of a wave of young people whose families fled Ethiopia in the 1970s and who came of age in the United States…adding a new chapter to the epic of American immigration.” Is this something you identify with?

Maaza: I do see myself as part of a wave of Ethiopians who have left Ethiopia and are continuing to express that journey in one way or another. I am excited to see this “wave” grow, there is a new generation of Ethiopians who are telling their own stories through music, art, literature, science, through so many fields. It is impressive, and it reminds me that despite everything that has happened in Ethiopia, we will always continue to strive for a better future for ourselves and our families.

TADIAS: What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

Maaza: I enjoy reading and spending time with friends and family. I enjoy photography.

TADIAS: Thanks for the interview and congratulations on the new book release.

Maaza: Thank you all for the support and encouragement. If you know of an artist, a writer, someone struggling to live their dreams, please encourage them also. We need many different voices and perspectives.

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16 Responses to “Q & A With Maaza Mengiste”

  1. 1 Mahlet Abera Jan 11th, 2010 at 6:09 pm

    Congratulations Maaza. As a struggling writer myself, I have soft spot for authors. Finishing your first book must have felt like giving birth. You have done your job. Now, it is up to us the readers and the critics to feast upon your novel. Can’t wait to rush to the bookstore to pick up my copy. Congratulations!

  2. 2 Bamako Jan 12th, 2010 at 9:55 am

    Ms. Maaza Mengiste,

    This sounds very interesting. When will the book be available for international market? Or more specifically West Africa? Thank you.

  3. 3 Yeshiemebet Jan 13th, 2010 at 10:03 am

    It is equally exciting to see a female addition to the new generation of high caliber writers among the Ethiopian diaspora! Looking forward to reading the book.

  4. 4 Mani Jan 13th, 2010 at 8:59 pm

    Fantastic! Will catch you in Frisco, Sunny California on Jan 26. Looking forward to it as well.


  5. 5 Pat Ortman Jan 14th, 2010 at 2:26 pm

    I’m so excited that she will be at Politics and Prose in our neighborhood on the 22nd!

  6. 6 Ayele Bekerie Jan 17th, 2010 at 4:42 am

    Dear Maaza,

    I read your book. It is an extremely captivating and powerful book. It takes a reader fully in tune with nuances of most recent contemporary Ethiopian culture and politics to grasp the meanings and meaniglessness of violent change. For instance, the names of the characters carry subtle and not so subtle messages in relation to the stories depicted in them. Anbesa, Solomon and Dawit or Mekonnen, the heroes in the book, are depicted in such a way that the old is integrated with the new. The names are drawn from long and rich cultural and religious history of Ethiopia.

    I wouldn’t use the word ‘impoverished’ to describe Sofia’s family. They are poor but blessed with self-worth and self-dignity. Berhane’s stupid death (the notion of stupid death becomes real with the incomprhensible tragedy unfolding in Haiti after the earthquake).

    To me, your gaze is endowed with multiple and ambiguous meanings. To me, you are a cartographer who meticulously crafted the geography of eyes. Now I understand why you love photography. I intend to write a review of the book.

    Thank you for telling your own story and in the process for giving us an opportunity to reflect upon the consequences of the 1974 Ethiopian ‘revolution.’

  7. 7 yanet (Tati) Jan 18th, 2010 at 3:35 am

    Well done Maazi! We’re all very proud of you! looking forward to see you in San Francisco
    on the 26′th.

  8. 8 Ayele Bekerie Jan 18th, 2010 at 10:28 am

    Dear Tadias,

    In my response note dated January 17th, 2010 at 4:42 am, I forgot to complete the second sentence of the second paragraph: Please replace it with the following sentences: Berhane’s stupid death (the notion of stupid death becomes real with the incomprehensible tragedy unfolding in Haiti after the earthquake of January 12, 2010)makes you disgusted with the ‘revolution.’ Berhane, however, is one of the characters that I will remember and talk about for a long time to come.

    Thank you.


  9. 9 Girum Jan 18th, 2010 at 8:59 pm

    I Just finished reading your book. It is just wonderful. Hope to see more of your works in the future.

  10. 10 Yoseph Bay Jan 20th, 2010 at 4:18 pm

    Hello Meaza,
    Congratulations! We are proud of you. When will you be back to Ann Arbor? I don’t know if you remember me but we used to friends in late 80′s in Ann Arbor.

  11. 11 Hannah S Feb 5th, 2010 at 4:06 pm

    Dear Meaza, I read an excerpt of your work-the part concerning the young girl’s death in hospital and I’ve gone out to get your book. I hope that writers will reveal not only the senseless troubles past but also the continuing beauty of Ethiopian and Ethiopians. I’m astounded by the excerpt I read and am proud and excited.

  12. 12 Derege Feb 15th, 2010 at 9:34 pm

    Just finished reading it. Wonderful! I can’t wait for the your next one. I am so proud that one of us, so young, display such a class of talent. Keep it up! It is not easy to make it to NY Times, Denver post, NPR etc. You must have worked really hard. Congratulations!


  13. 13 Solomon Lemma Feb 25th, 2010 at 1:58 pm

    The pioneer writer Hama Tuma whose The Case of the Socialist Witch doctor and The case of the Criminal Walk are classics depicting that periood. Not to mention his genre breaking Amharic novel Kedada Chereka.

  14. 14 imru zelleke Mar 1st, 2010 at 11:53 am

    A powerful expose of the most tragic era of Ethiopian history. Maaza is a powerful writer, whose rich and magnificent prose narrates in depth the awful and terrifiying episode that has disarrayed our society and initiated a fatal decline of the thousands year old Ethiopian ethos. She is a great writer and I look forward to her next book. We should be proud of her, she is an Ethiopian heroine in her right, and a champion of the future generation of achievers that will restore our culture and traditions.

  15. 15 Mimi (Florida) Mar 25th, 2010 at 3:19 pm

    Wonderful book! I highly recommend it!

  16. 16 Wassen E. Apr 7th, 2010 at 4:35 pm

    An excellent book and well written novel It reminds me the jail time I spent during those terrible years.

    Good job MM!

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