In a recent interview with the New York Times, Maaza Mengiste discussed the challenges of researching the Second Italo-Ethiopian War for her Booker Prize shortlisted novel, The Shadow King.
Mengiste has admitted in several interviews to throwing away her first draft of the novel because the historical “facts” to which she clung overshadowed the human stories hiding beneath the surface.
In order to dive into the personal stories behind both sides of the conflict, Mengiste began frequenting flea markets in Rome in search of photographs, postcards, letters, and journals from vendors selling Fascist paraphernalia.
Many vendors became invested in her project and aided in the search, while others refused to sell from their collections, suspicious of her claim to them. These encounters forced Mengiste to confront the erasure of her own history from the archives, and work harder to reclaim it.
This history is not just theirs. It’s mine too. These people are part of me, and it’s African history. Who has a right to push an African away from African history?
After years of painstakingly collecting and constructing her own archive of the Italian Fascist invasion of Ethiopia, Mengiste finally succeeded in spinning the threads of history and fiction into her magnificent war novel, The Shadow King.
Referring to Zimbabwean novelist Petina Gappah and the similar struggles they faced researching their novels, Mengiste remarks:
I have really enjoyed talking to her over the years about our work, about this investigation. Because to be an African or to be a part of any group of people that has been colonized when you’re researching in the archives, it’s not just research — it’s detective work that you have to do. It’s not a simple act of looking. It’s complicated by so many erasures that if you don’t know what’s missing, you don’t know what to ask.
Mengiste’s interview powerfully addresses the multiple levels of erasures that African writers have to confront in order to unsilence African voices in colonial history.