Maaza Mengiste on confronting the past without 'smoothing out the rough edges of history'

In her lecture for the Global Centre for Pluralism, writer and Booker Prize nominee Maaza Mengiste turns to photographs from the war between Ethiopia and Italy in the 1930s to explore how historical narratives are constructed, what they overlook, and the murky realities in between.

The writer turns to archival photography to explore how historical narratives are created

Ethiopian-American writer Maaza Mengiste is a Booker-Prize nominee for her novel, The Shadow King about the women soldiers written out of African and European history. She says 'the past and the way we speak of it has tremendous and extraordinary implications for how we move into the future.' (Nina Subin)

*Originally published on May 20, 2021.

Maaza Mengiste was almost done writing a novel about the Ethiopian women who fought an occupying Italian army in the 1930s when she found out, by chance, that her own great-grandmother had fought in that war. 

"I had no idea that I had a woman like that in my family," she told Nahlah Ayed. 

Her great-grandmother "was really one of those that should never have been remembered by history because of the place she was born. And she did this thing that was extraordinary," said Mengiste. 

"It makes me think about the fact that the stories of women [are] told in the spaces of women. They're told in the kitchens, in the bedrooms, in the places where women gather to talk amongst themselves. And they never make it into the classroom. They don't make it into textbooks or into libraries."

But they did make it into Mengiste's Booker-shortlisted novel The Shadow King, which moves the story of female fighters from the periphery to the centre. 

I have to see what is there without smoothing out the rough edges of history.- Maaza Mengiste

Mengiste delivered the 8th Annual Pluralism Lecture, which was co-hosted by the Global Centre for Pluralism and the University of British Columbia. 

In her lecture, The Moment of Encounter: History, Disruptions and Transformations she explores history's omissions and her efforts to reconstruct the lives of Ethiopian women and men from old photographs. 

Weizero Abebech Cherkos, a female army recruit about to leave Addis Ababa in 1935. According to an inscription on the back of the photo, each woman soldier is provided with a mule, a rifle and a revolver. (With permission from MAaza Mengiste)

But in creating a more representative account of the past, Mengiste counsels that we must also resist the urge to oversimplify the past with to find "false closures" — or to make the past serve our own needs now.

"I have to see what is there without smoothing out the rough edges of history. It is too easy to put myself into the photograph and reach into the past to settle the pieces into some reassuring order," she said. 

While "smoothing out the rough edges of history" might make her more comfortable, Mengiste said it blocks her from making other discoveries. 

"It is harder to recognize that the photographs and documents in archives only lead to other questions and new uncertainties," she said.

"We have been taught, for so long, that an answer must always follow a question. That if we cannot point to a resolution, then we have failed. But what if, in that space between knowing and confusion is an entire landscape where something else — beyond answers, but equally vital — exists?"

When asked what she would name that landscape, Mengiste said, "The first word that came to mind is, it's a landscape called 'reckoning'. And that's uncomfortable territory."

'I have to refuse the instinct to … save this man'

In her lecture, she focused on two photographs. One is a picture of an Italian man and an East African man standing side by side. 

"On the other side of this Italian where the other man is not, is empty space. It is human-sized, large enough to accommodate one more. It is as if a hollow has been carved out, someone else scraped away to leave behind a bleached patch of earth," said Mengiste. 

Circa 1935: exact location and date unknown. Maaza Mengiste is curious to know the story behind the image but cautions herself not to 'will a narrative onto this picture that probably did not exist.’ (With permission from Maaza Mengiste)

"Though I couldn't be certain of the date, I could make an informed guess that this image was made after the October 1935 invasion. War had likely already started, and though Benito Mussolini declared victory in May 1936, I knew this would prove to be premature," she said. 

In 1936, after Mussolini declared victory and Emperor Haile Selassie fled to England, the conflict shifted to guerrilla war. 

"Perhaps this photograph was made in that chaotic period between the declaration of victory and the start of guerrilla war. Perhaps what I was looking at was an image of instability and uncertainty — the Italian's. Perhaps the ground that rises sharply behind the two men hides entire armies of Ethiopians waiting for dark to ambush. Maybe the man standing there squinting into the sun is a captured prisoner ... Maybe when light falls and he is back in the place where he is being held, he will hear a soft whistle and understand that help has come, and he will soon be free," Mengiste said. 

"But I cannot do that. I cannot will a narrative onto this picture that probably did not exist. The urge is strong and while I might be able to excuse myself by pointing to the brutalities of war, and in particular, this war, I have to refuse the instinct to protect and maybe, save, this man."

'Those women still feel very real to me'

Mengiste also spoke about an album of pictures of Ethiopian women — most of them naked from the waist up — collected by an Italian soldier during the occupation. 

"It was an album of exploitation. I got it because I didn't want anyone else to possess it … Those women still feel very real to me. They still feel like part of me," she told Ayed. 

"I took one look at it, I shut it, closed it, put it in a drawer, and I left it there for years until someone, an art historian, a photographer said, 'you can't do that. You have to look at these women.'"

Had she not pushed through her discomfort, Mengiste said she would never have discovered some of the complexities she explored in both her novel and her lecture. 

One image in the album is different from the rest. The woman, named Bogalech, is full-clothed and carrying a rifle.

In an album made by an Italian soldier, Maaza Mengiste found a photo of a woman named Bogalech from 1937. 'Bogalech is not afraid, nor is she demure. She looks determined and resilient, strong. She is a startling vision.' (With permission from Maaza Mengiste )

At first, Mengiste wanted to take that photograph as proof of the fighting women she was writing about, and to see it as an image of empowerment. 

"I could have gone with the simple narrative of here's a woman with a gun in an album. Look how brave and strong she is," she said. 

"But I had to take her in totality … I realised that this woman, Bogalech, is bound by the fates of all the other girls and women in that album who have been exploited, that you can't look at her without looking at the others. 

"Once I realised that I understood that that photograph of a woman in a dress fully clothed with a rifle was a mockery of her. She reflects back on them. They reflect back on her … And that was part of the discomfort of that album because it would have been so easy to say ... there's this woman and now we're done."

'Women are as complicated as men are'

Despite that effort to make a mockery of Ethiopian women, Ethiopian women were fighters in the Second Italo-Ethiopian War.  But in restoring those women to their rightful place in history, Mengiste also wanted to avoid making them two-dimensional heroes. 

"Just because a woman is involved in any conflict, it doesn't necessarily make that conflict just. Women are capable of cruelties, as much as men are," she said. 

In the novel, she explored that complexity through the figure of Aster. She rallies her fellow women to fight, but as the wife of a renowned military leader, she wields significant power over her female servants — like Hirut, the novel's main character. 

"On one side, [Aster is] fighting a war against fascism. And on the other side, she is absolutely cruel to Hirut … She's part of a feudal system that is also racist, and she doesn't mind that. She just wants to have more power than she does," Mengiste said. 

"I needed those complexities in her because I think women are as complicated as men are."

Watch the 8th Annual Pluralism Lecture by Maaza Mengiste 

Maaza Mengiste is a critically acclaimed novelist and essayist whose work examines the individual lives at stake during migration, war, and exile. Mengiste's debut novel, Beneath the Lion's Gaze (2010), was named one of The Guardian's Ten Best Contemporary African Books. Her latest novel, The Shadow King (2019), was called "one of the most beautiful novels of the year" by NPR and was a 2020 Booker Prize finalist.

*This episode was produced by Pauline Holdsworth.


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