Ghostly Presences in Addis Ababa: A Conversation with Maaza Mengiste




“THESE ARE NOT gentle stories,” Maaza Mengiste warns in the introduction to Addis Ababa Noir. Mengiste, whose second novel, The Shadow King, was recently shortlisted for the Booker Prize, assembled a diverse array of contributors to cast a blacklight over Ethiopia’s capital city and exhume its depths through fiction.

While most stories told about or set in Africa deny the continent and the nearly 60 countries that constitute it narrative complexity, this anthology works overtime to get specific about the people and problems that define Addis Ababa. The book is divided into four parts — “Part I: Past Hauntings”, “Part II: Translations of Grief,” “Part III: Madness Descends,” “Part IV: Police and Thieves” — and each writer was given a unique neighborhood within Addis Ababa to use as the backdrop for their noir short. 

Mengiste’s selection of non-noir writers — including Solomon Hailemariam, a novelist and the president of PEN International’s Ethiopian Centre; Hannah Giorgis, a staff writer at The Atlantic; and poets Mahtem Shiferraw and Bewketu Seyoum — in a lesser-imagined locale (urban Africa) offers an opportunity to pay homage to the genre while also subverting our expectations of it.

Among those reader expectations is that the protagonists of these stories are molded after noir’s classic hero, the detective, who is either a renegade, crooked, or jaded. In Addis Ababa Noir, it quickly becomes apparent that the focus is not on those genre regulars but rather everyday folk whose professions don’t necessarily define them or their stories. There is an insomniac whose chapter is structured like a sleep log, scenes from within a minibus (the city’s most popular form of public transit), an Oromo man who talks about the criminalization of his identity in a country led by a different ethnic authority, and a tale that blends noir and magical realism to provide a mournful but elegiac meditation on what it feels like to be a shadow. This shift in perspective is perfectly timed to contend with the current political moment. In a recent article for The Atlantic, writer Stephen Kearse explains “noir is a lodestar for decentering cop stories because it embraces fallibility.” Contemporary noir allows readers to divorce the structures of crime storytelling from its traditional cop protagonists and even from crime itself, proving that it is just as compelling to read about ordinary people wrestling with their morals in the world’s gray areas. “There are fewer heroes in noir,” Kearse explains, “but far more people.”

Mengiste describes Addis Ababa as “a growing city taking shape beneath the fraught weight of history, myth, and memory.” Fittingly this collection uses the mechanics of noir to both audit and make flexible each of those things — history, myth, memory — to tell the story of a city.

I had the chance to speak to Mengiste over the phone. We talked about ghosts, the craft of storytelling, and how this anthology project is part of her ongoing mission to usher in new literary voices from Ethiopia.

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NAOMI ELIAS: This is a nontraditional noir anthology in that the stories adhere to the spirit of the genre more than the letter. But obviously the genre’s most defining overtones — pessimism, greed, desire, revenge — are captured. What appealed to you about looking at Addis Ababa through a noir lens?

MAAZA MENGISTE: When Johnny Temple, the founder of Akashic Books, approached me about the project, my first thought was not really about the noir. My first thought was that there are so many talented writers in Ethiopia and it would be wonderful to give them a platform. I immediately said yes because of that. And then when I started thinking of the noir and as I was speaking to some of the writers in the anthology, I understood that it was going to be really interesting to think of noir through this Addis Ababan perspective. I wondered how they would interpret that. The only directive I gave to them was that there was no moral at the end of the story. The intent of these stories is to show a complexity in society. I also told them that they were free to write in any language that they chose. They came back with these stories that really felt to me like an examination of different ruptures in society in Addis Ababa. I was really blown away with what came back to me.

The book’s contributors come from a variety of backgrounds — some are poets, some journalists, novelists. One’s listed as a filmmaker. How did you assemble the writers for this project? Were you looking for particular literary sensibilities or connections to the city?

I was looking for writers. It didn’t matter to me if they were poets or if they had another background. Could you write and would you be interested in writing a short story? That was my question. I put out a call as wide as I could. I was reaching out to people in Ethiopia, in the diaspora. I was reaching out to translators of every language I could think of because Ethiopians are everywhere and I wanted to broaden the scope of what it means to be Ethiopian and what it means to be a writer. These were the writers who responded. It was really a wonderful mix of styles. I’m really, really pleased with the way that it’s come together.

How long has this book been in the works?

It has been a long time. Every bit of applause and really every bit of my gratitude goes to these writers for their patience because I was doing this work, the editing, finding the writers, all of this in the midst of writing my second book. Initially, I had thought, well, I’m going to do my novel first and then begin this project after it was done, but the novel dragged on for so long I said, if I don’t start this, it may never get done. So I was doing both of these things simultaneously. I really cannot tell you how long. I want to say that it was at least four years of editing this book. I would edit, we would go back and forth several times. This stretched over a number of years, and they were really patient. All credit goes to them for putting up with me.

In the introduction, you explain to readers that one of this book’s goals is to challenge the existing narrow view of Ethiopia. Did you have any guidelines for your contributors on how not to write about the country?

I did not. I really trusted in their instincts, in their being either in Addis Ababa or being familiar enough with the city — for those who are in the diaspora — to understand their perspective is going to be different from a more Western gaze looking in. The job of a writer is always to complicate. What I found is a lot of these stories were dealing with very intimate human relations and interactions and those things have perhaps less to do with what it means to be Ethiopian and a bit more to do with what it means to be human. I was really happy with that. We have stories here that range from marital affairs to people who are mourning to people who are dealing with or talking about ethnic violence to domestic servants who want to assert their own autonomy in a home. I found the range of that to be refreshing. This is not the way that many Westerners would view Ethiopia.

How did you decide on quartering the book into four different thematic sections? If you could talk about how you came upon those titles and then also the significance of the order.

That was really with the help of the editor at Akashic. They were really instrumental in the way that the book was divided and then these headings. Once I had a look at them, it seemed to fit really well.

Another thing that I noticed in reading each of these stories, or at least a lot of these stories, is that there are ghostly presences in here, which I find really interesting. In these stories where these writers were not given any real solid instructions about what you have to write about, there are all these stories that come up that are ghostly or involve ghosts in some way. I think that if there’s anything Ethiopian, maybe that’s what it is.

Haunting?

Hauntings, yeah. Like the past never quite going away and it’s manifested in these stories of ghosts of some kind.

The Shadow King’s layered lyricism has ties to the Ethiopian poetic practice of sem ena werk (wax and gold poetry), and in this collection certain stories reminded me of the teret teret (Ethiopian parables) I heard as a child. I’m thinking specifically of the one with the boy who turns into a jib and then the kind of “Be careful what you wish for” vibe of “Of the Poet and The Café.” Do you and the other writers consciously look for ways to interweave Western narrative traditions with Ethiopian ones? Or do you think it’s just the way your mind creates stories, you blend them naturally?

There was no conversation with me about ways to approach this work, but I think that what you are talking about is a natural inclination in writers to soak in what they hear, what they learn, what they’re surrounded by, the way that their parents might have told stories, the stories that those parents told. When you sit down to write at your desk, that comes to the forefront. That’s part of the imagination. It’s part of the well that we draw from as writers; what surrounded us when we were children. I think that we see this again and again in these stories.

You talked about the boy that turned into the hyena or the wolf in Mikael Awake’s “Father Bread,” and then there’s Girma Fantaye’s story. You know, Mik lives in New York City and Girma is based in Addis Ababa and yet both of these writers from two different places were drawing on similar cultures, similar cultural linguistic elements. I just think it’s the nature of what’s inside. What we grew up hearing, it comes out instinctively. With Mik, a majority of his education was likely in the United States but there’s still something that’s retained from parents and grandparents and family. I find that memory has pockets and those pockets open when we start to write, when we start to create as artists. We may not even know it’s happening until somebody else reads it and it resonates with something else that’s in them because they recognize what’s familiar.

What is behind the decision to italicize but not define Amharic words for your readers in the text?

Having those definitions at the end, let’s say as a glossary or at the bottom of the page, I feel disrupts the world that that story has worked so hard to convey. I also think that readers can look something up if they’re not quite sure. They can take it within the context of that sentence if they would like to. Writers should not be hampered by certain expectations of a reader. Who is that word foreign to? And in that way, who are we privileging as being the ideal reader or the most expected reader? Let’s say an Ethiopian who speaks Amharic picks this up and they can read right through it. That’s great. But if someone who doesn’t speak that language picks it up and reads it and has to pause and think, I don’t know if there’s anything wrong with that. As a writer, it was a question that I asked myself in my own book which mixes Amharic and Italian. How much do I translate for readers who may not speak either one of those languages? In the end, I thought it will be up to the reader to look up if they really feel hampered by it. But readers also don’t need to be spoon-fed. I think those readers who feel like they have, have been reading literature that has always spoken to them.

In your story, “Dust, Ash, Flight,” the protagonist is a foreign photographer who takes images of the human remains of Ethiopian prisoners. In your last novel, The Shadow King, there’s a foreign war photographer with a similarly morbid but important assignment. Have you thought about why you are drawn to photographers as characters?

I wrote this short story before I had developed this character in my novel, but I wrote this short story inspired by the real-life account of an Argentine prisoner during the Dirty Wars who was in the Navy School, which was a base for interrogations. He was taking photographs and he did smuggle photographs out. I remember the first time that I read his story I just could not put it out of my mind. What happens when a gift, a talent, is used in the service of cruelty like that? How does that bend somebody? How does it twist someone inside? When I sat down to write this story, which was years ago, it just seemed like this character just stepped up in front of me. I had also at the same time started learning about these Argentine forensic scientists who really do exist, who had done work in Kosovo and in Mexico and all these different places where atrocities had taken place. They were the forensic scientists that went into Ethiopia in the ’90s to help gather evidence for the trial against members of the Derg. I had the opportunity to talk to the woman who was head of the forensics team, just to ask her questions about what it was like to be there. She gave me things that I could read, and between her and this group of forensic scientists and then this man I’d always been really fascinated and curious about who was in the prisons in Argentina, this story came about. It seemed like I could answer my questions about what it does to you to be constantly confronted by cruelty and to be bent by somebody’s will to be cruel by putting this photographer with them. That part is pure fiction, this photographer did not go with them. He’s still in Argentina. I’ve been asking these questions for a long time about what we see, what we think we’re looking at, and how what we look at determines how we imagine the world around us and how we imagine our place in that world. It felt like a natural instinct when I was writing my novel to consider those similar questions that I haven’t fully answered yet.

Outside of them both being photographers, they are also both foreigners looking in at Ethiopia. Does writing about your country from the perspective of a foreigner transform your work? It seems like it’d make for a good writing prompt.

He might have been a foreigner in Ethiopia, in Addis Ababa, but there was something there. The Argentine Dirty Wars were happening at the same time as the Red Terror in Ethiopia, and it was one of the things that I was looking at when I was writing my first book, how there was Argentina and there was Ethiopia not long before there was Iran. All those things were blowing up at the same time. I think for my character being an Argentine and being in Addis Ababa and talking to Gideon, he realizes that they may be from different countries but they share a lot of the same experiences. Horror and cruelty have shaped them both in similar ways. That’s what I’m interested in, the unexpected things that bind us.

This is the first noir entry in your oeuvre. Would you consider exploring the genre or even anthologies again?

This was a labor of love, and I am so glad that I did this. Would I do it again? I think that this has just come out so I would give myself a little bit of a break but maybe at some point, yeah, I would take something like this up because there are more writers out there. That is the thing. Those stories and those writers and those talents. I hope that they get bigger platforms and ways to be read by a wider audience. And if I can help in any way, I’m really happy to do that.

It sounds like as interested as you are in writing yourself, you’re equally interested in helping other people’s writing careers take off.

I’m in communication with many new writers who are seeking advice on how to get published. How do I do this? How do I get an agent? These are people who don’t necessarily live in the United States or in the West, and I feel like this pandemic, in forcing so much to go online, is also creating these networks and connections and possibilities that we didn’t have before. I was in Europe for several months and I’ve just come back but I hope that once I get settled in again, that I’m able to use technology and use this moment that we have to provide people with some answers that they’re looking for. It’s important to me because we have more than 90 million people in Ethiopia and you can’t even tell a family story without people disagreeing. So you can imagine how many different stories there are. The more diversity there is in the stories that we tell, the more it helps broaden our sense of what it means to be Ethiopian, what it means to be part of the diaspora, what it means to have the histories that we do and the cultures that we do. Ethiopia has the writers, we have the artists. It’s just, let’s get a platform so that their stories and their work can be viewed by a wider audience.

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Naomi Elias is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared online and in print at a variety of publications including LongreadsNew York MagazineNylon, and Electric Literature

 

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