A conversation with Maaza Mengiste
Maaza Mengiste is a Fulbright Scholar and the award-winning author of Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, selected by the Guardian as one of the ten best contemporary African books. The novel was named one of the best books of 2010 by Christian Science Monitor, Boston Globe, Publishers Weekly and other publications. Her fiction and non-fiction writing can be found in the Guardian, the New York Times, BBC Radio 4, Granta and Lettre International among other places.
Maaza has won fellowships from Yaddo, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Prague Summer Program and the Emily Harvey Foundation. She was the 2013 Puterbaugh Fellow and a Runner-up for the 2011 Dayton Literary Peace Prize as well as a finalist for a Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize, an NAACP Image Award and an Indies Choice Book of the Year Award in Adult Debut. Her second novel, The Shadow King, is forthcoming.
We had this conversation in an Ethiopian bistro in New York.
EMMANUEL IDUMA: I saw you mentioned Breyten Breytenbach in the author’s note of your book. It was good to know he was your teacher. I read Intimate Strangers over the summer. I want to know what his work means to you.
MAAZA MENGISTE: What Breyten’s work means to me is closely tied to how he was able to integrate his writing with politics, but in many ways still maintain something quite literary. As a new writer, I couldn’t believe he was able to do that with his experiences in prison. Breyten’s style is quite different from mine. But what I found fascinating was that he was actually speaking about things that were historical, factual and real in a labyrinthine language. I felt really lucky to have him as my instructor that first semester at NYU.
EI: There’s a similarity in your projects, not just in the issues you address, but in the style you use, especially when you shift perspectives. Sometimes we’re in the head of a character and it’s an ‘I’ speaking and we move to a dreamland, a place that an omniscient narrator usually won’t want to go, because it’s far out. And that makes the work grounded, humane.
MM: I think in those moments – especially the moments that were difficult for me to write, as well for the characters to go through – imagination becomes our saviour. Part of the research I did for Beneath the Lion’s Gaze involved reading the testimonies of people who had been interrogated. Many of them talked about times when their body simply couldn’t feel any more pain. The body shuts down and the mind takes over. They would talk about how difficult it was to conceive of what was happening, and that the mind gave them refuge — imagination stepped in. I wanted to develop a little bit of that in the book.
EI: Hearing you talk about this place beyond the body, once the spirit is broken, is fascinating. I want to know where you think the logic of torture breaks down.
MM: What do mean ‘the logic of torture’?
EI: I mean the way torture works on a body, how the body breaks down to go elsewhere, and how you then inhabit that in writing.
MM: When I was a child, I fell and broke my arm while skating. It was so bad but there was no one else around. There was a moment when I looked down and my arm was misshapen and it didn’t feel like my own. There was a complete kind of disembodiment there. Suddenly it stopped being my arm, it was just an arm, a distorted one. I remember sitting and wondering ‘is this really an arm?’ I didn’t cry at all but sat thinking about this until someone said ‘can I help you?’ and I said ‘I think I broke my arm’ and they panicked, and I started crying. I was completely fascinated by what was happening to this thing attached to me but not me.
While writing I tried to imagine what it might feel like to become just a body. If you have ever had any kind of surgery, or even visited the dentist, you realise how physical you are. That was what I was trying to remember. We are in some sense a species, we are animals, and quite primal. And what torture does is break the spirit through the body, and tries to tell you that you are nothing more than a body that can be governed. I was trying to deal with torture as a kind of logic that deals with the body in order to get to the spirit, which is when the mind comes in and offers a kind of solace.
EI: And do you think this is also the logic of war?
MM: It is. What is war? You send soldiers out and, although nobody wants to say it, you know a certain number will be killed, and you hope there will be fewer than the casualties on the other side. War is dealing with human beings as objects.
EI: This reminds me — I must ask you: what is your relationship with your body when you are writing? My back always hurts …
MM: [laughs] I don’t notice it at all until I get to a point where the writing is about to make a breakthrough. And I suddenly get agitated, nervous. There is a video I put up recently on Twitter where Glenn Gould is practicing a Bach piece. He’s so into it, and there’s a moment when he just cuts off and goes to the window, paces and comes back to the piano. I think I know that feeling. There are certain moments when the sense of who we are as creators becomes overwhelming; it disrupts some kind of passivity that we’re accustomed to. I’m aware of myself physically in those moments, especially, perhaps, when writing about war, when writing about what people are doing physically for an ideology. I’m constantly being forced to think of what that feels like, to create through imagination a story about the body in the service of an idea.
EI: I didn’t think Beneath the Lion’s Gaze came to an end; I saw the story continuing, even until today. It’s weird but I don’t believe in linear time. And so I got the sense that the book was trying to disrupt history, and fiction can do that.
MM: I deliberately made it so that it didn’t feel like an end because, quite frankly, the revolution was not over by that time. I wanted to give the sense that while Hailu’s family was together, there were things happening outside their door. There’s also the last moment when Hailu sees a flash of blue and people said, ‘wait, did he die?’ He didn’t die, but our mind gives us a kind of solace in a very non-linear way, allowing us to revisit the past. Or maybe Hailu saw Dawit in the future doing something else.
EI: It occurred to me that until Hailu was interrogated, he thought he was almost invincible. Before he was tortured he thought about the breaking of the body through his wife, and it didn’t get to him. But torture allowed him to get to the place his wife had reached during her coma.
MM: Yes. I wanted to use a physician as not only a witness to conflict, but also its victim. He’s placed in a position where he has to consider what life is worth, and if dying is merciful.
EI: How has the novel been received in Ethiopia?
MM: Mostly it has been well received. The hesitations come from the surprise that I’m this young — even though I’m not young at all. Some don’t understand how I could write the book when I have never been part of any revolutionary group. When I’m speaking to groups of Ethiopians I have to begin at a different point and highlight this is fiction, and this is what fiction allows me to do. I’ve had a lot of people say, ‘I’m Dawit, how did you know that I did that?’ Or, ‘this thing happened to me in jail,’ and ‘you described it exactly the way it happened’. So if they are willing to return to their own memories by reading the book, they respond well.
EI: Has the novel been translated into Amharic?
MM: No. I’m hoping that will happen.
EI: You have been called a historical novelist. Do you accept that label?
MM: So far I’ve been writing historically-based fiction. When I think of historical novelists, I think of people like Hilary Mantel whose characters lived. I know that E L Doctorow has been called a historical novelist. But in a book like Ragtime, he created J P Morgan. I don’t know if J P Morgan did the things Doctorow said he did but Doctorow does what he wants with his characters. I’m dealing with a historical backdrop but really it is fiction.
I think historical novels are very hard to write. If someone calls me a historical novelist I will say ‘thank you.’ [Laughs] I also think historical fiction is not what people used to think it was.
EI: I thought of it first as a disruption, before I considered it an attempt to get the facts right. But I knew you came with all that knowledge then figured out how to break it apart.
MM: Exactly. The book is really a negotiation with history. It always was. In every chapter or every event I knew how and when something happened, but sometimes it didn’t fit a character or point in the story. I had to ask myself, do I change the history or the story? And I changed history most of the time. I compressed years so I could give the essence of the times. You don’t necessarily need the hard data.
EI: Let’s talk about your interest in photography. In a talk last month my teacher, David Levi Strauss, referred to your essay in the Guardian on the Kevin Carter image, and how you wrote that we need to look at these images of tragedy and terror. Strauss keeps emphasising that we need to look at these images.
MM: You know, I wrote that piece before the videos of the beheadings came out. I keep returning to the essay because I don’t know what to get out of looking at those videos so I haven’t looked. It’s a complicated thing. I wonder if he spoke about those videos…
EI: No, he didn’t. But he has written a lot about the Abu Ghraib images and the deployment of images in the war against terror, how the images are always linked to some form of propaganda — how they are controlled, and how a very important act is to wrest power from those who control the image. That was the context in which he talked about your piece, the point being that we can’t afford to look away, that we need to ask the hard questions. To ask the hard questions we have to look at the images. But you can’t look at them in the first place.
MM: I mentioned in my essay the 55,000 photographs of the bodies of Syrian prisoners. A few of the images are available online. I remember that when they came out I tried to look. I felt that with the gaze begins the journey towards creating a different narrative for these images. But I couldn’t do it. A good friend of mine is Fred Ritchin, and I emailed him to tell him I was trying to write about them but was finding it difficult to look at them. I had been trying for months to write something and I couldn’t, until this piece with the Guardian when I had to look. I could only look at one photo. Fred recently came out with a piece in Lightbox, where in essence he is asking ‘do I need to look at every image of atrocity that comes out? Can’t just thinking of the victims create a similar kind of sympathy?’ And I think that’s also true.
I haven’t looked at the videos of the beheadings and don’t think I can. But, when I am reading a journalist’s description of what they see in the videos, I think what I realise is how limited I am by that person’s gaze, and by that person’s own agenda in the way they describe it. I get the sense some journalists want to depict a moment of utter victimization as a moment with traces of resistance. It offers us some respite from our own helplessness and fear but we’re not getting an unadulterated re-telling, though I still don’t know if I can look.
EI: What I think about a lot is the fact that while writing about these images, we are forced to do some looking, because to write a really good piece about any work of art, you have to keep going back to it. The moment you go away, you become a propagandist. But when you keep looking, you show you care about it. I guess it’s not really something that is so easy to do, but I think by writing about these images of terror it can bring us closer to them.
MM: I think you’re saying something interesting too, that not just seeing it once suffices, but understanding that you have to keep looking. When I say you have to do something about the gaze, it means through writing. So that you change the message yourself.
EI: You said in an interview that you were interested in the ‘human cost’ of the Ethiopian revolution. I wonder if this is where documentary photography intersects with fiction. The point of making photographs of events is to estimate or valorise the human cost of certain actions or events. Do you agree? Do you think of your interest in photography in a similar way as your interest in fiction?
MM: Absolutely. When I look at all the photographs I’ve taken and I start looking for patterns in what my eyes seem to be attracted to, I’m always attracted to human beings. I’m interested in the individual, rather than how they look against a broader landscape.
EI: Lately, I’ve been curious about how we make these distinctions between the creative and the political. In your case you felt deeply attached to the Ethiopian revolution then you began to write about it. You responded to the needs of the story, but you were also responding to the need to write about a historical moment. I guess I don’t want to think it’s so easy to say ‘I’m paying attention to the needs of the story,’ because you have political facts you’re paying attention to. What do you think?
MM: My characters are political. In the first book, and this second book, I move through the characters. The historical moment has to extend out of the characters. I tell my students, who are interested in writing fiction using historical or political moments, to consider where the human attached to this fact is? Human beings are complicated. Political movements can have flat ideologies. I would rather focus on human beings.
EI: At what point do you need to take a position? Will this be outside your fiction?
MM: I don’t know when I would have had to. Some people have said, ‘you’ve been too easy on the Emperor. He was a tyrant.’ People have been really upset because I was kind to the Colonel, and Mickey, or all these terrible people…
EI: …I don’t think you were kind to Mickey….
MM: [Laughs] I think for me to write fiction I have to be able to understand something about the position of terrible people. I had to deconstruct and reconfigure the Emperor, not in terms of his politics, but as an eighty-year-old man who is not as sharp as he was, and has seen his family and officials killed or jailed, and he knows he’s going to die — I can write that human being. The Emperor had to be broken down to a man. Dawit or Mickey can talk about the politics of who this Emperor is. But my task as a fiction writer is not to have an agenda but to look at this person as he was viewed by different people. I don’t agree with what Mickey was doing eventually with Guddu. When I’m writing difficult characters like the ones in this second book or like Mickey in the first one, I have to figure out how to render that character. Because I know that every revolution has more people like Mickey than people like Dawit or Hailu.
EI: Because it’s consensual and you have nothing to lose.
MM: Right. And I had to figure out a way to understand the Colonel as well.
EI: It really scares me how much time we have to put into writing. It takes everything in your life and wrenches you emotionally. Is the process of writing the second one different from the first?
MM: Every book is different. I thought I knew how to do it after the first book was done. I had to learn all over again, and I realise I don’t know anything. Especially for the second book which is completely different. The book talks about a moment in Ethiopian history that is triumphant, that spoke to the world about what African nations could do to a colonial force. First, the tone would be different in some way because we know the end of the story. But what we don’t know and what I found interesting is the story of the individual people I’m going to create. Within this narrative of victory, there is also a cost, not just for the Ethiopians but the Italians, whom I’m writing as well. I’m interested in the small stories within this history. Moments of defeats also, because the Ethiopians were defeated earlier in the war and I’m wondering what happened then.
And I’m also interested in the role of women. Women were significant in the lives of both Ethiopian and Italian soldiers. Also, there were Ethiopian women who fought in the army next to men — they are invisible in history. I’m looking for these stories, and I’m writing them at the same time.
Interview by Emmanuel Iduma.