Chase them with a stick! A conversation with Maaza Mengiste

Maaza Mengiste is the author of Booker-longlisted novel The Shadow King, a novel set mainly during the Italian Fascist invasion of Ethiopia. She was born in Ethiopia and lives, writes and teaches in NYC. She speaks to Soma Ghosh about feminine anger at times of war and extreme circumstances, like the current collision of Black Lives Matter protests and the Covid 19 pandemic.

The Demented Goddess: How have things felt to you in Queens, at this time?

I’ve been on a fellowship to Zurich. I just arrived home, three weeks ago. It was the eeriest feeling to walk through a customs line at JFK, with no one there. But another thing: every single person working in that airport was black, or brown.

I did not see a white person, even checking passports – and they’re normally mixed, in Border Patrol. That felt like a stark reminder of the America I’d landed in. ‘Essential workers’ are essentially the people who need work. They’re from marginalised and under-represented communities. I don’t know where the people were, who were not people of colour. I look at protests and see these unmarked, military, highly-armed people. I have to wonder: are those Border Patrol people? I have no idea.

After quarantine, my husband and I drove downtown, past places I’ve loved, where I went to Grad school. It’s all boarded up. But there’s also graffiti. People are complaining, but that feels like an energy that’s New York. An energy that’s here to stay. The restaurants that are open, there’s outdoor seating, umbrellas. It feels festive and free. That’s a New York I haven’t seen before. Cars are not dominant. People walking. And bikes. A different kind of city is coming back.

DG: It’s interesting to wonder what will happen, now that we’re collectively affected by the pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests. Here’s a situation where we see who is pushed to the front line and who is protected.

What interested me, reading your book, The Shadow King is its shifts in circumstances that allow us to be something different. There’s an early scene where Hirut’s father is showing her how to load his gun. He says she shouldn’t touch the trigger until, “You’re prepared to be something you’re not.” How do we know when we’re prepared to be something we’re not?

Maybe we could start with exploring the Ethiopian feudal society of which Hirut and Aster (the novel’s heroines) are a part?

Ethiopia is deeply religious – it was and it still is. If you’re born poor, you stay poor. If you’re born into a noble family, your duty is to govern, lead, order people who are below you. It’s a caste system. Hirut is a lowly maid in Aster and Kidane’s home, born into servitude. Aster says to Hirut, very early on, you must think that the world was made for you, but you must fit the world. Your mother did and that’s your job, too. And Aster … might be able to stand above Hirut, but she’s a woman married to a man, in a patriarchal world. Her job is to obey him. It chafes against her sense of who she is. So you have these two young women, born into a world they cannot adjust to. They cannot make that ‘fit’. The war disrupts everything. Aster and Hirut see it as a way out of the rules that confine them.

The real Hirut.

DG: I enjoyed, if that’s the word, the no-way-out description of young Aster’s wedding night. The cook advises that she must bear it and it’s natural – but what’s natural for Aster is to close her legs and resist. Fighting is what is natural. Tells us about fighting and soldiering among the women of Ethiopia and your own family’s experience?

I did not know about my great grand-mother’s enlistment in the army for this war (the main setting for The Shadow King) until I was almost done writing the book. I’d heard the stories of the men in my family. I’d assumed the women took care of the wounded, fetched the water and food, the traditional things.

I was in Ethiopia and my mother, at the end of 7 or 8 days of a road trip together, just casually mentioned, “Oh, what about your great-grandmother?”

I asked her to repeat herself. I was positive I’d misheard.

And she said, “Oh yeah, she enlisted in the army. She was married to a man she didn’t like. Her father was going to give her husband the gun.”

She sued her father, when he tried to give the gun to her father and she won. She saw that gun and said, “That’s mine, I’m the oldest, I’ll go.” She enlisted in the front lines. And I met this woman, because she was so young when she started having children. She’d be sitting in a corner of the room and the stories people told about her were not about the war. They were about how stubborn and determined she was, how she seemed to be angry and fighting a lot. She would go into the fields, if a man was trying to take something. She would threaten to beat that man and she often did it. She got the reputation in the village: you don’t mess with her. But no one told me about the war.

I asked my mother, “Why didn’t I learn this?”

She said, “You never asked.”

I called my aunts and they all told me the same story. What I realised is that the women in my family knew this but the men didn’t.

Women’s history gets shared in the spaces of women: in the kitchen, in the sitting room at parties, when men and women separate. They don’t get told in the classroom, or the spaces where men talk about war, politics and war leaders.

DG: Why do you think such stories are kept within the feminine preserve?

I think that women listen to each other, but they don’t expect to be listened to by men. There are things that women will speak about to each other about, in war or domestic violence or any kind of encounter that’s aggressive. But they may not speak to a man, because the violations that happen to women are many times different from the violations that happen to men. Not to say that men also are not assaulted but it becomes a source of shame for women. It’s easier to keep quiet or bear it only with someone you trust. War takes a woman both as a trophy as contested territory. Women are fighting many different battles in a war.

DG: Do you think there’s something about the horror of war or another calamity, like a pandemic, that in some ways gives us an opportunity to de-monsterise some of these elements of being assaulted?

During so-called normality, we are encouraged to feel horrified at sexual assaults. But when not just your life but your family’s lives, your neighbours’ lives, your freedom is under assault, might a woman like your great grandmother say well, yes, the ‘worst ‘ thing may happen to me – that which previously considered the worst. But, under war, I’m liberated from these ideas of what feminine horror might be.

It’s interesting to think about war conflict and this pandemic.

What situations like this do is dissolve the parameters that we once thought existed. What we’re seeing in this pandemic is the way that we are so interconnected. When normality has been disrupted, there is a kind of freedom there, within that horror, confusion and fear.

I remember my friends and I, very early on in this pandemic, getting on Zoom and talking about what is the world going to look like beyond this. What will it look like on the other side? It cannot be the way it is right now. What can we do to push a new world forward?

I think the protests, globally, are a reflection of those kind of questions that every one must have been having, sitting inside, thinking about this. As soon as the doors opened, people rushed out. And they haven’t stopped rushing. I was taking part in marches in Zurich, for Black Lives Matter. Coming back here and witnessing the ongoing uprisings… you realize at some point I have to fight or I’m going to lose even more than I started off with. Things I didn’t think could affect me suddenly really make a difference in my life which means I can then push back on them. I see similar questions with my characters and some of the people that are out protesting now. They’re pushing back.

DG: So when there’s this nexus of pressures that wake us up to our place in the system and everything is pushing so hard on us, we suddenly feel we’ve got some traction?

These kinds of situations make us more of what we are. What we’ve always been. There are people today, on the frontlines of these protests, who have been absolutely heroic. They are the heroes you might see in war time. It feels that this kind of America and different parts of the world are under siege by authoritarian forces. To see people stand up to that, unarmed – my God, they’ve had this all along. They just may not have known it. It’s interesting to think about who we are when we’re not comfortable. It’s maybe the essence of who we are. It’s not that war or conflict or fear or makes something new. It tends to shred and peel away these securities we have. What’s standing in front of those police and military trucks are the essence of those human beings – what they’ve always been.

That also gives me some hope in this world. The world has always been full of decent people who will fight. Now they are being called to do it and they’re doing it.

DG: When you were growing up, what were the Ethiopian expectations of what was feminine? Was your great grandmother, who nobody would mess with, considered typically feminine?

You know, in many ways she led a traditional life… but I was told she could beat up a man. She was angry. So, she had this other thing.

Anger is not considered feminine in Ethiopian society. I was raised with: don’t speak too loud, cover your mouth when you laugh, don’t look in the eye of your elder.

I remember when I was in college, I would go sit at a bar, have a glass of wine or a beer. I could never do that in a place where there were majority Ethiopians because a woman does not sit at a bar by herself. That is an invitation to be approached. Decent women do not do that.

Ethiopia has created norms around patriarchal religious beliefs of what women should do. But young women are pushing the conversations for women’s rights, girls’ rights, LGBTQ rights. That’s where the battle lines are, now. And it’s fought in other arenas: the ethnic rights of all ethnicities, all religions, all people. It’s an uncomfortable series of conversations and confrontations, women speaking up about assaults and rapes and sexuality. These are the daughters of those women who fought in the war. These are the granddaughters. I see that that lineage continuing.

DG: There’s a moment in your novel where Hirut is remembering her father’s words that her mother’s love could make a river unflow and bend her way. Her mother, he says, brought out the goodness in the world. Did you feel pulled, growing up, between being outspoken and having to be a vessel of goodness in the world?

Yeah. There’s a sense that women should be nurturing and supportive. Girls are encouraged to develop that by being quiet and obedient. My brother could get angry, throw tantrums. That meant he was going to grow up to be a strong-willed man. But if I did that, I was acting spoilt. That was the way I was taught. But I grew up with women who were  strong-willed. My mother, who’d tell me to be quiet would herself not be so quiet. She would hold a dinner table captivated with stories that were sometimes raunchy. She had her own business, at a time when, for Ethiopian women, that wasn’t common. When men were trying to steal something from the store, I’ve seen her chase them with a stick. So, women will try to train their daughters in a way that’s necessary in the world.

I remember thinking, who’s following these instructions they’re telling me to live? Nobody! They just say it because they’re supposed to. I’ve yet to meet a weak women. I have met women who know how to hide that better than others.

What’s happening now is that young girls understand this very well and very early. One movement of women is watching another group across the world. The #MeToo movement that started in the U.S. spread, because women were listening to other women. Those intimate spaces I talked about, the conversations were moving out of the kitchens and bedrooms and online. That exploded everything. That lets me know the real power of sharing stories.

The idea that we live in a binary world, this definition is being loosened and expanded, even in a country as conservative as Ethiopia. When will we talk about the LGBTQ members, the transgender women who have always existed in our societies, who’ve always existed? You can imagine the violent reactions to raising those conversations. But I see those people on the front lines of social media, in the books, stories, articles they’re writing and what they’re saying. That is a front line, like a protest. They’re facing these opponents who are really violent and sometimes invisible.

DG: How do we move from being outspoken to being soldierly and violent – when dialogue doesn’t work and people are not listening? Are there circumstances where we must?

If you’re asking me is violence justified, when I think of my characters, when the war came at them, they had to fight. They were fighting for survival. I see what’s happening across the United States, with these confrontations between heavily armed police and military and unarmed protestors. These protestors continue to stand in front of the tear gas and anything else thrown at them. They’re responding in ways that may be aggressive but they’ve not picked up guns. They’re not charging in that way. They’re trying to use their own sense of dignity, their sense of what’s right to combat the physical aggression that’s coming at them. I hope it works. It seems like some of these police have stepped back, some of them are continuing to charge. I believe in self-defence. I write about that in my book. Aster and Hirut are trying to defend themselves. And if that means meeting aggression with aggression, then that’s what they have to do.

The real Aster. “Aster and Hirut are trying to defend themselves. If that means meeting aggression with aggression, then that’s what they have to do.”

We’re talking about patriarchy and we’re talking about the police. These are systems of oppression and you can’t work within them. Those systems have to be dismantled. They have to be taken apart. People confronting those police, whether in Hong Kong, or Portland or Zimbabwe, those people are pushing for a dismantling of an oppressive system.

So, when we’re looking at those police charging and saying, should those people defend themselves and charge, the question should be, why are those police still existing, in the manner that they are? If that is a form is a violence, then I embrace that.

We should be trying to dismantle the patriarchy, as opposed to inviting them in to share the stories of women. We need to destroy the system that says that women can only speak in this area and then invite people to come in.

A good friend of mine, Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian writer, got in trouble last year on Australian television, for asking the question, what if every woman could kill her rapist? What if every woman could retaliate? It got her banned but she was asking a legitimate question. Isn’t a woman important enough, to fight for herself? This is a question that Hirut and Aster ask. Hirut starts to wonder, isn’t she worth as much as a country? Why should she die for that, but not for herself? That’s what we should be asking as women and as people who’ve been oppressed. Aren’t I worth as much as the system? Shouldn’t I be working to dismantle this, so we can raise something that’s better, for everyone?

Maaza Mengiste was talking to Soma Ghosh. Follow Maaza on Twitter @MaazaMengiste, Soma @calcourtesan.

Maaza Mengiste’s latest book, The Shadow King, is out now.

Mona Eltahawy, Maaza’s friend, is an Egyptian writer and journalist who had her arms broken and was repeated sexually assaulted by Egyptian security forces in 2011. Follow Mona @monaeltahawey

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