The Womanly Face of War
Maaza Mengiste and Sofi Oksanen
The young girl Hirut starts working for a wealthy couple, but is soon brought into their many quarrels, their jealousy and grief over the loss of a child. This is Ethiopia in the 1930s. Things go from bad to worse when Italy, led by Mussolini, invades the country, and Hirut’s master is tasked with organizing an opposition army. His wife refuses to wait at home for him, and creates her own force, made up by women. In the capital, emperor Selassie attempts to shut out the dire situation through the sound of opera.
In her novel The Shadow King, Maaza Mengiste takes as her starting point a central chapter in the history of Ethiopia , as well as her own family history. She invites us into the realities of the servant Hirut and her madame, but also that of the army leader Kidane, the Italian soldier Ettore and the emperor Haile Selassie. The result is a polyphonic novel that broadens our perceptions of the Ethiopian-Italian war and the lives of human beings in this great history.
Mengiste was born in Ethiopia, but her family left the country in the late 70s, during the Ethiopian revolution, which is central in her debut novel Beneath the Lion’s Gaze. Both her debut and The Shadow King has received great critical acclaim, and been translated into numerous languages.
Sofi Oksanen has, like Mengiste, created fiction from historical events, such as a Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe during the second world war in her novels Purge and Stalin’s Cows. Here, too, the experiences of women are central to the stories.
Now, both Ethiopia and Ukraine are at war again. Sofi Oksanen will join Maaza Mengiste for a conversation about the role of literature in helping us understand history and the times we live in.
The conversation will be in English.
The House of Literature’s project to promote African literature is supported by NORAD.