Maaza Mengiste

Ethiopian-American writer

Maaza Mengiste (born 1974) is an Ethiopian-American author.

Fiction gives me the right to do it.

Quotes

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  • It was not until a revolution tore my country apart that I began to understand how war could render decent people unrecognisable. Only when I had felt real terror did I begin to comprehend the many ways that conflict can devour us without spilling a drop of blood.
  • Part of my concern in this book was to center the story on people who are often not written about in history—the farmers, the peasants, the servants who don’t have the social standing to make them newsworthy—because the stories that get remembered are so often about people who are already famous or noteworthy.
  • Some of my favorite writers are those who break form. I wanted to see if I could do that under their tutelage. I’m really proud of being able to combine the stories of the Ethiopians and the Italians, to force questions about both of them, about loyalty, about racism, about being subjugated by the very people who should be protecting you. These were the questions I wanted to bring forward.
  • I write fiction that revolves around archival research and historical events. What I search for in documented history: what happened, is not necessarily what I seek when I write it down: what was it like, and what was left out. I go back to something Breyten Breytenbach once told me, that fiction tells a truth that history cannot. I lean into fictive truths.
  • Maybe we have to allow our discomfort as another consequence of the violence depicted. Our shared confusion and disgust can bind us to those who are suffering, rather than draw us away from them. They too have had to witness. To deny our own human reactions makes it easier to deny the humanity of those who are photographed. Though we cannot change what has happened, we can alter the symbolism attached to the images. Photographs can be more than a reminder of cruelty and the inevitable aftermath of war. There are narratives unfolding right now in South Sudan, in the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo that can be rewritten. We have the ability to strip away what we’re supposed to see – just another African victim – and gaze upon what we should: a human being. But first, we have to look.
  • Fiction gives me the right to do it. It's not an autobiography. I did have the right to tell this story. My position is that you write from the place that you are, and it's not a detriment, and it's not something that undermines any kind of authenticity. I had to understand very early on that I'm writing this book as an American, with very, very strong ties to Ethiopia—and a deep love, my family is there—but ultimately, I am writing it with an American way of looking at things. That doesn't mean that the story is not authentic. Or then you have to question what "authentic" means…
  • It seems that every new writer with any remote connection to the continent of Africa, either willingly or unwillingly, has first to wrestle with this question of identity before talking about what should matter most: their book...we should focus on the ability of the story to immerse us so fully in the world that has been constructed, that it feels a bit like home.
  • who is to judge what makes a "real African"? It is almost impossible to apply a single identity to an entire racial or ethnic group, much less to an entire continent. As individuals, we are each comprised of a series of contradictions. We are not neatly constructed sets of qualities. At our best, we should defy simple categorisation. It is living with difficult choices and easy accommodations that makes us human and, if we're lucky, keeps us interesting. It is from within contradictory existences that some of our greatest works of literature have been born.
  • “When you are convinced that everything that happens is the will of God, what is there to do but wait until God has mercy?”[1]
  • “We must not be anything other than what we are.”[2]
  • “Girls die from many causes: childbirth, illness, disease, men.”[3]
  • “She is a soldier trapped inside a barbed-wire fence, but she is still at war and the battlefield is her own body, and perhaps, she has come to realize as a prisoner, that is where it has always been.”[4]
  • “what is forged into memory tucks itself into bone and muscle. It will always be there and it will follow us to the grave.”[5]
  • “What he knows is this: there is no past, there is no "what happened", there is only the moment that unfolds into the next, dragging everything with it, constantly renewing. Everything is happening at once.”[6]
  • “The nature of love is to kill for it, or to die.”[7]
  • “She has grown so numb that it no longer matters whether he might strike her or not. She does not care if he takes out his camera to push it in her face. She is not afraid of him anymore.”[8]
  • “The routine dulls the terror.”[9]
  • “We all know that war destroys mankind, and in spite of their differences in race, creed, and religion, women all across the world despise war because its fruit is nothing but destruction.”[10]
  • “A government of fighters won't know how to lead, only create more war. You think bravery is measured in resistance.”[11]
  • “What can he know except what he sees while staring at that young woman grasping knotted silk as if she was born to be draped in it: a beauty incomprehensible and ferocious, strong enough to break through bone and settle into a heart and split it forever.”[12]
  • “Make living your act of defiance. Record it all.”[13]
  • “How many shots had to be fired to turn this child back to his home and anxious mother?”[14]
  • “Here is the truth he wants to ignore: that what is forged into memory tucks itself into bone and muscle. It will always be there and it will follow us to the grave.”[15]
  • “You have to know how to stand so they see you but do not see you. You have to look at them as if you are not looking. Be invisible but helpful. Be useful but absent. Be like air, like nothing.”[16]
  • “Who remembers what to do? she asks. Who remembers what it means to be more than what this world believes of us?”[17]
  • “Leo said this: Not many are born when they should be. How I hope this time is meant for you.”[18]
  • “He has started to suspect that she is not allowing those with spouses or lovers in his army to share tents. She has told several of his men to stay out of the section she has claimed for her women, and that has separated those who would have met and begun to stay together in the tradition of men and women who march toward war: one following the other, one making the other comfortable, one serving as a surrogate wife without the emotional demands of a spouse. The camps are so divided now that he is sure this is one more thing that his men talk about when he is not there: that this woman, his wife, has come in and changed the way things have always been done when men go to war. But how to raise the issue with them without the glaring admission that his wife has kept herself separate from him, too?”[19]
  • “She did not understand until seeing Aster that there is a different kind of exposure, one that is indecent and upsetting. That some bodies were not meant to bend, and that this makes them weaker rather than stronger, unable to withstand what those like her can walk through their days locking into pockets and ignoring.”[20]
  • “What is knows is this: there is no past, there is no "what happened", there is only the moment that unfolds into the next, dragging everything with it, constantly renewing. Everything is happening at once.”[21]
  • “The rich think this land is theirs though they have never earned the right to call it theirs.”[22]
  • “My father was always a stranger to me, he will say. I knew him through his questions, not his answers.”[23]
  • “some memories should be barricaded by others, that those strong enough must hold the others at bay.”[24]
  • “Some people are meant to be owners of things. Others, only to set them in their rightful place and clean them.”[25]
  • "The blow comes as a relief to Hirut. It is something to do: to be hit. It is somewhere to go: to be in pain.”[26]
  • “He is doing as she once did, in the naïve belief that what is buried stays that way, that what is hidden will stay unseen, that what is yours will remain always in your possession. He is being foolish.”[27]
  • “Go back. Open the bedroom door and send young Aster down the stairs. Place the groom on his feet and draw him away from the bed. Wipe the sheet clean of the bride’s blood. Shake it straight and flatten its wrinkles. Slide off that necklace and return it to the girl as she races to her mother. Fix what has been broken in her, mend it shut again. Clothe him in his wedding finery. Let there be no light. Allow only shadows into this kingdom of man’s making. See him alone in the room. See him free of a father’s attention. See him step beyond the reach of elders and all who advise growing boys on the perils of weakness. Here is Kidane, shaking loose of unseen bindings. Here he is, gifting himself the freedom to tremble. All advice has been taken back and he is no longer the groom instructed to break flesh and draw blood and bring a girl to earthy cries.See this man in the tender moment before he takes his wife. See him wrestle with the first blooms of untapped emotion. Let the minutes stretch. Remove the expectations of a father. Remove the admonishments to stand tall and stay strong. Eliminate the birthright, the privilege of nobility, the weight of ancestors and blood. Erase his father’s name and that of his grandfather’s father and that of the long line of men before them. Let him stand in the middle of that empty bedroom in his wedding tunic and trousers, in his gilded cape and gold ring, and then disappear his name, too. Make of him nothing and see what emerges willingly, without taint of duty or fear.”[28]
  • “Every sun creates a shadow and not all are blest to stand in the light. We have returned, he tells himself. Minim looks down at his slender fingers, the nails still neatly filed and short. He glances down at his feet, and lays a hand on the beard he learned to trim as well as any royal barber. Every day, he will grow back into himself until he can be who he is: a man who was once everything to everyone, then was reborn again to be nothing.”[29]
  • “She knows precisely that to take from one day gives nothing to the other. That what the left hand hides, the right does not necessarily reveal. That blood can conspire to give life and to take it, to murder and to bless, to confirm a woman’s place in the world every month, and deny it.”[30]


  • The language of war is always masculine, and we automatically position history in terms of what men did.
  • Italy has not talked about this history; it’s still difficult for Italians to comprehend what they did in east Africa.
  • We’ve become a very visual society, with Instagram and social media – how many photographs can we take? We are forgetting how to look. Every image that ends up on Instagram is flattened of meaning and complication. They’re these simplistic narratives that don’t correspond to the lives they seek to represent.
  • (What kind of reader were you as a child?) If we go very far back in childhood, I just remember the first time I read The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. What a profound and moving book it was for me – the way it spoke about generosity, awareness and empathy. I then came to the Greeks, to Homer, and I will never forget the day I read the Iliad and how electrifying it was. Then there was a high school teacher who introduced me to literature that broadened my world. We still keep in touch, and without her I wouldn’t write the way I write.
  • I grew up hearing about Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia. Logically, Ethiopia should not have won the war. It was poorly equipped and faced one of the most powerful forces in the world. Yet, Ethiopia won, and for a child, that held all the fascination of the most gripping epic. But I’ve always been fascinated with WWII, this period that seemed to define and redefine what we understood of human decency, cruelty, and courage. Then when I discovered that Ethiopia women fought in the front lines against fascists – and learned that my great-grandmother was one of those women who enlisted – it burst open the possibilities of what was really happening during this war, and what this war could teach us about what it means to face a larger, stronger opponent not only on the battlefield, but also in the most intimate and domestic spaces. It was all the things I didn’t know, about something I thought I understood, that sent me to my desk and kept me there, writing.
  • while I research and write, I want to push myself to reject safety in favour of greater structural leaps.

Shadow King (2019)

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  • She does not want to remember but she is here and memory is gathering bones (p1)
  • Here is the truth he wants to ignore: that what is forged into memory tucks itself into bone and muscle. It will always be there and it will follow us to the grave.”
  • What he knows is this: there is no past, there is no "what happened", there is only the moment that unfolds into the next, dragging everything with it, constantly renewing. Everything is happening at once.
  • The routine dulls the terror.
  • We all know that war destroys mankind, and in spite of their differences in race, creed, and religion, women all across the world despise war because its fruit is nothing but destruction.
  • Make living your act of defiance. Record it all.
  • Who remembers what to do? she asks. Who remembers what it means to be more than what this world believes of us?
  • My father was always a stranger to me, he will say. I knew him through his questions, not his answers.
  • He is doing as she once did, in the naïve belief that what is buried stays that way, that what is hidden will stay unseen, that what is yours will remain always in your possession. He is being foolish.
  • you must teach him, my beloved, that it is the land that carries our suffering when we die. It is the land that remains the same, no matter what we call ourselves. And what he meant, Lev would later learn, was this: that only soil will remember who we are, nothing but earth is strong enough to withstand the burden of memory. To become unknown, it is not enough to shift a name, one must go where the land has always been a stranger to those who share your blood.
  • She is afraid of crumbling and disappearing, of being taken and being left behind at the same time: a body tumbling between hands while dying inside.
  • What is lost is gone, my child, what is lost makes room for something else.
  • These aren't the days to pretend you're only a wife or a sister or a mother, she says. We're more than this.
  • She is mid-sentence, her tongue against her teeth, curving around a word lost forever.
  • I've been really interested in our capacities for violence and compassion. I've been asking these questions through my characters. I'm not sure what prompts that kind of curiosity about the world, but I do feel like we're currently living in a global system that is forcing all of us to question how bad it can get, and how much people and leaders are willing to inflict on each other. I'm seeing that in real life. I've seen it in Ethiopia, during the early days of the revolution when I was living there. I've also witnessed it in America as an immigrant, as a black person, and as a woman. I've been constantly asking: How much are we going to do to each other before we realize that we are all human, and we all have these capacities to ache, but also to love?
  • As a novelist, I think that it's my duty to push myself in terms of the levels of my empathy...I want to see in my characters the things that make them very human or very vulnerable — not necessarily nice, but vulnerable — even in their most evil moments.
  • The Italians really mastered it. This was part of their war machine. The camera was a weapon, quite literally. They had photographs of seminude or nude East African women, and those were part of the tools used to recruit soldiers for the army to invade Ethiopia: "If you come and join us, this is going to be an easy war, and look what you get as a trophy." Think about the colonial-era images of West Africa and Africa in general — the language of colonialism has also incorporated images. They’ve been so integrated into the way we speak of other people. It's interesting. Even thinking about the way that Nazi-era Germany continued to use images to justify what they were doing to the Jewish population. And then Mussolini looked at that and began to incorporate not only how the images of Africans were being used, but slowly, you begin to see the incorporation of anti-Semitic images into the Italian pamphlets that were talking not only about Africa, but Italy’s Jewish population.
  • I think as a novelist, as a writer, what I want to do with these images is not only craft them in a way that might be beautiful, but I want to complicate them at the same time, so that I make the experience as uncomfortable as possible. So that once you leave the page, you're considering it the next time you see someone else objectified or subjugated.
  • I was thinking also of the history of revolutionary fighters, freedom fighters, resistance fighters around the world, where women are a part of these groups. There are countless stories of women going out and fighting with the men, and then coming back and being treated as sexual conquest, sexual objects. Because they were still, in the end, just bodies, either for war or for pleasure.

Quotes about Maaza Mengiste

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  • Recently the things that I’ve enjoyed reading are writers from Africa, like Maaza Mengiste, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor. These are people who are doing brilliantly well I think, and in both of those cases, they’ve just published their second novels. So very early in their writing careers.
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