How to Write a Finite Book About a Neverending War

Maaza Mengiste on her novel "The Shadow King" and turning omnipresent conflict into a story with a beginning, middle, and end

Ethiopian soldiers during the Second Italo-Ethiopian War, 1936

Like Maaza Mengiste’s well-received first novel, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, her latest opens in 1974 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. In The Shadow King, readers meet Hirut as she encounters a bundle of photographs that bring on memories of living, and fighting through, the Second Italo-Ethiopian War. From there Mengiste takes us back through the lives of not just the Ethiopian people, but a larger nation, from foreigners to documenters to those in self-imposed exile during wartime.

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In 1935, Hirut is an orphan turned servant to Kidane and Aster; they took her in as a favor to her parents on their deathbed. Kidane is set to follow in the footsteps of his father and lead his community into another war to fight against the ferenji—Italian foreigners. His wife Aster suffers from the loss of their child and the deterioration of her marriage, part of which she blames on Hirut. What transpires in The Shadow King is wide-reaching, tracking the effects of invasion, the expectation of sacrifice, the ways in which those within and on the outskirts of war negotiate their morality and the larger morality of what it means to be “free” not only as a patriot, but as a person. Mengiste weaves a story that’s both captivating and heart-wrenching, invoking descriptive imagery, choral sections, and alternative viewpoints of those at the front lines as well as those fighting beside and behind them. War is not only a fight for land but a fight to solidify the distinctions of power: who has it, who doesn’t, and how it feels to take what you feel you deserve.

Mengiste and I spoke about the ideology of war novels, the experience of regular people (especially women) in wartime, and how she built tension and perspective in The Shadow King by writing from alternating viewpoints. 

Jennifer Baker: The Shadow King is such an intense and threaded story based around the Second Italo-Ethiopian War. Was this a book that was in the works for a while? 

Maaza Mengiste: It was about nine years of research and writing. When I finally got to the draft that I thought might be the end, I couldn’t believe it.

There were moments writing the book when I was terrified that I would not finish. As much as I was determined to get to the end, there was always that nagging thought in the back of my head. What if I didn’t do it? So when I did finish it I was absolutely thrilled.

JB: It’s a pretty brutal story and I always want to ask authors how are they feeling during and after writing. The brutality can be felt pretty viscerally, not only for the reader but you’re living with the characters for nine years. How did you look after yourself during this process?

MM: That’s interesting to me. You’re not the only one who’s mentioned that the book is brutal. I didn’t feel that when I was writing it, partly because I learned from my first book that no matter how much I can imagine about brutality and inhumanity in revolution and war, things were always worse. So I knew that this was really just the tip of the iceberg. And I knew that the things that I had researched, the things that actually happened were far, far worse than anything I put in the book.

I knew that the things that I had researched, the things that actually happened were far, far worse than anything I put in the book.

Also, I want to frame this question of brutality in context with what we have seen in the U.S., with the way the U.S. treats some people. The history in this country, the police brutality against African Americans… I was writing the book during this ongoing period. I was writing it during the 2016 [U.S. presidential] election. That was brutal. And the things that are happening right now with children in cages is brutal. The mass murders are brutal. So I don’t think I’m depicting anything we haven’t seen. But I think that what you’re saying is important. For me as a novelist, it’s about asking how can we move into these spaces of violence and how can we render them in language that helps to convey the cruelty, but maybe also offers a way to complicate our notions of what different kinds of cruelty look like. Something that I was working towards is representing the many nuanced ways that encounters can be cruel, brutal, violent, yet not leave a mark. It’s not simply like a bludgeon hitting you over the head again and again. But maybe the reader’s sense of brutality comes from an understanding that these aren’t just characters, these characters represent real people and we’ve started to know them, and we suddenly see the depth of pain that’s inflicted when nations confront each other through individual bodies.

JB: And also the conflict within ourselves?

MM: Absolutely.

JB:  If we look at the categorization of a “war novel” they’re not exactly self-contained. War is not finite. Shadow King obviously does not come at it this way, so how did you know when and where to end it?

MM: I think that one of the questions I had to ask myself as I was writing the book was: Whose story is this and why do they want to tell it? I had to figure out what the story was in essence. And then once I realized that my intent was not to go through the entire war, then I knew that the story would end when my characters came to some kind of a realization, regardless of what was happening in the war.

And so when certain battles, personal as well as political, ended for them, that’s when the book would end. I had reached a certain point and I said, “I don’t think I can go any further. Neither can they, frankly.” The last chapter is set in 1974, and that also felt like a more natural closing for the book because the real story did not end when the war ended.

JB: As I was preparing to talk to you words such as “sacrifice” and “power” came up for me. And that it aligns to the expectation of sacrifice, especially the women, and it’s not to say the men don’t sacrifice things as well. Yet these expectations of how you support others in time of war, this is what freedom for country is, this is what patriotism means. And it’s all encouraged by a need to sacrifice something for that. Do you think that’s true? 

MM: I think that for the people living during that time there were expectations of obedience and sacrifice, you’re right. The country’s at war and this is just what you do. The idea of loyalty and obedience was deeply ingrained in people. When the emperor put out a mobilization call there was no question: every family sent their eldest to war, every able-bodied man picked up his gun and enlisted. Every woman prepared to follow the army to cook and take care of the wounded. Haile Selassie was a man supposedly ordained by God to be an emperor. He could trace his blood back to King Solomon in the Bible. So when he said “Pick up your weapons, we’re going to fight,” you fight. There was no question about that. And I think with Hirut, one of the things I had to consider was how could she still be so loyal to Aster and Kidane, and to this whole war enterprise, when she herself is under such duress and is being abused. How could she be so obedient when her own self was at stake?

The idea of sacrifice, the threat of death, is constantly there. That is war.

The one thing I had to think about was that I could not place my 21st-century ideals and thinking onto this young girl who has been taught her place in life for as long as she can remember. She was born poor, she was born a peasant, she’s a servant because that’s just the way things are. That’s the way things are meant to be. I can’t place my own thinking onto her. I had to work within her world and within her cultural framework. And women, you’re right, they were told you follow behind the men: you sing these songs if you think anyone is turning back. You encourage them. You shame the cowards. But what many of the women didn’t realize was that they’d be in the direct line of fire because they were not that far behind the men when they were picking up the wounded or picking up the men. It was not only the soldier who was being asked to risk his life. And when women stepped into the front lines as well, they were confirming what they already knew: The idea of sacrifice, the threat of death, is constantly there. That is war. Our bodies become commodities for these nations.

JB: So how did these elements along with following several characters come together to be less of a straightforward narrative?

MM: I started thinking about the books I love. The reading that has completely electrified me. And it’s interesting we’re speaking now just after Toni Morrison has passed away. I remember reading Song of Solomon and realizing that she did this thing with the prose where she layered the brutality in such as way that as I was reading, I was bending into the book. I held it up close to my face so I could re-read the sentences again as though I could peer through the page to figure out what actually happened. Because she had coded language, she had coded the violence into this language that made you stop, re-read, and quite literally decode the depth of cruelty. I was shaken after reading that book, and I wanted to work with that charge that I felt while reading her book as I was writing my own book. 

I was inspired by books that broke form and broke structure in a way I found riveting and challenging and enthralling. One of my favorite texts is Homer’s The Iliad. I’ve always been intrigued by the way that the chorus will step into the narrative and tell another side of the story and the battle scenes in that book are some of the best I’ve ever read. I gravitate towards books in which narrative risks are taken, and I wanted to emulate in The Shadow King. My book follows, in some ways, the form of Greek tragedies that I’ve loved. And then I was also thinking about music and the way that music is so much a part of this war between Italy and Ethiopia. I was looking at Aida, the opera, and thinking about how an Ethiopian might think of that if they were watching it as Italy invaded the country. I mean, let’s put this story into an Ethiopian context: there’s this Ethiopian princess who becomes a slave and falls in love with the man who is killing her people. It’s so politically loaded. I wanted to challenge that and and work with a musical form and also pay homage to the women who were using song as a way to galvanize fighters. Pay tribute to the way that music throughout the war in Ethiopia was really part of battle. People would gather and sing war songs before they went off to fight. I had all these elements running through my head as I was thinking about the structure of the book.

JB: The photos are what really struck me the most. You have the photographer Foto there but actually getting these segments where we are getting the descriptions of the photos and then his being embroiled in one side of this war. As a reader these photo descriptions reminds me that I’m an observer. I don’t know if purposeful or even if you can speak to whether or not that was purposeful.

A minor character asks, towards the end of the book, what war ever really ends?

MM: Thank you for saying that. That was really my intent, to force a reckoning with what we see and what we think we know from what we see. Photographs have shaped, have deformed the way we consider Africans and people from the African diaspora, Black people. These photographs have informed how we think of the West. How we think of colonizers. How we think of white people but also how we think of people of color. I considered whether I wanted to include the actual photographs and I decided to do word images. This way, I could examine some essential questions about what’s seen, what’s witnessed and the differences between those two. I wanted to see if I could capture some of that in the description of the photograph. A physical photograph wouldn’t have allowed me to do that. And part of what I wanted to constantly force the reader to question is whether what they’re looking at is actually what they’re seeing. What’s there? What remains invisible? What do we actually see of those human beings who are photographed and show up in our newspapers and in our social media news? I am hoping to move this kind of close examination off the page, beyond the book so that the next time we look at a photograph, the next time we see something stark and disturbing, we can look at it and say “Is this really what it’s supposed to be? What’s been left out?”

JB: So when it comes to Hirut’s part of the story, was there a particular place you felt comfortable landing with her? Especially since it’s such an evolution for her, she goes through a lot. Everyone goes through a lot, but I feel like we’re rooted in what she goes through.

MM: Hirut’s war did not end when the Italians were ousted in 1941. I wanted to depict a female soldier who understood that while she had helped to maintain her country’s independence, there was another war in which her body was the terrain, the battlefield, and it would not end so neatly. I had to ask myself how she would define the parameters of her own freedom and independence. What did victory mean to her? I knew this would require staying at her character for years after the end of the Italo-Ethiopian war. I think by the time I could envision her in 1974, as an older woman watching other women marching with rifles in a a brewing revolution, I really had some grounding for her, even for her in 1935. I knew I could develop her from a young age, but I had to be able to see her and be comfortable with who she was 40 years after that. A minor character asks, towards the end of the book, what war ever really ends? And I wanted to find an answer through Hirut.  

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