Maaza Mengiste was in Rome, doi itng research for her new novel, “The Shadow King,” when she found a picture taken in Ethiopia in 1935, when Italians invaded. It was, she says, an incredible moment for her.
“The picture was of a woman in uniform, wearing an ammo belt, with a horse. She has a pistol wrapped around the reins. ” Mengiste recalls. “When I stumbled on that image, I knew there had to be other women like her.”
After Megiste found a newspaper headline about an Ethiopian woman in uniform who picked up her husband’s gun and led an army, Maaza’s mother told her that her own great-grandmother sued her father for his rifle so she could go to war.
The brave women who fought Benito Mussolini’s invasion of Megiste’s native country come achingly alive in “The Shadow King.” The tender/tragic/sometimes violent story got a starred review from Publishers Weekly and is earning the same praise that propelled her previous novel, “Beneath the Lion’s Gaze,” into bestseller range.
Mengiste says nobody is sure how many women fought the Italians, but they came from ranks of rich and poor.
“The names of women of social status were noted by journalists, but many women soldiers were simple farmers, cooks, servants,” she said. “These women were never noteworthy in their normal lives and probably ignored in the written history of this war. I wanted to honor them, to change the male perspective.”
When the Italians invaded, the Ethiopians were outnumbered and outgunned. Mussolini’s army had heavy equipment and firepower, but the native population was ready to fight with every ounce of their blood.
“Mussolini wanted revenge after the Italians were defeated 40 years earlier and he was willing to kill every single person in the country. He had the sense of Ethiopian people as uncivilized and he was doing a civilizing mission,” Mengiste said. “Italy was also going through high emigration, and Mussolini was embarrassed that he couldn’t keep his own people in their country. He thought if he could get this piece of land in Africa, Italians could move there. So part of this is also a story of immigrants and migration.”
That’s the context in which “The Shadow King” is set.
The story centers on Hirute, a poor servant girl who is treated badly by her spoiled mistress, Aster, married to an Ethiopian military commander. When war breaks out, both women become unlikely soldiers.
Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie flees to England, and his subjects begin to lose heart for the fight. So Hirute finds a villager who resembles the emperor and has him play Selassie’s role, showing himself to the people to rally their courage. The imposter, the Shadow King, is guarded by women in uniform:
“Hirut steps forward, refusing to meet Kidane’s gaze. She looks down into the valley and says softly, I’m a soldier, a blessed daughter of Ethiopia, proud bodyguard of the King of Kings. She takes her rifle and lifts it above her head.”
On the Italian side, readers see the war from the viewpoint of cruel Col. Carlo Fucelli and Jewish Venetian soldier Ettore Navarra, a reluctant photographer who Fucelli orders to photograph atrocities.
In one heartwrenching scene, Navarra is ordered to take pictures of captured Hirut and Aster, who are forced to bare their breasts for the enjoyment of the soldiers and for the camera.
“Some descriptions of (Navarra’s) photos were inspired by actual photos I saw, taken by Italians of girls and women forced to go topless or naked,” Mengiste said. “I wondered what those girls would have felt like. How do they cope? Keep their dignity? I wondered who is the person taking those pictures? What did they feel like? Writing those scenes gave me the opportunity to imagine a character like Navarra doing this and to complicate him so he is not evil but a human being doing horrible things.”
Mengiste’s family emigrated from Ethiopia in 1974, when she was 7 years old, escaping a coup that brought down the Emperor.
The family went to Colorado, where she saw snow for the first time. She attended graduate school in New York and was granted a Fulbright scholarship to Italy where she hoped to focus on the Fascist invasion of Ethiopia, the first real conflict of World War II.
“I researched in archives, newspapers and documents and I realized I was looking at things that were approved by Fascist censors,” Mengiste recalled. “Under Mussolini, images were really cleaned up — staged scenes of people pointing guns at each other. Photos of hangings and brutality of war were taken by soldiers with their personal cameras and were in private possession. I talked to friends, to descendants of people who had been stationed in Ethiopia. I pounded the pavement, going to antique stores, flea markets, anywhere I thought I would find them.”
Mengiste, who speaks Italian, returned to Rome several times to do research. And that was, at first, her downfall. She completed a boring first draft — and threw it away.
“It was really bad,” she admits. “I had been so dedicated to the research I wrote a story telling every piece of it, things that had nothing to do with the story. The result of throwing it away was giving myself complete freedom to take risks.”
Mengiste, who often visits her mother and extended family in Addis Ababa, is looking forward to reading at Opus & Olives, a fundraiser for Friends of the St. Paul Public Library and St. Paul Pioneer Press education programs.
“I was there for my first book,” she recalls, “and I liked it even though it was the dead of winter.”
- What: Opus & Olives fundraising gala with guest readers Kate Mulgrew, Chris Pavone, Maaza Mengiste, Mark Bowden and Jennifer Chiaverini
- When/Where: Sunday, Oct. 13; St. Paul RiverCentre, 175 W. Kellogg Blvd., St. Paul: 5 p.m. cocktail reception, 6:15 p.m. gourmet dinner and author presentations
- Admission: $150 individual ticket
- Information: thefriends.org/opus or call 651-222-3242
- Publisher/Price: Norton, $26.95
Source Twin Cities