NEA Literature Fellowships

Maaza Mengiste

Back to NEA Literature Fellowships

wc18-Mengiste2.jpg

Maaza Mengiste

Photo courtesy of Maaza Mengiste

(2018 - Prose)

Excerpt from The Shadow King

1974

She does not want to remember but she is here and memory is gathering bones. She has come by foot and by bus to Addis Ababa, across terrain she has chosen to forget for nearly forty years. She is two days early but she will wait for him, seated on the ground in this corner of the train station, the box on her lap, her back pressed against the wall, rigid as a sentinel. She has put on the only dress she does not wear every day. Her hair is neatly braided and sleek and she has been careful to hide the long scar that puckers at the base of her neck and trails over her shoulder like a broken necklace.

In the box are his letters, le lettere, sono le mie lettere carissima Hirut and you must keep them for me until I see you again. Now go, vatene, hurry before they catch you.

There are newspaper clippings with dates spanning the course of the war between her country and his. She knows he has arranged them from the start, 1935, to the end, 1941.

In the box are photographs of her, those he took and labeled in his neat handwriting: una bella ragazza. Una soldata feroce. And those she gave him, mementos scavenged from the life of the naive girl she was before the war, before the noise, before those terrifying nights that she could not free herself from.

Inside that box are the words he taught her to read, the only words she has ever recognized in other books and other letters not meant for someone like her.

Inside the box are the many dead that insist on resurrection.

She has traveled for five days to get to this place. She has pushed her way through checkpoints and nervous soldiers, past frightened villagers whispering of a coming revolution, and violent student protests. She has watched while a parade of young women, raising fists and rifles, marched past the bus taking her to Bahir Dar. They stared at her, an aging woman in her long drab dress, as if they did not know those who came before them. As if this were the first time a woman carried a gun. As if the ground beneath their feet had not been won by some of the greatest fighters Ethiopia had ever known, women named Aster, Nardos, Abebech, Hanna, Aynadis, Debru, Ililta, Abeba, Kidist, Meskerem, Tigist, Tsehai, Saba, and a woman simply called the cook. Hirut murmured the names of those women as the students marched past, each utterance hurling her back in time until she was once again on ragged terrain, choking in fumes and gunpowder, suffocating in the pungent stench of poison.

She was brought back to the bus, to the present, only after one old man grabbed her by the arm as he took a seat next to her: If Mussoloni couldn’t get rid of the emperor, what do these students think they are doing? Hirut shook her head. She shakes her head now. She has come this far to return this box, to rid herself of the horror that staggers back unbidden. She has come to give up the ghosts and drive them away. She has no time for questions. She has no time to correct an old man’s pronunciation. One name always drags with it another, nothing travels alone.

Maaza Mengiste is a novelist and essayist. Her debut novel, Beneath the Lion's Gaze, was selected by the Guardian as one of the 10 best contemporary African books and named one of the best books of 2010 by Christian Science Monitor, Boston Globe, and other publications. She is a Fulbright Scholar, a 2013 Puterbaugh Fellow, and the runner-up for the 2011 Dayton Literary Peace Prize. Her fiction and nonfiction can be found in the New Yorker, Granta, the Guardian, the New York Times, Guernica, and Rolling Stone, amongst other places. She was a writer on the documentary films, Girl Rising and The Invisible City: Kakuma. Her second novel, The Shadow King, is forthcoming.

A little over two years ago, I wrote the last page of my second novel. Except I knew that I didn’t really have the end. I also didn’t have the beginning, and I knew for certain that I had no real middle to speak of. I had pages. I had years of accumulated research. But a story, I did not have. I remember sitting at my desk, discouraged, realizing that I would have to do something to shake things up and fling myself out of my comfort zone. I remember telling myself to risk it all, and then wondering what that meant. I remember going through old notes and looking at my bookshelves and flipping through those books that had electrified me so much that I had read them again and again. Then I asked myself: If I could do anything I wanted, what would I do?

There was no way to move forward but to start over. I began from that place that is before the first page: that place where our ideas tremble, electric and vibrant, and we risk everything to find the right words to give them coherence and form. It was not easy, but what has emerged is a book that can carry the weight of the story I am trying to tell. I submitted pages of this second novel as my writing sample for my NEA application. I applied for an award to begin my third novel. Receiving an NEA, at this point in my writing process, is both an affirmation and a reminder that there is much work still to do. I’ve told myself not to fear failure, to strive instead for creative growth. This NEA fellowship is making this possible, and this writer: American and immigrant and inspired, says thank you.