The Shadow King

By Maaza Mengiste

W.W. Norton

Reviewed by Brenda M. Greene

Maaza Mengiste

The story of war has always been a masculine story, but this was not true for Ethiopia and it has never been that way in any form of struggle.  Women have been there, we are here now.
Author’s Note, The Shadow King

The year 1974 is symbolic of critical moments in the world and life of Maaza Mengiste, novelist, scholar and professor of creative writing at Queens College of the City University of New York.  Mengiste was born in 1974, the year that opens her recent novel of historical fiction, The Shadow King.  1974 is also the year that marks the end of the rule of Emperor Haile Selassie and opens her award-winning debut novel Beneath the Lion’s Gaze (W.W. Norton, 2011).

Maaza Mengiste was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and lived in Nigeria and Kenya before settling in the United States.  Her recent novel, The Shadow King, as does Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, focuses on the impact of the war in the lives of Ethiopians and in particular, Haile Selassie.  The Shadow King recounts the story of the roles of Hirut and Aster, two Ethiopian women who played leadership roles in fighting Mussolini’s soldiers in Italy’s war of aggression against Ethiopia in 1935.

Works of historical fiction are expanding the western and post-colonial literary canon. As a genre, historical fiction has been critical in documenting and providing an authentic record of the lives and experiences of people in our history.  Historical fiction provides the sociological and historical moments in time that force one to look at multiple viewpoints, at contact zones that examine all of the forces in play..

The examination of these texts from varying lens enables the author to create literary texts that represent a more encompassing truth. More recently books such as The Underground Railroad (Doubleday, 2016) by Colson Whitehead, The Water Dancer (Random House, 2019) by TaNehisi Coates, Washington Black (Random House, 2018)  by Esi Edugyan, Homegoing (Random House, 2016) by Yas Gyesi and Black Leopard, Red Wolf (Penguin, 2019) by Marlon James have combined the genres of fiction, magical realism and speculative fiction to tell stories from the perspectives of those who have been subjected to slavery, racism, colonialism, and imperialism.   Mengiste’s novel adds to the increasing number of texts that blend genres to create historical narratives that complicate and deepen our understanding of history..

The Shadow King portrays two strong female characters who become soldiers in the war against Mussolini, thus defying the expectations of Ethiopian men and playing a pivotal role in the success of the war. Mengiste was motivated to write this novel by her grandmother who enlisted and went to war against Italy.  In writing this story, Mengiste fulfills a gap in European and African history.  Her novel reveals the interior fears, hopes and challenges in the lives of Ethiopians affected by war, and recounts the story of woman soldiers, a gap left off in historical narratives across the globe.  Mengiste’s historical and well-researched novel of Ethiopian history thus complicates European, American, African and world history..

Blending poetry and prose Mengiste takes the reader on a journey that is immersed in a theatrical production with prologues, interludes, choruses, and performances. As the novel opens, the protagonist, Hirut, is sitting in the Addis Ababa train station, reflecting on 40 years earlier, (1934) when she was the most trusted soldier of the Shadow King, the king who substituted for the Emperor during a significant portion of the invasion..

She is holding a box of letters, news clippings and photos collected by the photographer who captured her vulnerability while she was imprisoned and who documented the lives of the many Ethiopians, freedom fighters who resisted and were murdered because they were determined to withstand the aggressive forces of Mussolini.  The present intervenes and Hirut observes as “. . . a fist of sunlight bears through the dusty window of the Addis Ababa train station.  It bathes her head in warmth and settles on her feet.  A breeze unfurls into the room.”.

She regards the students who are marching against Emperor Haile Selassie and ponders: if Mussolini could not get rid of the Emperor, what do the students think they are doing?.

During one of the Interludes in the novel we witness Emperor Haile Selassie sitting in his mansion, listening to the opera Aida over and over again and imagining his country full of Aidas and desperate kings who are willing to leave their country in enemy hands.   Aida, a traitor to her people, is a “. . . a foolish believer in torn loyalties . . . “He reflects on her actions: “. . . What new ways will you find to keep your own people enslaved, he whispers.  Is it possible you do not know the duties of one born of royal blood? ” Selassie resolves that his soldiers will defy the enemy.  They will not be morally defeated by Mussolini. .

Kidane, the husband of Aster and one of the major leaders of the resistance, knows that the Italians are determined to declare their first victory in Adua, the city where they were first defeated in 1896.  He is fighting for Adua, for it symbolizes more than a place.  He will not allow the Italians “. . .  to rewrite history, to alter memory, to resurrect their dead and refashion them as heroes.”.

The Shadow King provides the story of the Italian invasion from the inside out.  It expands the narrative from the perspective of those Ethiopians who were on the ground while highlighting cultural norms and traditions, class divisions and the allegiance and loyalty of Ethiopians to their nation and their emperor. This is a story that many have not heard. Mengiste does an excellent job of situating the reader during the conflict from the Ethiopian gaze.

Maaza Mengiste, born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, is a novelist and essayist. Her debut novel, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, was selected by the Guardian as one of the ten best contemporary African books and named one of the best books of 2010 by Christian Science Monitor, Boston Globe and other publications. Her fiction and nonfiction can be found in The New Yorker, Granta, the Guardian, the New York Times, BBC Radio, and Lettre. Mengiste is a Fullbright Scholar and professor in the MFA Creative Writing and Literary Translation program at Queens College of the City University of New York.

Brenda M. Greene is Founder and Executive Director of the Center for Black Literature and Professor of English at Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York.

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