Maaza Mengiste comes to you first as a model. Her near impeccable smile, emboldened by her lovely face, first strikes you as you approach her for a chat. She has this disarming smile that quickly warns you that even though she is a writer, she has her wits about her alright. It is this wit and the charm that puts her in a class of her own. She combines both charm and beauty to produce wonderful stories that have put her on a higher pedestrian not only in the USA where she resides but in her home country, Ethiopia.
“I am a fiction writer,” she began, as she smiled profusely to reassure the reporter. “Our society is full of marvelous stories. Although I am an Ethiopian, I now live in the U.S. Why I took to fiction? Why not friction? You, why are you a journalist and not a teacher?” She fired back, her eyes full of the zeal of a lioness. “But then I also do non-fiction. I do historical stuffs, so long as they pertain to people, to the issues of my society,” she explained.
“I have done these for a long time and they have come to dominate and affect my imagination. Oh yes, I do not come from a family of writers because people never thought highly of writers. The professions that were in vogue were medicine, law and so on. So, I never thought I’d be a writer. It just came and I grabbed it and here I am today, a writer. I love history a lot, I like reading a lot. I spend most of my time reading or writing. And the more you do these, the more you want to go on and on and on.”
And so, when the time came for her to choose what to do, writing took over her realm of imagination. In 2010, The Guardian Newspaper selected her work, Beneath The Lion’s Gaze as one of the 10 best contemporary African books. This was monitored by Christian Science Monitor, Boston Globe and other publications. “In Ethiopia, fiction is very much alive. People tell their stories; people discover who they are and are willing to share their day to day experiences with you. The Ethiopian Literature may not be widely known here in Nigeria because English is not our official language,” she said matter-of-factly.
“In Ethiopia, there are many writers, very, very exciting writers who do not spare the people in power, who go all out to let out the steam. Things are happening. The only difference between what we have in Ethiopia and what we have in Nigeria is that you people have the wider audience in English. In Ethiopia, we write in Amharic language which is not as popular. But then, they give literature the necessary fire it deserves. There are other languages too, but Amharic is the most widely spoken in Ethiopia. For us, therefore, English is not automatic. So, it is not whether literature exists in my country, but getting to know that it exists.”
But basically, Mengiste goes home from time to time to collect materials for her works. “Yes, my works have and will continue to have touches of the Ethiopian flavor. That, I do. I go home often. I am interested in the way wars are fought, mostly in my home country. So I want to know what is right and what is wrong. I want to know the sources of the problems we have back home; who and who are behind those problems. All these shape your writing; they influence your works and give them deeper touch.”
Even though her stories are set in Ethiopia, she confessed that not all her stories are about Ethiopia. “You can use the Ethiopian experience to x-ray other societies. I go more to Ethiopia because, I started there and I am a bona fide member of that society. I lived there when I was very young and I feel comfortable being there. All the stories I built in my memories are still there and they help when I go back there to update myself.”
Her first novel Beneath The Lion’s Gaze was set in 1974 Ethiopian revolution. “There, all the major characters are male because they are the ones who spearheaded the revolution. They were in the forefront. So, you can’t say, basically I am a feminist writer. Then I went on to talk about the World War II in which Ethiopians were involved. The male soldiers were deeply in it and were fighting to conquer. The Italians were there in Ethiopia but it was a tough war. In the end, Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia went into exile. So, you can’t write your stories well, if you do not have a clearer grasp of all these salient historical facts.”
In her second book titled The Shadow King she explained that her task is to explore both the roles of men and women with clearer demarcation of who is who. “But you have to appreciate the role of women as well as the role of men. Writing offers you such an opportunity to elaborate and distinguish. This is why I talk more about the human nature. But you know, human nature and politics are intertwine.”
So far Mengiste has won fellowships from Yaddo in Virginia Centre for the Creative Arts, the Prague Summer Programme and the Emily Harvey Foundation. In 2013, she was the Puterbaugh fellow and runner-up, for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize as well as the finalist for a Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize. All her stories concentrate on migration, the relationship between photography and war and the flight of the Sub-Saharan immigrants always arriving Europe and America. She also pays special attention to girl-child education globally and sees the need to encourage the world to refocus attention in that area.