Maaza Mengiste

Maaza Mengiste stars at the Afrolit Sans Frontieres Virtual Literary Festival.

Maaza Mengiste was the first novelist to feature on the third day of Afrolit Sans Frontieres Virtual Literary Festival on Instagram Live on March 25, 2020.

The Afrolit Sans Frontiers Virtual Literary Festival is an initiative from writers of African origin curated by Zukiswa Wanner. Sixteen writers from 10 African countries are sharing their work from 15 different cities in English, French, Lingala, and Portuguese to a global virtual audience online over eight days. The first day of the festival had Richard Ali Mutu in Kinshasa before crime fiction writer Leye Adenle engaged from his London base. The second day started with Rémy Ngamije talking about his work from his Windhoek, Namibia base with Hawa Jande Golakai closing proceedings from Monrovia, Liberia.

The first writer to do a session on Wednesday was novelist and essayist Maaza Mengiste broadcasting from Zurich, Switzerland. Maaza is the author of the novels, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, selected by the Guardian as one of the 10 best contemporary African books; and The Shadow King, one of New York Times’ Notable Books of 2019 and TIME’s 100 Must-Read Books of 2019. Her work can be found in The New Yorker, New York Review of Books, Granta, the Guardian, the New York Times, Rolling Stone, and BBC, among other places.

The writer started off by reading a very titillating excerpt from her newest novel The Shadow King before she opened it for the audience to ask questions. Over the next hour, she dealt with topics like the role sex plays in war, what inspired her to write, How hard was it to do research, and more.

On whether she was likely to write anything other than historical fiction, she doesn’t see this happening any time soon as she loves history and research so much she might want to stick to that. The most difficult part of writing The Shadow King for her was Carlo the asshole misogynist as she had to inhabit his character to write him. She also shared a little secret with those online; the last page of Beneath The Lions Gaze and the first page of The Shadow King happen on the same day.  

On whether she ever felt literary envy when other writers won literary awards, Maaza saw it in a different way. She had thought the book, which took ten years to write, was never going to be finished so any acknowledgement that came after was a bonus. She saw herself as really just a writer and any nominations or wins just affirmed her second book but say nothing about the book she is now working on.  

Some of her favourite writers are Ama Ata Aidoo. Mariama Ba, Aminatta Forna, Mona Eltahawy and many of the ones who had joined her in the session. She also shared her current reads; Imbolo Mbue and Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s new books. Her Favourite Italian writer is Elsa Morante.

On formal creative writing programs for writers, she felt one of the best aspects of them was that they allow those who want to write to meet other writers and establish a community of writers. After she took a program, she took the opportunity to volunteer for literary festivals, becoming part of the literary journal and immerse herself in the world of literature. It gave her opportunities she wouldn’t have had on her own.

It wasn’t just serious writing stuff being shared in the session. On the title of any Coronavirus inspired short story she would write, she suggested hers would be “Love in the time of Corona.”   Remy Ngamije’s now popular “Cocaine or Poetry?” question was this time around asked by Leye Adenle. Maaza explained that she was definitely in the poetry camp. When further pushed, she said that being high is not her thing; she would rather have a gin and tonic or some wine.

When asked about the two names Maaza Mengiste and Dinaw Mengiste and whether one needed a variation of this last name to be a successful Ethiopian writer she laughed stating that many amazing writers in and from Ethiopia are producing work without a version of this last name.

Watch video from the session below.

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