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24May

In Conversation: Maaza Mengsite

“Maaza Mengiste delivers an important story from a part of Africa too long silent in the World Republic of Letters,” words used to describe Maaza Mengiste’s, Beneath The Lion’s Gaze by Chris Abani, the Nigerian author of Graceland and The Virgin Flames. Publishers Weekly goes on to say, “Mengiste is as adept at crafting emotionally delicate moments as she is deft at portraying the tense and grim historical material.” personally, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze is one of the best books I have read this year. Historically rich, emotionally engaging and without a doubt, it is thought-provoking. You will not regret reading this book. In her own words, Maaza Mengiste, an American-Ethiopian, explains why she wrote about the brutal Derg era of Ethiopia in her debut novel, Beneath The Lion’s Gaze.

maaza mengiste

Belinda: How long have you been writing and when did you come to that defining moment, when you knew for sure it was what you wanted to do?

Maaza: I have always enjoyed writing. I was in awe of the art and craft of writing, and it took until I was well into my MFA program at NYU, well into my manuscript that would turn into “Beneath the Lion’s Gaze”, before I felt I’d earned the right to call myself a writer. I don’t like the term “aspiring” for an artist. You either are or you aren’t, you are either doing it or you’re not, and by that I mean practicing the craft that makes you who you are. So there was no middle ground and after a certain point, I felt I’d done the work to earn the title. Publishing was a different story. I felt I had a story worth telling, one that needed to be told, but I wasn’t sure if someone else would feel the same way. Getting published is based on many things, including in some ways, luck. I’m grateful for what’s happened with this book.

Belinda: How many stories or ideas had you already worked on and didn’t get a good response before you got your breakthrough?

Maaza: I focused most of my attention on this book, but I had a few short stories and pieces of non-fiction get continuously rejected before getting accepted.

Belinda: When did you get that breakthrough and how did you get yourself an agent who believed in you?

Maaza: My breakthrough came at the same time I met my agent, I think. It was then that I felt I was on my way to a real chance at getting published. I met her at a reading of a writer I really admired and who later would become my good friend, Uwem Akpam. She was also his agent. He introduced us. I’m so glad I decided to go out that night, I almost decided against it.

Belinda: Where did the inspiration for Beneath the Lion’s Gaze come from?

Maaza: From my memories of living in Ethiopia during the start of the revolution, and hearing the stories of my family and friends about their own struggles, during that time.

Belinda: How long did it take you to research your subject and what did your research involve?

Maaza: I don’t know how long exactly. I reached a point in the novel where I needed to begin connecting my characters and their plotlines to historical events.  My research involved reading books, articles, journals and talking to people and asking questions. I went to Ethiopia and the research continued.

Belinda: How long did it take to write the novel?

Maaza: It took 5 years.

Belinda: Who are your influences when it comes to literature/the literary world, either for their writing voice, style or the stories they have to tell?

Maaza: I’ve always gravitated towards stories and narratives that examine how a character’s internal conflicts impact the world around them and how they internalize the tensions in their world. I’ve found myself looking to literature from many different countries, and I’ve been influenced by how writers manage to convey our interconnectedness even as they tell of places and people I may not be familiar with. Abraham Verghese, Hisham Matar, Nega Mezlekia, Laila Lalami, E.L. Doctorow, Anchee Min, Edwidge Danticat, these are just a few of the writers.

Belinda: How would you describe your writing style and voice?

Maaza: When I write, the voice I hear in my head, whose cadence and rhythm I work to translate into words, is driving and emotional, there is a forward momentum but with some level of fluidity. It’s been described as muscular, poetic, and clear.

Belinda: There is the art of writing and the discipline of writing, how do you combine being a writer with other aspects of life without giving one more power over the other and strike a balance?

Maaza: The balancing act is a constant struggle. I realised at some point that my way of working was something I’d have to discover on my own. I couldn’t use someone else’s methods or routine. Learning what works for you is half the battle. I woke up early and wrote a little every day. I didn’t try to extend my writing into the hours I needed to get other things done. I changed my sleeping habits and really, social habits, so I could get to sleep in time to wake up early the next morning. Soon, it became a habit and natural.

Belinda: Your book is rich with the history of Ethiopia, were you concerned about striking a balance between the historical aspects of the book and the stories of the individuals you also wanted to tell?

Maaza: I feel that many times while writing this book, I was in negotiations with history. At times, I had to make a conscious decision between historical fact and creating a fictional truth, a type of veracity that could convey more about the human tragedy of the revolution than simple data could.  Other times, the story demanded historical fact because, for example, people needed to know that a specific event had occurred to realise the enormity of the trauma suffered.

Belinda: In the same token, why did you want to revisit this period of history in the life of Ethiopia as a nation? What complied and propelled you to tell this story?

Maaza: I wanted to tell this story because it was in part, the story of my family and my own story. The revolution was the reason so many Ethiopians fled and settled in other countries; it is the story of the Diaspora. I felt very close to this moment in Ethiopian history.  I was compelled to tell this story because I wanted people to understand that there was a historical and socio-political context to this violence, it didn’t just suddenly spring up. No group of people, Ethiopian or otherwise, are born violent or naturally predisposed to it.

beneath the lion's gazeBelinda: What’s the story about Ethiopia, the place of your birth and East Africa that you wanted to tell people with your book?

Maaza: I wanted to reveal the human cost of this national tragedy. I wanted to humanise the victims of this violence and show their dignity and yes, even their fallibility. We talk about violence in Africa as if it’s a spectacle to be observed from a distance and shrugged off because Africans are prone to violence. I wanted to break that stereotype and show people resisting that violence. And at the same time, by depicting those who succumbed to that violence, I wanted to help others understand how it was that someone could do acts they would have at one point found morally repugnant.

Belinda: What topics of discussion did you want to evoke in people with this historical work of fiction?

Maaza: I don’t know, really. I hope that this book evokes some discussion. I’d like people to ask what’s become of those who suffered, and I want them to ask what’s been done about those who perpetuated this violence. Where is Mengistu Haile Mariam, the head of the military junta, and why is he still free?

Belinda: And what emotions did you want to evoke about that period in people and how they see life today?

Maaza: I hope I’ve evoked a level of compassion and empathy about that period, and in a broader sense, gratitude for the strength of community and family.

Belinda: What has the response to your book been like since it was released?

Maaza: I’ve been incredibly thankful for the warm reception it has received from Ethiopians and the larger literary community.

Belinda: Have you had any negative responses since your book was released?

Maaza: Not the kind I’d expected. Really very few and those have been political responses to the book, that it was too lenient or too harsh to one side or another of the revolution.

Belinda: Did you have moments of nostalgia when you were writing the book?

Maaza: Writing this book made me, miss Ethiopia so much. Even now, I can’t wait to go back, to see my family and friends who are living there.

Belinda: Let’s talk about the relationship aspect of the different characters in the book; the father to his wife, father to his sons and of course, the relationship between the younger son and the system of government, why create these different facets of personalities within one book and the voices we hear as we read your book?

Maaza: Even in our own lives, no event happens in isolation. Different people and different situations cross paths and force us to make decisions and shift focus, and I wanted the book to be based on that idea, and I wanted to tell this story from various perspectives. Ethiopian families were torn apart by the revolution, brothers and sisters found themselves on different sides, parents and children found themselves clashing. I wanted to convey that in this book, and give different voices their own space to share their ideas.

Belinda: What did you want to create with these layers of personalities, who have a varying depth of emotional facets?

Maaza: I wanted to create a world that contained the layered tensions that often reside in a family.

Belinda: And there is the relationship between the powerful and powerless, especially with the brutality people ensured, was your aim to question that aspect of Ethiopian society?

Maaza: It wasn’t a matter of questioning that part of Ethiopian society, but questioning that part of our world at large. I wanted to examine the nature of power, the nature of resistance and try to understand what makes people do the things they do.

Belinda: Do you believe that mindset has changed since the end of the Derg Regime?

Maaza: Again, it’s not a matter of this mindset being an Ethiopian phenomenon. Unfortunately, I think we just have to look at the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to the deep religious fears we have around the world, to see that the relationship between the powerful and the powerless is an ongoing point of conflict.

Belinda: As human beings, we are great at putting labels on things but how would you best describe yourself when it comes to Maaza Mengiste, the writer?

Maaza: I don’t know. I am a product of many different influences and experiences.

Belinda: Have you by any chance been called an African Writer or do they refer to you an Ethiopian writer in the US?

Maaza: I’ve been asked whether I’m an African writer, and the first time this happened, I didn’t know what the reporter meant by his definition of “African writer”. I think most writers from the continent of Africa would identify themselves by the country they are from. I am an Ethiopian-born writer, I am Ethiopian. I am American. I live in the US, maybe one day I won’t, but I will still be Ethiopian and American.

Belinda: Do you feel or have you at any point in time since your book was released been made to feel like you are serving as a voice for a story that was long overdue, the story of a generation that many have not been able to tell?

Maaza: This book is just one voice and one story. It cannot speak for all those who lived through the Derg era, but my hope is that it will help to generate discussion and allow others to share their stories.

Belinda: What do you want readers to take away from Beneath the Lion’s Gaze?

This is a story about family, about the strength of a group of people who come together in the name of love.

Image of Maaza Mengiste: Miriam Berkley

Jacket Cover of Beneath The Lion’s Gaze: Jonathan Cape

Read my feature in Belletrista about the same book: Telling Our Stories: Two New East African Writers

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