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Maaza Mengiste

Illuminating Untold Experiences of War and Resilience Through Literature

Maaza Mengiste
Novelist and Essayist; Assistant Director of the Queens College, City University of New York (CUNY) MFA Program in Creative Writing & Literary Translation
2010 Fulbright U.S. Student to Italy

Maaza Mengiste writes about war, violence, and migration from the perspective of individuals often forgotten by the historical record. Her first novel, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, focuses on a family’s difficult choices during the Ethiopian Civil War, while her second novel, The Shadow King, tells the story of ordinary women resisting the Italian invasion of Ethiopia.  Mengiste researched and developed The Shadow King during a transformative 2010 Fulbright U.S. Student award to Italy; the book went on to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and was named Best Book of the Year by The New York Times, NPR, Elle, Time, and more.

Born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 1974, Mengiste and her family were forced to flee the Ethiopian Civil War first to Nigeria, Kenya and then the United States. These formative experiences with conflict and  migration have guided Mengiste’s writing career: her 2010 debut novel, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, follows a family ripped apart by the violence of the Ethiopian Civil War. The novel received immediate critical acclaim as one of the 10 best contemporary African books by The Guardian, a finalist for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize, a runner-up for the 2011 Dayton Literary Peace Prize, the winner of the NAACP Image Award, and the Indies Choice Book of the Year Award. 

Soon after Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, Mengiste examined another period in Ethiopia’s history: the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. To fully understand Ethiopia’s experience in the war, Mengiste pursued a Fulbright U.S. Student award to Italy, where she conducted extensive research for her follow-up project, The Shadow King. The novel explores one of the binational conflicts before the start of World War II through the eyes of Ethiopian women soldiers, an overlooked population in the history of the struggle against fascism. When Mengiste first learned about these soldiers, which included her great-grandmother, “it burst open the possibilities of what was really happening during this war, and what this war could teach us about what it means to face a larger, stronger opponent not only on the battlefield, but also in the most intimate and domestic spaces.”

Set during Benito Mussolini’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia, The Shadow King is intimately informed by her research in Italy, where she examined Italian archives, records, libraries, and resources. “Traveling through Italy and doing research in archives. Having people come up to me in surprising moments and share personal stories that were exactly what I was searching for in archives. Meeting Italians who are now lifetime friends; Fulbright changed my life professionally and personally,” Mengiste explains. 

Maaza Mengiste and Girl Rising subject Azmera.

Outside of fiction, Mengiste actively promotes human rights through storytelling: she serves on the advisory board of Warscapes, an online magazine highlighting current conflicts; works with the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights; serves as a member of the Board of Directors for Words Without Borders; and tells the story of Ethiopian 13-year old Azmera in Richard E. Robbins’ celebrated 2013 documentary film Girl Rising, which follows the struggles girls around the world face in pursuit of education and equality.

Through her sensitive storytelling, Maaza Mengiste continues to shape a more positive vision for our communities and our world.