Book Club: A Conversation On ‘The Shadow King’ With Author Maaza Mengiste

Mengiste’s novel tells the stories of Ethiopian women warriors who fought against Italian occupation.

Cover of The Shadow King
Greta Johnsen / WBEZ
Cover of The Shadow King
Greta Johnsen / WBEZ

Book Club: A Conversation On ‘The Shadow King’ With Author Maaza Mengiste

Mengiste’s novel tells the stories of Ethiopian women warriors who fought against Italian occupation.

While researching for her novel, author Maaza Mengiste says she came across a New York Times article from 1935 that described a woman leading an army of 2,000 men into victory.

She was shocked. Why had she never heard about this female wartime hero?

“It struck me,” Mengiste told Nerdette. “If there’s one, there’s two. If there’s two, there’s five.”

When it comes to stories of wartime heroism, women are often left out of the historical record. The Shadow King, Mengiste’s new novel, leans on that untold history to describe the women warriors who fought to save Ethiopia from Italian colonization before World War II.

Mengiste talked with Nerdette host Greta Johnsen about the book, which is the Nerdette Book Club’s September pick. Below are highlights from the conversation. (And come back later this month for a spoiler-filled panel discussion about The Shadow King.)

The novel’s backdrop

Maaza Mengiste: In 1935, Benito Mussolini looked across Africa and saw that all of these European countries had their own slice of Africa — the British, the French — and Italy didn’t have anything. And Ethiopia was the last independent African country, so in 1935 he decided he and his fascist army would invade in an attempt to colonize it. Italy at that time was one of the most, if not the most militarily advanced countries in the world. Ethiopians had outdated rifles that were maybe 40 or 50 years old, used to protect livestock from predators, and they had spears. Italy came with their tanks, their artillery, their tanks, their bombs. And five years later, Ethiopians won. And if you can imagine the stories that I grew up with, it nurtured my vision of what it means to be Ethiopian, what it means to be African. I grew up with this, but I didn’t realize until I really started researching this book that there was a whole other side of this history that I knew nothing about.

Why she included examples of wartime sexual violence

Mengiste: The place of women within a society that’s patriarchal is that: “We own every part of you. We can do what we want.” And I wanted to show women and girls who became furious by the way they were treated. And made no apologies for their fury.

I think to do that I needed to go into the spaces where they were violated to begin to show where the courage begins.

‘The mind and the imagination is a refuge we have in difficult times’

Greta Johnsen: Connected to a lot of those scenes you have a lot of beautiful passages from the points of view of different women disconnecting from themselves, and acknowledging that this is a memory that they won’t want to keep but also recognizing how much those moments will still define them. They just floored me.

Mengiste: Thank you Greta. I think this is something that I realized in writing my first book, which deals with revolution and people who were imprisoned and interrogated in times of conflict. And one thing that my research showed me is that the mind and the imagination is a refuge that we have in difficult times. And I think this is why even during this pandemic — let’s say January, February, March, when things started to get really intense and really horrifying and frightening — people were reaching for literature and art and music because the imagination is a refuge. And these characters did the same thing. Where does the mind offer us these pockets of mercy? Where can we go and be protected in our head if our body has to stay in one place? I know that that happens. It’s constantly happening, not just in war but in other situations. And I wanted to reflect that, because it’s not escapism. It’s a form of solidifying strength.

This conversation was lightly edited for clarity and brevity. Press the ‘play’ button to hear the full episode.