Spotlight: Maaza Mengiste’s New Novel

Maaza Mengiste at BookExpo in New York City, May 2019. (Photo: Creative Commons)

Tadias Magazine

By Tadias Staff

Published: July 23rd, 2019

Spotlight: Maaza Mengiste’s New Novel ‘The Shadow King’

New York (TADIAS) — One of our favorite Ethiopian American writers, Maaza Mengiste, is set to release her latest novel, The Shadow King, in September 2019.

Maaza, who is also the author of the award-winning book Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, “again brings heart and authenticity to a slice of Ethiopian history, this time focusing on the Italian invasion of her birth country in 1935,” notes Publishers Weekly in a recent great review of The Shadow King.

“While Hirut, a servant girl, and her trajectory to becoming a fierce soldier defending her country are the nexus of the story, the author elucidates the landscape of war by focusing on individuals — offering the viewpoints (among others) of Carlo Fucelli, a sadistic colonel in Mussolini’s army; Ettore Navarra, a Jewish Venetian photographer/soldier tasked with documenting war atrocities; and Haile Selassie, the emperor bearing the weight of his country’s devastation at the hand of the Italians.”

The review adds: “In Hirut, Mengiste depicts both a servant girl’s low status and the ferocity of her spirit — inspired by the author’s great-grandmother who sued her father for his gun so she could enlist in the Ethiopian army — which allows her to survive betrayal by the married couple she serves and her eventual imprisonment by Fucelli, captured with horrifying detail by Navarra’s camera. Mengiste breaks new ground in this evocative, mesmerizing account of the role of women during wartime—not just as caregivers, but as bold warriors defending their country.”

Maaza, who is currently a lecturer in Creative Writing at Princeton University, will hold a book talk and signing event here in her hometown of New York City at Strand bookstore on October 3rd.

“In this extraordinary, beautifully told epic, Hirut overcomes rape, violence, and imprisonment, finding the strength to fight for her country’s freedom and her own,” the Strand announcement states. “Maaza Mengiste breathes life into complicated characters on both sides of the battle line, shaping a searing story of ordinary women and the advanced army they courageously opposed. Set against the first real conflict of World War II, The Shadow King is a heartrending, indelible exploration of what it means to be a woman at war.”

The idea for Maaza’s new novel morphed out of her trip to Italy as a Fulbright Fellow where she was able to research documents focusing on the Fascist invasion of Ethiopia during World War II.

“Working with these documents that had been kept through Mussolini’s era, I quickly realized I was reading a history that had been approved by censors,” Maaza recalls. “And all of these things—the newspaper accounts, the photographs that were taken—were part of a propaganda machine.”

As Publishers Weekly noted in a previous highlight:

“Mengiste started combing through journals, letters, and photo albums at flea markets to find personal photographs taken by soldiers and other records of the past not approved by officials. She found a photograph of an Ethiopian woman with a rifle. “I’d heard of these women,” Mengiste says, “but it wasn’t part of my consciousness. I started looking through old newspapers, and I suddenly found a line in an article about an Ethiopian woman who picked up her husband’s gun during battle and led his army. That inspired Mengiste to write about women’s role during wartime against the backdrop of the hardships faced in Ethiopia during WWII. “I want to reshift the masculine perspective on war,” she says, “so that we can begin to reframe women at the center of world history. After Mengiste started writing the novel, she mentioned her discoveries to her mother. “My mother said, ‘Don’t you know about your great-grandmother?’ It turns out that as a young girl, my great-grandmother, who was wed to a man much older than her — she was much too young to be married — sued her father for his rifle so she could go off to war, as opposed to her husband whom she didn’t know very well and didn’t like.” So coincidentally, the very sort of woman who inspired her novel was actually part of her own heritage.

Maaza’s first novel Beneath the Lion’s Gaze was chosen as one of 10 best contemporary African books by The Guardian, and her writing has been featured in several publications including Rolling Stone, The New Yorker, The New Times, Granta and Guernica. In 2018 Maaza won a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and was a former Fulbright Fellow. She received the Puterbaugh Fellowship in 2013 and was also nominated as a runner-up for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize in 2011. As a writer Maaza worked on the documentary features Girl Rising and The Invisible City: Kakuma. Maaza currently serves as a Board member for the non-profit organizations Words Without Borders and Warscapes.

‘The Shadow King’ will be released on September 24th, 2019. You can learn more and order your copy at

Maaza Mengiste’s Outstanding New Essay on Refugees
Tadias Q & A With Maaza Mengiste

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