Maaza Mengiste has just won the Mystery Writers of America 2021’s Short Story Prize for “Dush, Ash and Flight” , we celebrate with her this and many accolades she has garnered in her literary journey. We’re confident that by congratulating her will be doing that on behalf of the Africa – gauging by how viral this announcement went on social media platforms across the continent.
Meet one of the sources Africa’s pride
Maaza Mengiste was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and lived in Nigeria and Kenya before moving to the United States. She’s a novelist, essayist and social justice advocate “whose work examines the individual lives at stake during migration, war and exile, and considers the intersections of photography and violence.”
She currently serves on the boards of Words Without Borders and Warscapes, and lectures on creative writing at Princeton University, a private Ivy League university in Princeton, New Jersey.
Maaza is a member of Black Artists for Freedom. Her next book, A Brief Portrait of Small Deaths, is a novel set in Berlin during the interwar years that focuses on the lives of Afro-German models who sat for some of Germany ‘s greatest painters and follows their lives as Nazism takes hold of Germany.
“I think a writer’s identity is that of someone who has pledged allegiance to seeking and challenging truths. If I’m writing as I should, I am in exile from my own identity, I am challenging my own comfort zones,” Maaza says matter-of-factly.
She’s also the author of the novel, The Shadow King, which is shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize, and was a 2020 LA Times Book Prize Fiction finalist. It was named best book of the year by the New York Times, NPR, Elle, Time, and more. The Shadow King is now available in paperback and was called “a brilliant novel… compulsively readable” by Salman Rushdie.
Her debut novel, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, was selected by The Guardian as one of the 10 best contemporary African books and named one of the best books of 2010 by Christian Science Monitor, Boston Globe, and other publications.
Maaza says about fiction writing: “What is profound about fiction is that it creates a place where we can imagine the possible futures of these kinds of movements. Those are the kinds of questions we have to ask as writers.”
She is the recipient of an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature, the Premio il ponte, and fellowships from the Fulbright Scholar Program, the National Endowment for the Arts, and Creative Capital. She was a Runner-Up for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize for Beneath the Lion’s Gaze.
Her work can be found in The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, Granta, The Guardian, The New York Times, Rolling Stone, and BBC, Lettre International, among other places.
Maaza was also a writer on the documentary films The Invisible City: Kakuma, about a refugee camp in the middle of the Turkana desert in Kenya that has become the region’s fastest-growing community; and Girl Rising, which tells the stories of nine girls from developing nations around the world overcoming obstacles to education and security. Girl Rising, which features the voices of Meryl Streep, Liam Neeson, and Cate Blanchett, is part of the Girl Rising project, a global action campaign for girls’ education and empowerment.
Extract from Maaza Mengiste’s writings
Writing About the Forgotten Black Women of the Italo-Ethiopian War
Error! Filename not specified.I own a picture of a young Ethiopian girl whom I have started to call Hirut. She is in her teens, and her hair is pulled away from her face and hangs down her back in thick braids. She wears a long Ethiopian dress and even in the aged, black-and-white photo, it is easy to see that it is worn and stained. In the photo, Hirut has turned from the camera. I imagine that she is looking down at the ground, doing her best to focus her attention on something besides the intrusive photographer who is beside her, getting ready to shoot.
I have given her a rifle that is the last gift from a dying father, and her fate will be tied to a promise she made to never let it out of her possession. There is a war coming into Ethiopia and she has been told that she must work with the other women to prepare supplies for the men who will fight. It is 1935 and Hirut is orphaned and she has never gone further than five kilometres from her home. When they say: We must defend our country, Hirut wonders to herself: How big is a country? And she will continue to ask this question as Benito Mussolini invades Ethiopia and she is pushed – by decisions wholly her own and not entirely of her making – closer and closer to the front lines until she is holding a rifle and pulling the trigger and wishing all her enemies dead. This is the premise of my novel, The Shadow King.
Just how much can a picture tell us? Photos of Ethiopian girls and women were used to entice Italian men into joining Mussolini’s army. The soldiers were promised a quick war and an African adventure. They marched into Ethiopia singing songs of what they would do to Ethiopian women. Many packed their cameras along, eager to document this great journey that was surely the farthest that most had ever been from home. I have been collecting their photographs for well over a decade, poring over images – of quotidian military life, of deliberate brutalities, of friendships and camaraderie – to find what they may have never intended anyone to see.
Riveting voices from the literary world wax lyrical about Maaza Mengiste
“A sprawling, unforgettable epic from an immensely talented author who’s unafraid to take risks…. [R]endered all the more effective by Mengiste’s gift at creating memorable characters…. The star of the novel, however, is Mengiste’s gorgeous writing, which makes The Shadow King nearly impossible to put down…. [O]ne of the most beautiful novels of the year…” — NPR
“Mengiste is as adept at crafting emotionally delicate moments as she is deft at portraying the tense and grim historical material, while her judicious sprinkling of lyricism imbues this novel with a vivid atmosphere that is distinct without becoming overpowering. That the novel subjects the reader to the same feelings of hopelessness and despair that its characters grapple with is a grand testament to Mengiste’s talent…” — Publishers Weekly
“Beautiful, horrifying, elegant, and haunted, The Shadow King is a modern classic…” — Andrew Sean Greer, author of Less
“The Shadow King is a beautiful and devastating work; of women holding together a world ripping itself apart. They will slip into your dreams and overtake your memories…” — Marlon James, author of Black Leopard, Red Wolf
“All this grandeur, all this grace, is in the service of a tale of a woman, Hirut, as indelible and compelling a hero as any I’ve read in years. This novel made me feel pity and fear, and more times than is reasonable, gave me goose bumps…” — The New York Times Book Review
“The Shadow King is a novel about war and history, both epic in scope and intimate in detail…. Maaza Mengiste has a gift for rendering everyone in this story, resister and invader alike, with great nuance and complexity, leaving us with no room for easy judgment. A wonderful book…” — Laila Lalami, author of The Other Americans