Maaza Mengiste Nadifa Mohamed

In a rare coincidence, two young women authors who originate from the Horn of Africa wrote critically acclaimed debut novels in the same year. Maaza Mengiste’s Beneath the Lion’s Gaze recreates the 1970 revolution in Ethiopia, which ended the monarchy of the Haile Selassie and installed the particularly brutal Derg regime. Through the intersecting voices of a prominent doctor Hailu in Addis Ababa, his son Dawit, who is experiencing a political coming-of-age, a deluded and fading Emperor Selassie and the innocent paperboy Behrane amongst others, the novel offers an emotional and unsparing account of a violent chapter in Ethiopian history. Mengiste’s work is particularly commendable for having broken the silence surrounding this time, allowing thus for reconciliation and healing for a population in which these memories remain intensely vivid.

Nadifa Mohamed’s Black Mamba Boy travels even further back in time, to 1930s Eastern Africa, when precise national borders for countries such as Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan and Djibouti were yet to be defined. Inspired by her father’s life, Mohamed’s novel follows the epic journey of an endearing young boy, Jama, who yearns to connect with his roots while to struggling to make ends meet on a daily basis. The novel opens across the Gulf of Aden, in the coastal city of Aden in Yemen. Jama soon embarks on a journey across breathtaking landscapes in Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan, Djibouti and others. The trip soon turns macabre as he encounters first-hand the barbarism of Italian colonialism and is inadvertently thrust onto World War II’s far-flung African battlefields, a situation in which the region’s native inhabitants paid the heaviest price. Mohamed’s work is a rare glimpse into an epoch that has been heavily depicted through the European perspective, but almost never from an African one. 

Both Mohamed and Mengiste’s works won many of 2010’s most prominent awards and represent that extraordinary and uncommon (though gradually growing) group – the African woman writer.  Apart from the obvious obstacles of gender discrimination, this group is doubly burdened with the impossible task of writing about Africa, a space where imperial ideologies, Afro-pessimism and racism collide all too frequently. As is often the case, African women writers often end up spending far too much time defending their continent and cultures against these malignant tendencies. Warscapes editor Bhakti Shringarpure entered into a gmail-chat with Mengiste in New York and Mohamed in London to explore these questions, and to speak about their work and how their novels have been received. What emerges is a surprising and poignant conversation ranging from insights into the special case of Italian colonialism, frustrating expectations placed upon African writers, the difficulties of writing about violence and, finally, men with the power to turn into hyenas…

Bhakti Shringarpure: Nadifa, when I met Maaza in New York, she told me that the both of you were paired at many book events and festivals in Italy. Why do you think that is? 

Nadifa Mohamed: I think that in Italy particularly there is a greater awareness of East Africa, and the fact that we are both young women living outside of our home countries created a connection in people's minds.

Maaza Mengiste: Yes, that's true. Italy has a lot of people from Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia. It speaks to these very complex historical relationships among the countries – colonialism, war, etc. But these relationships are not easily discussed in Italy. And I think that was part of the interest in both our books – a window into this part of history. 

Bhakti Shringarpure:  Nadifa, how did Italians respond to your book? I'm curious. 

Nadifa Mohamed: There were two common responses: The first was from more left-wing Italians, generally a bit younger or with a special interest in Africa who wanted there to be criticism of the Italian occupation of East Africa and who had knowledge themselves of the nature of colonialism. The second was kind of blank-eyed, confused and really unable to assimilate what I was saying and writing with what they had heard at school and at home. A common refrain was that “we were good people – we were not racist like ‘northern Europeans.’” 

Maaza Mengiste: That's interesting, and it makes sense. I had similar experiences with more liberal Italians. No one wants to discuss the support Italians gave Mussolini and the Fascists when they first came to power, especially after the World War II ended so disastrously for the Fascists. The colonial era is an ugly reminder of that compliance. But what I've also heard repeatedly from many Italians is the idea that they were “good” colonialists. I can't tell you how many times the first thing people say to me about this period is: “They did a lot of good things there. They built roads and modernized the country.” Yes, so you've heard it too!

Nadifa Mohamed: Yes!

Maaza Mengiste:  I get so tired of hearing this...I think that if the situation were turned around, they might point to the killings, rapes, massacres, imprisonment and wonder if roads made up for it all.

Nadifa Mohamed: Or trains! But in fact the apartheid of that era in Italian East Africa went beyond what the British and French practiced.

Bhakti Shringarpure: It lasted such a short time, but had a very hard impact. Nadifa, why do you think Italian colonialism went beyond French and British practices?

Nadifa Mohamed: My father described how Italians were only obliged to leave fifty liras on the bodies of Africans they happened to kill. It seems that in Kenya or the Gold Coast or other British-occupied parts of Africa that wouldn't have happened. 

Bhakti Shringarpure: Thats horrifying. 

Maaza Mengiste: Italians developed an apartheid system of racial segregation in Ethiopia and their other colonies before South Africa had it.

Nadifa Mohamed: The Italians, Belgians and Germans came late to the party, and I think tried to get as much out as possible as quickly as possible without any pretense of respecting local populations. British and French colonialism was more incremental, and sometimes accidental. My father had to step off the pavement if an Italian was coming along, ride at the back of the bus, call them “Sir” and “Madam.”

Maaza Mengiste: Unlike the British and French, who taught their languages in their colonial schools (for better or for worse) and used indigenous people as part of their ruling system in the colonies, Italians allowed only three years of schooling, and the Italian language taught in the schools was deliberately bastardized – a kind of pidgin Italian meant to make East Africans sound illiterate when they spoke it. They felt Italian culture and language had to be kept “pure” for Italians only.

Bhakti Shringarpure: Maaza, is there an oral history like Nadifa's in your family about these times?

Maaza Mengiste: What's interesting about the oral history in Ethiopia is the general sense that while Mussolini was bad and Fascism was evil, the Italians themselves were not so bad. I didn't hear many stories from my family about this period, but from others you get a mix of the horror of the occupation and the kindness of those Italians who decided to stay after the war.

I think there are a few reasons for this silence about what really happened during the war. The first is that Ethiopia got its freedom. The most important stories told were of heroism and the fight against the Italians. The focus was on the patriots and the freedom fighters. The second is that when Haile Selassie came back to power in 1941, he issued a statement telling his people to forgive the Italians, and if I remember correctly, there was the implication to separate bad leadership from its people – to judge the Fascists and Mussolini, but not the Italians as a whole. So we never had a chance to talk about the brutalities that every day people had to endure under occupation, the trials conducted in Italian to charge Ethiopians for crimes they didn't know or understand, the racial segregation, etc.

Bhakti Shringarpure:  I see. An official ideology was put into place.

Nadifa Mohamed: The 750,000 dead.

Maaza Mengiste: Exactly. The horrors of the mustard gas bombings, the thousands of tons dropped on villagers and into rivers.

Bhakti Shringarpure: Is it difficult to write about such brutality? I’m thinking about the torture and murder of Shidane in the case of Black Mamba Boy, and little Behrane in Beneath the Lion’s Gaze…

Nadifa Mohamed: It is incredibly difficult. I circled it for a very long time, and afterwards made sure that Jama had a respite from all that violence for my sake and his. I read about the murder of Shidane Arone by U.N peacekeepers when I was teenager and it stayed with me – the images particularly – so when writing about Italian atrocities, I felt a need to connect it with ongoing violence against the poor and vulnerable. It was very hard to put down on paper, though.

Maaza Mengiste: Yes, it was very difficult for me to write those scenes. I had to really consider afterwards if those parts were necessary for the story, and even to ask myself if I had exaggerated it. The most important thing for me was the idea that I was writing what felt organic to the story, not something to "prove" some historical fact. It took a long time for me to go back and re-read those sections and revise them. I was at a museum for victims of the revolution in Addis Ababa a couple of years ago, and there were photos on the wall of those who died or were disappeared. I saw so many who reminded me of Berhane – who looked the way I would have imagined him. And if there is any kind of imperative to write the brutality, it came afterwards, when I saw that it was too close to life. And then I was glad this was how my book had turned out, that it included what could have been the story of any of those little boys whose photos I saw on the wall of the museum.

Nadifa Mohamed: Yes, those young boys are haunting. They lay a claim.

Maaza Mengiste: They do.

Bhakti Shringarpure: Definitely. You both write in the voices of young boys (and you, Maaza, also in older voices, but mainly male). How does that work? Is it hard to write as a male? Is it a deliberate political or stylistic choice?

Maaza Mengiste: I think it's a choice about what kind of character to write. I wanted to see the revolution from a doctor's point of view, this very stoic figure broken by what he sees, and the character felt most natural to me as a male, older figure. But for the young boy, that was really about being directed by the writing. It could have been a little girl, but I wanted a little boy to play off of the young girl I already had in the story. Plus, I wanted to tackle the story from a street vendor's point of view, and a newspaper boy seemed most plausible. So perhaps the short answer is that it was a stylistic choice.

Nadifa Mohamed: It wasn't a deliberate choice for me, I wanted to tell my father's story from his perspective, so was forced to see the world from the viewpoint of a young boy. It was very hard to develop, but I came to the realization that there is no clear-cut male/female voice. My father's character was heavily influenced by his mother, mine by his, so there were patterns there that I just had to unearth.

Bhakti Shringarpure: When at these book events in Italy, or even in US or UK, do you both feel you are pressured to scale back this critique? I know that Nadifa was criticized in some reviews about her depiction of the Italians, for example.

Nadifa Mohamed: No. It could be the only opportunity for the audience to hear the truth. It took a lot of research in rusty old libraries for me to learn, so I will keep spreading the information.

Maaza Mengiste: My book isn't set during this period, but I was surprised when conversations at readings in Italy would turn to it. What's interesting is that the person usually raising the topic, an Italian, would start off by apologizing first, then continue with a question about my feelings on it. On more than one occasion, I've had the children of former Italian soldiers become so overcome with emotion or guilt they can't continue talking.

I think, Nadifa, that you're wise and doing really well not to hold back. The memories are there, and what I'm realizing is that this moment in history affected Italy as much as it did East Africa. There' s a lot there still to unearth.

Nadifa Mohamed: There also seems to be a revival, in England at least, of a train of thinking which sees the British empire as a source of glory and a force of good in the world, so I feel I have had to be even firmer in my criticisms to get the point across that people like my father were made to suffer under European domination.

Bhakti Shringarpure: I was wondering about the revival element. The topic of empire in general seems to be in the air. It’s not often that two historical novels (though very different) come out on a similar topic, though they are the opposite of glorification in terms of their depiction of empire.

Maaza Mengiste: It's as if time is supposed to filter out the horror. I wonder about this revival. The latest debate amongst/about African literature and writers was most recently in the Guardian. Maybe I'm "mixing metaphors," but I think there's a connection here. Kenyan novelist Binyavanga Wainaina said in an interview that British literature is made up of a set of codes that many new generation Kenyans no longer understand, unlike the generation of their parents, who were schooled in it. He mentioned that African writers don't want to sit around and discuss AIDS or charities or the latest famine. I'm paraphrasing, but he was trying to push the idea that British literature is insular and doesn't speak to Africans. And that Africans have other things to write about and discuss than what is usually ascribed to the continent: sickness, wars, famine, etc.

Bhakti Shringarpure: Yes, there were some thoughtless responses to his comments, I thought. Something along the lines of if the English don't feel the need to understand French or Italian literature, why should Kenyans be interested in the British writing. It showed a complete disregard for historical dynamics between the two places. 

Maaza Mengiste: Yes, the response was shrill.

Bhakti Shringarpure: Exactly. It seems there is a constant duty conferred upon the African writer, along with this very specific expectation.

Nadifa Mohamed: I didn't see the piece, but it reminds me of when Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said that early on in her career American editors could not understand why she was writing about middle-class Nigerians and described her work as inauthentic.

Maaza Mengiste: It's hard for people in the West to consider an African middle-class that isn't composed of corrupt government employees or some kind of aberration of society. I get asked what it means to be “an African writer,” which I'd hoped by now would be a cliche question, but it still happens.

Nadifa Mohamed: It's an image reinforced every day by charity adverts on the tube, on TV, in newspapers. It can be hard to persuade people that a Somali businessman can earn $20,000 a month without warlording or stealing from the government.

Maaza Mengiste: Yes, and that in Ethiopia there are people who are as distanced from famine as people in the West. They lead lives more like families in Chicago or Denver or New York, and see the same news clips about famine that we do on CNN or BBC. This is a double-edged sword, because I think we have a responsibility to people within our borders or countries. But the fact is that it's easy for many in Ethiopia to ignore what's happening in other parts of the country. It's this diversity that gets ignored by the press and those charity ads.

Nadifa Mohamed:  There are divisions of geography, ethnicity, class and age that are just as profound as those in the West.

Maaza Mengiste: Exactly.

Bhakti Shringarpure: I think there is a real problem in the West regarding what is called the "management" of multiculturalism, and the categorizations of the “African writer” or “Asian writer” are symptomatic of that disease.

Maaza Mengiste: In the same book story, I've seen some books by "African" writers go from the “African” to the “African American” to the “North African” sections. The categorizations are becoming harder to keep because the writers are writing from so many parts of the diaspora.

Bhakti Shringarpure: I wonder if writing an "historical" novel offers a kind of respite from having to deal with the constant misrepresentations of Africa?

Maaza Mengiste: Good question...

Bhakti Shringarpure: Nadifa, your book, for example, is unique because there is a very different and almost romantic reality when it comes to Africa. 

Nadifa Mohamed: Not really. I put in everything but the kitchen sink: War, hunger, child-soldiers!

Bhakti Shringarpure: Yes, absolutely. The young boy protagonist struggles at many levels. But there is also this travelogue set in motion, the unraveling of these fabulous landscapes that break from the dramas of the African civil wars, dictatorships and violent histories that are often part of literature from those regions. 

Maaza Mengiste: I think an "historical" novel has to contend with what's been represented about that era and what the writer feels is the real and ultimate "truth."

Nadifa Mohamed: But it is a double-edged sword. I was trying to truthfully convey my father's childhood experiences, but that reinforced these preconceptions. What I wanted to add though was the sense of wonder, timelessness and empathy that was lacking in so many other works about people like my father. It was a life truly lived, and still is.

Maaza Mengiste: Yes, I agree completely with that. There's a process of making people real, human and complex that is lacking in stereotypical representations of Somalia or Ethiopia or elsewhere. You can put a character into a war zone but still create a new kind of story by humanizing them, making them whole. Not simply victims or killers but complex human beings.

Nadifa Mohamed: True. Imagine passing through the desert as a seventeen-year-old, or meeting men who have been accused of turning into hyenas, or leaving the land you know for the unknown horizon. I kind of envy his life. 

Maaza Mengiste: Somalia had men who could turn into hyenas, too? We have them in Ethiopia as well! But seriously, that journey creates a type of person you convey beautifully in your book.

Nadifa Mohamed: Oh yes! A little boy I used to teach returned to Somaliland and described seeing men with glowing red eyes, but my father's hyena-men were in Eritrea. 

Maaza Mengiste: I used to really wonder as a kid if those men were real...

Nadifa Mohamed: I was more frightened of the witches who ate young women.

Maaza Mengiste: And forget it if you stepped on a spider and killed it: Those women would make your life hell.

Bhakti Shrigarpure: Rough!

Nadifa Mohamed: Ha!

Maaza Mengiste: What does your family feel about Ethiopians, Nadifa? Our histories are so connected, and so horrible in many ways.

Nadifa Mohamed: Hmmm. Well, my father grew up in Eritrea, so he has this familiarity with Tigre language and culture as well as Kunama and doesn't really believe in “Ethiopians,” as such. To him, there are varied ethnicities who have little to do with each other. My mother, on the other hand, grew up in Somalia and experienced the Ethiopian bombardment of Hargeisa and knew people who were killed, including my sister's best friend. There is still a lot of distrust, and the fact that there are many Ethiopian migrants to Somaliland, as well as the ongoing persecution of Ogadeni Somalis, means that despite having so much in common, there is little cultural interaction. There is palpable prejudice and racism towards Ethiopian migrants in Somaliland.

Maaza Mengiste: I can see that. I was in Addis Ababa this past summer and was surprised at the number of Somali refugees in the city, and it seems to me that the fact that Ethiopians live in Somaliland and Somalis live in Ethiopia as the two countries continue fighting makes for a complicated sort of arrangement. While my parents can have Somali friends and everyone can discuss how much they don't want the military interventions, the governments and leaders send their young men to confront each other. The bitterness builds upon itself. And yes, the racism and prejudice exists in Ethiopia as well. And the victims, those caught between all of this, are those fleeing famine and violence.

Nadifa Mohamed: Yes. I would add Eritrea to the group as well. I heard a great saying in Eritrea: The conflicts between these neighboring countries is like bald men fighting over a comb.

Maaza Mengiste: That's a good one. And yes, Eritrea should indeed be included.

Nadifa Mohamed: And Kenya, too...

Maaza Mengiste: The list keeps growing, doesn't it?

Nadifa Mohamed: Yes. There is big, bad Sudan just to the north.

Maaza Mengiste: We have political and military actions by the governments on one side, illness and famine on the other, then the ordinary people who just want to find a way to live through it all. And in the midst of this, people fall in love, have affairs, get married, have children, tell jokes about bald men.

And the writer steps in!

Nadifa Mohamed: Exactly. You have to put individual lives into this maelstrom!

Nadifa Mohamed was born in 1981 in Hargeisa, Somalia, and moved to England in 1986. Her debut novel, Black Mamba Boy, was published in 2010 and won the Betty Trask Prize as well as being shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Prize, the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, the Dylan Thomas Prize and the PEN Open Book Award, and was long-listed for the Orange Prize for Fiction.

Maaza Mengiste was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and lived in Nigeria and Kenya before settling in the United States. Her debut novel, the critically acclaimed Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, has been translated into several languages and appeared on several “Best of 2010” lists, including Publishers Weekly, Christian Science Monitor and Barnes and Noble. She is a Fulbright Scholar as well as the Runner-up for the 2011 Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and a finalist for a Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize, an NAACP Image Award and an Indies Choice Book of the Year Award in Adult Debut. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Granta, Callaloo Journal, The Granta Anthology of the African Short Story, Lettre Internationale, and can soon be heard on BBC Radio 4. She currently lives in New York City.