Interview: Maaza Mengiste

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In the first interview for this series, the novelist Maaza Mengiste spoke with me from New York City, on the thirteenth anniversary of 9/11. We discussed her acclaimed first novel, Beneath the Lion's Gaze, her thoughts on historical fiction and identity politics, and the novel she didn't write when she was writing her first book, an unnamed still-in-the-drawer manuscript about a jazz band in Detroit and Los Angeles.

I was surprised to learn about this road not taken (or not yet taken). It seems easy to summarize her work by saying that she writes about "Ethiopian history," and she certainly does. Beneath the Lion's Gaze covers the period of revolutionary terror in the late 1970's, when a popular revolution against the Emperor Haile Selassie was hijacked by the military and became a bloodbath remembered as the "Red Terror." Her second novela work-in-progress called The Shadow Kingwill be set in the early days of WWII, during the Italian invasion of Ethiopia and the period of fascist occupation. Her dedication to the historical archive is impressive: she spent a year in Italy researching the period, speaking with the families of Italian soldiers, and digging through letters and other ephemera in the archives of the fascist government. And though she's lived in the United States for all of her adult life, she's been returning to Ethiopia ever since her family first left in the late seventies, both as an Ethiopian and as a novelist. Three of her own uncles died in the revolution, and that is her story as well.

Mengiste is, however, crystal clear in her belief that a fiction writer is not obligated to produce non-fiction. In Beneath the Lion's Gaze, "His Imperial Majesty" Haile Selassie is a character, a historical figure who was (and even remains) a living legend, who gets shown on the page as a frail and failing old man, caught up in a world he was incapable even of understanding, much less governing. In our world, the record of his death is murky and ambiguous. But in Mengiste's novel, the story of his death is told not as it was, or even necessarily as it might have been, but as it needs to be for the story she was telling, a story about a family. Meanwhile, the dictator who would take power in his absenceMengistu Haile Mariamis present in the novel only in the form of "Guddu," an ahistorical monster named for the "calamity" he represented in Ethiopian history. He is not a person, but a projection of the pain, terror, loss, and madness that the revolution represented to the children who fled from it.

For all the burden of history the novel takes up, Beneath the Lion's Gaze is a nightmarishly intimate family story, the story that might be told by a child struggling to understand what was happening, and failing. In the novel, the child is named Tizita; perhaps in life, the child was named Maaza. Yet while Ethiopia's descent from revolutionary chaos into military dictatorship might make for grand political drama, Mengiste's sketch of a family's collapse and re-constitution hits unsettlingly close to home, because "Guddu" never quite appears on the page, never comes into focus. Neither does Haile Selassie, or at least not His Imperial Majesty; instead, we get the picture of a broken patriarch, a frail and impotent old man incapable of living up to what even he thinks he is to be. We get a novel filled with fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, an old world falling apart with the new world still uncertain.

Before the interview began, I asked Mengiste if there were any questions she would like to ask my students, who were reading the novel at the time. "What is a hero?" she asked; "What do you think a revolution is?" But these are not questions the novel ever answers, nor could answer. Instead, there is a painful, fragile humanity in each character; even the torturer is a father, and sometimes loving fathers kill their children without knowing it. But as this humanity replaces heroism, it leaves mythical history behind, leaving us with nothing more than memory and family, flawed and incomplete as humanity itself.   

My thanks to Maaza Mengiste for making the time, and for making the interview a real pleasure.



AB: Let me start with an easy and obvious question: why did you need to write this novel?

MM: The easy answer, or maybe the most obvious answer, is that this novel is the history, or the story, of many people I know. The story of what I witnessed when I was living in Ethiopia. I was very young, but I have certain memories that have stayed with me. And so that become the most obvious impetus to put some of my questions down on paper. What does it mean to be in a revolution, what are the sacrifices? How does that coincide with what I remember, and what I knew about fear in those days, in those early days?

But I'm also interested in certain questions about the human condition, about what it means to believe in something, how deeply held are our beliefs, and how far are we willing to get pushed before we bend and we break. A revolution was, in many ways, a perfect trapping for some of these questions that I'm still interested in.

I began writing this book in 2004, so if you can imagine... Well, you and I are talking on the thirteenth anniversary of 9/11, and in 2004, when I moved to New York in September, there were the commemorations of the third anniversary of 9/11 as soon as I got here. I had these questions about why we're at war now, about these reports of torture in prisons like Bagram and Abu Ghraib. And what does it mean, actually, to believe in something, and what's the cost? Not only what we are inflicting on each other, but what we're inflicting on ourselves. Those were the questions, as I turned on the news, reading the newspapers, I was constantly referring back to the Ethiopian revolution.

Do you feel like these questions get answered?

Maybe each book is its own kind of answer, an answer that only leads to more questions. Hopefully those questions become more complicated as you go along. I don't know if my questions have been answered. But I do believe that [Beneath the Lion's Gaze characters] Hailu, and Dawit, and Sarah, and maybe even Mickey, if they've answered one set of those questions, they've also led to more.

Would you ever write about the Ethiopian Revolution again?

I think I would. There are so many stories out there. And I have been very interested in these stories about revolution that no one wants to talk about. What happens in an interrogation room when people who don't want to are forced to give someone up. I've tried to approach some of that. I'm not so much writing about the Ethiopian revolution as I am about human beings, dealing with the aftermath of violence.

Do people ever contest your telling of this story, or your right to tell it? How do you deal with questions of appropriation?

People who were revolutionaries themselves, sometimes the first question will be "Who are you to write this story? We lived it. What right do you have, what do you actually know about it?"

But I have to remind them what fiction is. Fiction gives me the right to do it. It's not an autobiography. I did have the right to tell this story. My position is that you write from the place that you are, and it's not a detriment, and it's not something that undermines any kind of authenticity. I had to understand very early on that I'm writing this book as an American, with very, very strong ties to Ethiopiaand a deep love, my family is therebut ultimately, I am writing it with an American way of looking at things. That doesn't mean that the story is not authentic. Or then you have to question what "authentic" means.

And I realized, early on, that as much as I was telling a story set in Ethiopia, it's really a story about human beings in conflict. The research that I was doing involved looking at, and talking to, people who had memories of the Cuban revolution. I did a lot of research in the dirty wars in Argentina. I was looking at what happened in the Cultural Revolution in China. I was looking at people who were prison guards and interrogators in Cambodia. All of these things informed this book because I realized that I can write about human beings. And I have enough memories to give me a foundation to write about Ethiopia.

But I will tell you, Aaron, some of the most surprising moments in my experiences at readings, and especially with Ethiopians who were in prison. Those moments with them have usually raised things like "I read your book, and this is exactly what happened." I've had several people come up to me and say "I was Dawit and I did every single thing you wrote about." I had one experience that was just - I was so taken aback, it was at one of my first readings in New York, the book was brand new and not many people had read the book yet, at the time, and I had read a section of Hailu where he gives this pill to the young girl. And at the end of the reading there was this Ethiopian man, who I became friends with and he sort of took me under his wing, and he stood up and he said, "I understand what Hailu went through; I was a doctor at Addis Ababa University, I was ordered to do the same thing he was ordered to do, but I didn't make the same choice - what could I do? What could we all do? We had to follow orders."

I get those stories again and again and again. It's interesting, the scenes with the torture, I get people who say, "How do you know that?"

How did you know that? How do you think you knew that?

In general, I'm not really a dour person, I like to joke, I like to laugh. But I was in a dark pace when I wrote this book. Especially those sections, it took... It was like Dante's Inferno, you have to keep going lower, and lower, and lower, what humans are capable of, and I don't think it happens at once. Every time I'd think "This is the worst thing, and this is how it might feel, I would do a little bit of research, and I'd say "No, this is worse."

I read accounts of people who had been in prison in Vietnam, in Cambodia, as I said, in Algeria, all of those accounts, and you kind of get a sense, then, of what the body is capable of withstanding and these moments of grace that our mind gives us in order to deal with it. From there I just used my imagination. It was tough. But it was surprising to me that many people felt like they could connect with that. And some people felt I wasn't rough enough.

Do you relate to your characters? Do you relate to any of them more than others? Some of my students were joking, "Is she a Dawit?" When you say that you were in a dark place, how close to the characters do you have to get, and how much of yourself do you see in them?

Dawit was kind of... Every single one of these characters has a trait that I wish I had, and that I don't have. They became in many ways, these personalities that, if I were in a revolution, maybe I wouldhopefully I would have Hailu's sense of... self, even in this kind of shifting world. I don't know if I would do exactly everything he did. But Yonas' pragmatism and Dawit's hotheadedness. They all had certain things about them that - and Mickey! They all had certain things about them that I could connect with on some level.

But as a fiction writer, that becomes a base for a character. But you also - in order to force yourself to grow as a writer, in order to develop characters with levels of complexity - you also can't be kind to your characters, you have to force them into situations that make them uncomfortable and thus make you uncomfortable. So that's also what I was working on. If I could relate to Dawit on this and this and this, I had to also create moments where I abhor what he does, because that's who we are as people. And so I saw myself in all of them.

People have said about the book that there's a level of tenderness for even the most despicable characters, like the colonel. I think that's because I had to see myself in him, in some way, even if what he did was repulsive to me, I gave him this slight moment of redemption at the very end. I think that's so I could continue to see myself in that person.

Do you feel like [the revolutionary character] Dawit is a likeable character? One of the things my class and I talked about is the ways we expect this story to make him the hero. Part of that is that he's their age, [and] Dawit is sort of the protagonist of the Arab Spring, the revolutionary. But he's a character that's hard to like. Were you trying to de-mystify that character?

I looked at what we imagine of a revolutionary. We imagine this heroic figure that somehow maintains every shred of their integrity and their dignity over the course of the conflict. And then, at the end, they come out of a blazing building wearing a beret, like Che Guevara. And people are still running after them, and falling at their knees. I think that's the image that we have, but I don't know anyone like that. We have myths, but when you break that down, you find that beneath these stories of real life human beings, there are some very complicated things going on.

One of the books that has been most influential to me has been the biography of Che Guevara, by Jon Lee Anderson. I wish people who wear his tee shirts would read that book and see what Che Guevara had to do to be the person that he was. That's when I started to look at Dawit, and I realized that for him to have any kind of leadership role in an organization like this, it forces you to chew into the society that you say you are trying to protect. He couldn't be this hero. In a way he is, but the reality is that people are more complicated than that. And there are sacrifices that have to be made. And I think Dawit was really a way to look at that.

On the one hand, you have this figure that is supposed to be heroic, but everything he is told to do by his leader, by Solomon, he does… But if you look at Mickey, who's the guy that everybody despises - when he was ordered by Guddu to kill the emperor, he was willing to die rather than follow through with that. What does it actually mean to be a hero, or heroic? Mickey, in many ways, would not cross that line, whereas Dawit kept doing everything he's told.

There's an interesting asymmetry in the book, where you write about Haile Selassie, who's a real mythic human being, who actually lived, and then there's Guddu, who's sort of in the place of a real historical figure, but is he's not real himself, he's a historical creation. How did you make that choice?

One of the things that I had to do when I was sitting down to write this book was ask myself, "Am I writing a historical account, a thinly veiled historical account of the revolution, or am I writing a work of fiction?" And I decided, I am writing fiction. The family in there are completely fictionalized. I didn't know Hailu. I don't anyone who did what Dawit did, or what Sarah did. I don't know anyone like that. When I approached the figure of Haile Selassie, I said OK, am I going to create a fictional character for this person, or do I render him in history as he wasmaybe as he may have been in history. I chose to keep him as he was because Haile Selassie dies early on in the revolution. I could work with him in the early parts of the book, and I didn't have to deal with him anymore. I'm not bound throughout the book by the historical reality of this person

So it was a pragmatic choice?

It was very pragmatic. Whereas with Mengistu, the dictator, he's there throughout the entire revolution, and every time I came to a scene where Mengistu had been, I would stop and say, "What was his title?..." My allegiance was to try to get as close to the history as possible. But when I'm dealing with fictional characters, I could actually be fictional.

If I had Mengistu in the book, I was then more closely bound to history. I couldn't be as free thinking and as creative and imaginative as I wanted to be. Because I would have to consider what wars he was fighting, what was the situation in Eritrea, was he really at this place, what was his title. And then some of the things just didn't seem to work.
And I said, No, I'm going to create a fictional character and people will know who that is. The name that I chose for him, "Guddu," comes from an Amharic word that means calamity, disaster. And I wanted that character to symbolize that as well. It really was pragmatic, and nothing more than that. I didn't want to be nailed down with history from the beginning to the end of the book.

Is he a redeemable character in any way? Or is he just a calamity?

To me, he has no redeeming qualities. And that was a thing... He's there, he represents this kind of evil core of this revolution, without any real ideology, without any of the idealistic naiveté that Dawit had, or maybe Mickey had. He's there to represent what revolutionary dictators tend to become.

To switch gears, a student wanted to know if there was a meaning of the repetition in the color blue, and the importance of light, and descriptions of light, in the novel. Which I had no answer for! But maybe you do.

You know, the blue is just, for me, it became this thing that was Selam's favorite color. The sky blue was, in some way connected with Ethiopia's deep religious foundation, this idea of constantly looking up, constantly looking to God for answers. Blue kind of echoed that. It's interesting with the light and dark, I'm not sure that I'd noticed it before. I do notice it in my second book. I'm very interested in photography and I'm very interested in how we can play with light, and the camera. Shadow and light as actual... I don't know, almost like knives carving different forms from what we see. And I think that part of that was also filtering in this first book, even though I'm continuing to work with it in the second, with the way light comes into the room, where it falls, how it changes over the course of a single day. Shadows seem to be, from childhood, the darkest corners of a room that frighten us. I think there's a lot of imagination in that imagery.

One of my students characterized this novel as very "cinematic."

Oh, that's interesting.

I took him to mean that it's always cutting back between different characters, and there's a certain, very fast-moving quick-cutting kind of style to it. But there's also the visuality of the novel, that there is a tremendous attention to visuality in the novel.

Part of it has something to do with my interest in visual arts, and the visual world. Before I was a writer, I was working in film, and I did a couple of short indie films, and I've written some screenplays, and I've been fascinated with the connections between the visual arts and literature for a really long time.

George Orwell, in "Politics and the English Language," has a section where he mentions that before we sit down to write a word, we imagine the image of it, first, the picture comes into our head and we try to translate that onto the page. I think that's how I write. It's interesting that somebody noticed it. One of the things that I'm trying to push myself is dealing with sound in writing, and I'm looking at writers who deal with sound in ways that's very much in the way that light and shadow might announce a character.

E. L. Doctorow in The March, which is set in the Civil War, has a section where the union army is coming over the hill, and it's stunning, this passage, where you don't see them, but you hear every sound that they make, and the way the earth trembles beneath their feet, and you have a sense of what's approaching just from the sound.

What were your films about?

Oh God! Before I was writing about this revolution, I was actually trying to write two books at the same time. And one of them was about this jazz band. Because I like music, a lot. And so I did this short film that was about a jazz band that was trying to come together, and make it. And... it was okay. I am a better novelist. I like music, and I know a lot of musicians and I wanted to kind of create that world, or the drama that I sometimes saw.

Please don't look for that film. [Laughs]

What happened to the other book that you were writing?

Oh, yeah, I wanted to turn this film that I just done [into] a short, but really I wanted to do a set of interconnected stories, based on music. And I still, still think a lot about it. Because I've done a lot on it, before I set it aside and really focused on this novel, and it's something that's always in the back of my head, and I would love to do it, and one day I hope to get back to it. Because it's just sitting in a drawer.

Was it material that you weren't able to finish it at that time, or was it that you turned away from it because you prioritized Beneath the Lion's Gaze?

Yeah, Beneath the Lion's Gaze became a priority. I realized at some point that I couldn't do both, that the one is set in Ethiopia during the revolution, and the other is set in Detroit and Los Angeles, and dealt with jazz musicians. Completely different worlds, and I had to really focus on one. And I chose BTLG because that just seemed to be where I kept turning my head towards constantly. It kind of engulfed my imagination.

It's interesting, when I describe the writers who are coming to the Symposium in December [at the University of Texas at Austin], I have to give people a snapshot of what each writer does, and with you, it's very easy: I can say "she writes about Ethiopian history." These are these two monumental events in Ethiopian history. So it's fascinating to hear that you have this other project somewhere, about a jazz band in Detroit. So before talking specifically about the second project, do you feel like writing about "Ethiopian History" make you also want to write about a jazz band in Detroit?

It does! Because I think in essence what I'm grappling with, in both of these projects, I realized what interests me is this point of how human beings who should be united, like this jazz band trying to make it big. They're all, in one way going toward the same goal, but as tends to happen, with musical groups, it's the very thing they really wanted that ends up tearing them apart. In the most clichéd sense. I became fascinated with the jazz band I was creating who use music to mask, or as a crutch for other things happening in their lives.

In many ways, like Dawit, with this revolution, how angry he was with his father for so many things. Entering this thing could also be seen as a rebellion against his father, and everything his father was trying to teach him. And I'm interested in the masking aspect of this, and what we use to mask our greatest fears. It does, when I write about this revolution, I do sometimes think about these characters from the music, the jazz band... You know, Ethiopian jazz is huge. I think sometimes, should I just make them Ethiopian? But they belong where they are.

What's the band called?


You can keep that a secret, if you like.

[Laughs] Yeah... thanks. But I really... Now you make me think about it. I loved it. I had cameos in there, Charlie Parker, it was fun.

Oh, so it's old time era?

No, it's modern, but Bird was a big influence on one of the characters. So it gave me an opportunity to go back into this history in America. It's interesting, I feel like that's my history as well, as an American.

I haven't thought about this in a while.

Let me push on that a little bit; when people call you an African writer, or when people call you an American writer. How do you feel about that?

When I was first starting out, I think I was writing a lot about this, and I would talk a lot about identity, what my identity is, you know I'm Ethiopian-American, and now, it's gotten to the point where, frankly, I find the conversations boring. I don't have so much invested in the questions anymore.

I'm curious about why it continues to be an issue. I don't have this issue with it. If someone wants to say I'm an African writer, does that really change who I think I am? Does that change - It is what it is. I think I'm just a little bit tired of all the conversations and declarations, that every time there's a new writer out that could be labelled African, then that writer is in a sense obligated to make some kind of declaration, and then, after a while, nothing much changes. They're still put in whatever bookshelf or demographic slot that they would have been before. And so I'm wondering about the efficacy of these kinds of conversations and declarations.

What I do know is that when I'm writing, I would prefer that people judge me on the work, and I'm happy to talk about my book and my characters. And I just find the questions of identity and assertions being made, I find them boring, at this point. I have no problem with people saying she's an African writer, if you look at her book, this is set in Ethiopia, this is an African book, and I have no problem with people saying she's writing as an American, and so we might look at how this book might follow certain American literary traditions. Which it does. I'd rather people have conversations based on the book, rather than my own identity.

When you say it follows certain American literary traditions, what do you mean by that?

My influences...

E.L. Doctorow?

I've mentioned E. L. Doctorow a few times. Toni Morrison is just amazing. Mark Danner. James Baldwin. You know, those are the writers that I was reading when I was writing. And then I did research... And so I think it has to be influenced by what I was reading. Edith Wharton. I love them. I wish... I would rather people talk about that, than this question of what I may feel I am, or am not. I'd like to constantly position those questions around the writing. And then the question becomes more interesting as a writer develops, and as the work continues to mature from book to book to book, then the conversations become more complicated, and frankly more interesting.

Let's talk about the second project, then, or the second book? What stage in its development is it?

It's toward the end. I'm drafting. So I've already done it. It's set during the fascist invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, and deals with the years of occupation up to 1941. My characters are both Ethiopian and Italian.

Maybe that's all I'll say right now. But it deals heavily with the way that photography has been involved in wars of colonialism, and subjugation, and representation of colonized Africans. And again, I go back to that love of photography.

How do you deal with questions of historical accuracy, as in the first book?

I am maintaining a kind of allegiance to history maybe the same, or maybe to a greater degree as in the first book. Part of it just stems from my love of the archive, and researching.

I saw you spent a year in Italy?

Yeah, and going through those archives, and sitting down and looking at those documents from the fascist era, and watching those films and listening to the speeches. I'm fascinated by this process of reconstructing and deconstructing history based on the materials that are left.

Hilary Mantel talks about how she looked at the gaps in history when she was creating the Thomas Cromwell trilogy. She was looking at what's not said; as close as she was sticking to what actually happened, she realized that she had a lot of freedom in the spaces in between. I'm finding the same thing with the second book. And frankly it's a blast, it's challenging.

I had an idea, I had this book in my head, I wanted to write this book way before I started the first book, or before the book about the jazz musicians. But I knew that I had to develop some better skills as a writer. I had to... kind of, I don't know what the saying is, I had to something my chops...

Hone! You had to hone your chops!

Thanks! I lose these things. I really had to develop certain muscles before I could get to this book. And so I feel like I've been building up to this in the course of my writing, and it's both daunting and kind of euphoric to go through the process of writing it now.

Does it have a title?

The Shadow King. And there's the thing with light and dark that you mentioned.

Do you want to talk about Laila Lalami's book?

Oh yeah, sure!

For example, how you're approaching history versus the way she's approaching it. You were very clear that you were writing a novel, and one of the things I like about The Moor's Account is that there's this claim that "No, actually this is true! This is truer than the so called true things."

First of all, I love the book, and I remember after I read it, and I closed it, I said My GOD. The history she has taken on, and claimed authority over is astounding, it's magnificent what she's done. She's re-writing history.

Whereas in many ways what I've tried to do is stay as close to history as I can, to pull out those spaces that are there and create from within that. But we're also working with a similar kind of sensibility, which is telling the kind of stories that have not been told. The people have not had the opportunity to speak through history, it's important for both of us to listen to those voices and try to give them a platform.

Laila's book kind of takes on the chronicle of the Narvaez expedition, which was written by Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca. This is the chronicle of the conquistadors going into Florida, as told by de Vaca, and you hear mention of the character she wrote about in The Moor's Account, maybe three or four times throughout the chronicle. And so, I read the de Vaca account, and what I noticed in that is how much space is left in history, how many gaps that he actually created in his account. It's really a playground for a fiction writer. In some ways, it's similar to what I'm doing, because I'm looking for those same kinds of gaps. But she takes those gaps and says "This is true! This is what happened." In some ways, I'm saying what if this happened, and playing around with that.

I can't wait to have a conversation with her, because we're both so connected to research, and history, and working in the gaps. But I think we have... in some ways, I'm making up people that fell through those cracks, and maybe Laila is kind of reaching into that gap, and pulling people out that existed.

I'm looking forward to that conversation as well! In fact, let me ask: what other conversations are you looking forward to having at the symposium? I ask because I have to facilitate it, and I want to see what you want to talk about.

The conversations I would love to have at these kinds of symposium, but frankly, Aaron, I want to get away from questions of identity. I know that we're under the banner of African writers, and I know that there's going to be the question, but my dream, my dream symposium would be where that's not even an issue. Where we are actually sitting down and saying, let's talk about this work. The same way that any writer from, I don't even know, can I say a white male writer dealing with suburban divorces, no one's saying "Well, what suburb did you come from?"

That's my goal. So far it hasn't quite happened. And I understand people's curiosity. But I also wonder if the curiosity doesn't just kind of feed on itself. So I would love, whatever the conversations are, to get away from that and talk about craft, and all the things that make a work and a writer much more interesting.

That's why, for example, the symposium is not called, for example, "African Women's Writers." We're using the word African, but in this context, each of the five writers is "African" in a different sense. No one would deny you the right to use that term, but also it's not specifically descriptive in any particular way.

Trust me, I completely get it. I don't blame anyone, I completely get it. I think it's just that, at some point, I was talking to a group of writers and publishers in India, and they said, "Oh, God, you're going through what we were going through. It'll pass." So I get it. But also, I hope what will happen is that the conversations will expand into the territory of the book. I get it.

It's interesting, actually, my students were very unabashed in wanting to know about your background. But not so much in terms of your identity, but things like "what are your parents like?"

That makes sense. First, I have to say that my childhood in Ethiopia was really happy. In fact, they are some of the happiest memories I have.

You were four when you left?

Yes, and I lived in Kenya until I was seven. But even when I was in Kenya, we would go back and visit Ethiopia. And once I came to the US, I was going back and forth, so I maintained this connection. The memories that I have of Ethiopia are wonderful. My family was loving and caring, and it was a structure that was stable.

What were my parents like? Well, my father has always been, and probably will be until he is gone, he will always be the life of the party, anywhere. We'll take him out, and he's going to offer you whiskey or beer, and have the entire table dying within minutes. That's the kind of childhood I had. My parents gave parties and friends would come over.

When curfew was enforced in Ethiopia, and you couldn't go out of your house after six, or when it became a little more lenient, until midnight, people would go to people's houses and you'd just party until you'd fall asleep at four o'clock in the morning. And once curfew was over, you'd get up and go home.

Life goes on.

The revolution created this kind of fear and terror. That was there. But in the midst of that, I remember the weddings, and I remember the holiday celebrations, and I remember the parties. Petrol was being rationed, but what we do, was all of our friends would save the ration cards, the petrol rations, and then on one weekend, we'd put it all on one car, so we could drive out of town and spend a weekend together.

Life moves, life bends, human beings bend to circumstance. Those are my memories. From those things, then, to write the book, I had to say "What did it mean to have curfew? Why was there curfew?" Because I didn't quite understand. So I could use an adult perspective to look back on what I took to be the framing of a day, from 6 am to midnight, and then ask, so what is happening then, what is it that I don't know. And from those kinds of gaps, I created this book.

I bet you really could write a great novel about a jazz band during the revolution, actually.

You know what, Aaron, I was looking at this other story, and I started to consider the role of music in the revolution, and I started to consider the bands that were banned, and the ones that were allowed to play.

I went to Cuba to do some research while I was writing this book, and I was sitting in Havana in a café, and this man came up and he said to me "Ethiopia." I said "yes," and then his wife could speak a little bit of English, she used to be an English teacher. So she could translate a little for me, and it turned out that his father had been sent to Ethiopia during the revolution, by Castro, to fight. And so he had all these memories from his father. One of the things was the music, the bands that were playing, the way these Cuban soldiers could go in a club and their presence– and they kind of brought in the song "Guantanamera," and soon every club in Ethiopia was playing it, but it was also influencing these musicians. So I have this image in my head of these Cubans and these Ethiopians in a bar, and the way the music talked a little bit about what was happening in the country at the time. It's a fascinating moment for me. You're going to start something, Aaron! [laughs]

Well, you know, this novel is enjoyable, but it's also a tough read. Like you said, it's descending and then descending some more and then descending some more. And it's necessary for the story you're telling, but those stories of life going on are only hinted at.

Yeah. This is where I had to think about my characters. About what would be happening there, as opposed to what I knew was also happening in the country.

I wanted to stay focused. I keep going back to the fact that I was watching the news, I was paying attention to what was happening in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I remember distinctly the moment that I sat down, and I was working on the scenes where Hailu was being interrogated, and I said, "Oh, my God, what am I doing?" Should I take it out? It wasn't for my sake that I would take it out, I hadn't planned it, it just happened. So I asked, is it the most honest way to write this book? So I put it down. Maybe I should take it out. Maybe readers can't handle what I was doing.

But, Aaron, when I was thinking of this, I sat down at one point, and turned on the TV, and the news came on, and that was when the photographs of Abu Ghraib were being released. It just made up my mind, I said, what am I protecting? Who am I protecting? From what? What am I writing that no one has seen before? Maybe then the question becomes what we expect of fiction. All I knew was that I wanted to be as honest as I could. Maybe it's a naïve, first-writer impulse, but I wanted to be as honest as I could about what I knew happened. And I realized it was still going on...


African Writers in a New World: Introduction

Interview: Laila Lalami

Interview: Miral al-Tahawy

Interview: Tope Folarin

Interview: Sofia Samatar

Interview: Teju Cole

The interviews in this series will lead up to the Symposium of African Writers at the University of Texas at Austin. The event, which will take place December 2-3, 2014, will feature conversations with Laila Lalami, Maaza Mengiste, Nnedi Okorafor, Sofia Samatar, and Taiye Selasi. “African Writers in a New World” will conclude with a conference report from the Symposium. Details are available at