Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 28, 2021

Perth Festival: Maaza Mengiste and The Shadow King

This session from the Perth festival is the last of my ‘watch at home’ tickets.  This session was hosted by Sisonke Msimang in conversation with Maaze Mengiste, talking about her book The Shadow King which was nominated for the Booker Prize.  This is the blurb:

A gripping novel set during Mussolini’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia, The Shadow King takes us back to the first real conflict of World War II, casting light on the women soldiers who were left out of the historical record.

With the threat of Mussolini’s army looming, recently orphaned Hirut struggles to adapt to her new life as a maid in Kidane and his wife Aster’s household. Kidane, an officer in Emperor Haile Selassie’s army, rushes to mobilize his strongest men before the Italians invade. His initial kindness to Hirut shifts into a flinty cruelty when she resists his advances, and Hirut finds herself tumbling into a new world of thefts and violations, of betrayals and overwhelming rage. Meanwhile, Mussolini’s technologically advanced army prepares for an easy victory. Hundreds of thousands of Italians—Jewish photographer Ettore among them—march on Ethiopia seeking adventure.

As the war begins in earnest, Hirut, Aster, and the other women long to do more than care for the wounded and bury the dead. When Emperor Haile Selassie goes into exile and Ethiopia quickly loses hope, it is Hirut who offers a plan to maintain morale. She helps disguise a gentle peasant as the emperor and soon becomes his guard, inspiring other women to take up arms against the Italians. But how could she have predicted her own personal war as a prisoner of one of Italy’s most vicious officers, who will force her to pose before Ettore’s camera?

Perth-based Sisonke Msimang (who was festival director) was the right choice to interview Mengiste, because of her own family history as an exile from South Africa.  (See my review of her memoir here). She began by asking about why the story matters at a personal level.  Mengiste said she grew up with family stories about Ethiopian men fighting the Italians, and she thought that was the (factual) story she was going to write.  But research led her to finding that women were involved as soldiers as well, and then when she was almost finished (!) her mother casually told her that her great-grandmother had fought in that war.

The conversation took a slightly mystical turn when Mengiste talked about history colliding or intersecting with memory.  She has, she said, no memory of her great-grandmother but has somehow created a character who has done the same things as her great-grandmother.  These resonances feel uncanny, making her wonder about how the act of creating is somehow remembering things we didn’t know were in us all along.

Msimang wanted to know why her mother didn’t tell Mengiste about her great-grandmother before?  When Mengiste tackled her mother about this, she said it was because she was never asked.  We often don’t think to ask women about things, and we often don’t think to ask about the feelings of those involved.

This untold history about women in the Ethiopian war is not unique.  In every liberation movement in Africa, women were involved, and this is inspiring because Mengiste is not ‘inventing anything’.  But what she has to do is to grapple with the archive, that is, what the written record tells us compared to what actually happened.

Describing herself as a ‘book nerd’ Msimang asked about the characters and the class questions that are raised in the book. Kidani is a high ranking officer and a nobleman and his wife Aster has a complicated relationship with the maid Hirut. Born to be a noblewoman and to rule over people like Hirut, Aster is fiercely hostile to her.  She looks down on the servant and yet she is jealous.  She evens tells Hirut that she was born to fit into the world. Conflict between women is central to the book, and class hierarchy is crucially important to Aster.  She doesn’t want to give that up; she wants her rank to be maintained.  Yes, patriarchy rules over all the women and makes them ‘less than’, but when they are together women’s alliances fail.

Msimang commented that often in African fiction, women are not very complex, and she was impressed by the way this novel tackles these complexities.  The novel is fearless in addressing a complicated issue: Msimang found the character of Kidani likeable despite his acts of violence against women, and—in the context of familiar tropes about African men, that they are overly sexualised, and about what Africa does to women—she felt as if she shouldn’t be.  She felt both sympathetic to and deeply troubled by what happens with Kidani.  Originally, in an earlier draft, said Mengiste, Kidani was a wooden and stereotypical character, but that wasn’t working in the novel.  She wanted to show what cruelty was… people who are cruel are complicated just like anyone else. Cruelty and Kindness are often portrayed as extremes but underneath the layers they have sides they try to hide and they have vulnerabilities.  She wanted him to be greater than what he was doing but not to absolve him.  Msimang commented that he’s also a product of long-held views—and she related it to the political issue now in Australia, i.e. power and sexual violence.  The novel treats this issue in depth beyond the brief reports in the 24 hour news cycle.

The conversation moved on to history’s void: about what gets left out. (Novels that tackle this are classified within the Historical Fiction genre as Hidden History on this blog.) Mengiste said that she had to think about what history actually is.  History is a series of narratives created by human beings— usually by  those who represent power.  But these people are flawed and have their own biases and sometimes their memory is not so good.  So history is not pristine and accurate.  And sometimes what they choose we should remember leaves a vast field for a novelist to roam.

Mengiste said that in her research she had expected to find balanced, complete portrayals of battles and other information, but what she found in some of the accounts was that they contradicted what she already knew from Ethiopian sources.  Her real source was speaking to descendants of Ethiopians who actually fought, and seeing their photos.  That changed everything.

I loved it when Msimang commented that history is often written from the point of view of... and paused for effect to allow us to mentally fill in ‘the victors’… and then continued that history comes from the lion, not from the antelopes that got away. 

History seems like it’s in the past, but we drag our personal memories forward into our lives, and so too do nations carry the baggage of history into each new event.

Msimang asked about the function of the chorus in the book. Msimang said that she wanted to disrupt her own narrative in some ways, and to speak to the bias and fallibility of her own history, and so the chorus speaks back to her.  Aster and other characters want to be remembered a certain way, refusing to acknowledge some things and creating a history of their own lives, and the chorus tells you that actually they are not telling you the truth either.   Because nobody is innocent; nobody is wholly blameless.  The chorus disrupts the author’s own attempt to write the history in a glorious way. Everything is positioned through lens of women and girls, so there were many other things she did not attend to, and the chorus reminds the reader of this.

Also, the chorus of Greek drama is not the only one, Africans have always had a chorus in their storytelling and she wanted to acknowledge that. (I’ve encountered this is another novel from Africa, I will look it up to see which one it was).

Msimang, moving on to the rise of fascism and how it is shown in the novel in the march of the Italian soldiers, noted that the book was also written in the time of Trump. How much of Trump’s America and Trump’s New York influenced the writing of the story?  Mengiste likes to say that she began writing it when America was a democracy and was still writing it when it was moving into fascism.  One day when she was researching online she was struck by eerie resonances between Mussolini’s speech and the US presidential debate between Clinton and Trump.  She thinks that the country is still deeply traumatised —still coming out of four brutal years—and they still don’t understand the layers and the consequences that have to be dealt with.  It felt frightening to see what was happening in real life and be writing a book about fascism.  What gives her hope is that even when the US was at its darkest, (the failed coup), there were good people around, and good people were around back in history too.  So history can give us hope.

Mengiste, whose novel is about to be published in Italian, said that Italy has not dealt with its fascist history in the way that Germany has.  It’s not taught in schools; people still sing songs from that time; the government has become more right wing and there is a resurgence of fascist movements.  So she’s interested to see how the book will be received.  She thinks that these things are uncomfortable to deal with, but it gives right wing extremists a blank slate to work with if it’s not tackled.  She thinks that Italy and the EU need to acknowledge the racism that underpins fascism and needs to be dealt with.

History is about what is worth remembering.

Thanks to the organisers of the Perth Festival for making this session available.  But hey, 36 minutes of nothing at all before the session actually started, is a bit disconcerting. Both the previous sessions began with five minutes of total silence but I was beginning to wonder if there had been a technical fault and I was wasting my time…


  1. History came from the lion not the antelope that got away. Love it!

    Sounds like a really interesting book, and I love the cover too.

    Extended silence/blankness is disconcerting I agree. We had that a couple of times last year with Musica Viva’s Discover concerts. I ended up emailing, tweeting, doing whatever I could to get someone’s attention.

    Liked by 1 person

    • At first I just did something else while I waited… my daily French exercises with Duolingo… expecting to have just enough time to do one set of exercises. When I’d done two, and still nothing was happening, I was tempted to refresh the page but the rules for these watch-at-home sessions were that you could only use the password once and I was worried it would lock me out. Eventually I used the slider to fast-forward until I could see faces talking and then went back a bit before that to catch the intro and all was well after that.
      I think it’s wonderful that we can access these sessions, and I accept that everyone (including the viewer) is still on a steep learning curve in how to manage it, but hmm, yes, this delay was a bit extreme!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. […] looked quite different to Sisonke Msimang in conversation with Maaze Mengiste at the Perth Festival where though in different parts of the world, they seemed to be in conversation, looking at each […]


  3. […] very much indebted to Perth-based Sisonke Msimang (director of the Perth festival) for the way her interview with Maaza Mengiste enhanced my reading of The Shadow King.  It is a gripping historical novel which reveals a […]


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