“I think a writer’s identity is that of someone who has pledged allegiance to seeking and challenging truths. If I’m writing as I should, I am in exile from my own identity, I am challenging my own comfort zones.”
Maaza Mengiste is a novelist and essayist whose work examines the individual lives at stake during migration, war, and exile, and considers the intersections of photography and violence. Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, her critically acclaimed debut novel, was selected by The Guardian as one of the 10 best contemporary African books and was named one of the best books of 2010 by The Christian Science Monitor, The Boston Globe, and other publications.
Photo Credit: Nina Subin
Beneath the Lion’s Gaze is set in Ethiopia in the 1970s and revisits the last days of the Ethiopian monarchy and the brutal beginnings of the Derg, the socialist military junta that replaced it. The story focuses on the Hailu family as they struggle to make difficult choices within a political climate that grows increasingly complex and dangerous. Kirkus calls Beneath the Lion’s Gaze “an arresting, powerful novel that works on both personal and political levels.”
“What is profound about fiction is that it creates a place where we can imagine the possible futures of these kinds of movements. Those are the kinds of questions we have to ask as writers.”
Her second novel, The Shadow King, called a “lyrical, remarkable new novel” by The New York Times takes readers to 1935 Ethiopia during Mussolini’s invasion, in what many consider the first real conflict of World War II. It revolves around an army of ordinary women, since left out of the historical record, who join the front lines to fight against the fascists. Through complicated characters who face no easy answers, The Shadow King explores what it means to be a woman at war. In their starred review, Publisher’s Weekly praised Mengiste for “break[ing] new ground in this evocative, mesmerizing account of the role of women during wartime—not just as caregivers, but as bold warriors defending their country.” The Shadow King, called “one of the most beautiful novels of the year” by NPR, was a finalist for The Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction and is longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. A film adaptation is in the works to be directed by Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou, Harriet).
“The Shadow King is a novel about war and history, both epic in scope and intimate in detail…Maaza Mengiste has a gift for rendering everyone in this story, resister and invader alike, with great nuance and complexity, leaving us with no room for easy judgment. A wonderful book.”
—Laila Lalami, author of The Other Americans
The winner of the 2020 Literature Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Mengiste’s honors include the Creative Capital Award, a Fulbright Scholarship, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and Puterbaugh Festival of International Literature & Culture. She was a Runner-Up for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize for Beneath the Lion’s Gaze. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, The Guardian, The New York Times, Rolling Stone, BBC Radio, and Lettre International, among other places.
Mengiste was also a writer on the documentary films The Invisible City: Kakuma, about a refugee camp in the middle of the Turkana desert in Kenya that has become the region’s fastest-growing community; and Girl Rising, which tells the stories of nine girls from developing nations around the world overcoming obstacles to education and security. Girl Rising, which features the voices of Meryl Streep, Liam Neeson, and Cate Blanchett, is part of the Girl Rising project, a global action campaign for girls’ education and empowerment.
Mengiste was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and lived in Nigeria and Kenya before moving to the United States. She currently serves on the boards of Words Without Borders and Warscapes, and lectures on creative writing at Princeton. Mengiste is a member of Black Artists for Freedom. Her next book is A Brief Portrait of Small Deaths, a novel set in Berlin during the interwar years.