Italian colonialism, horror in the sun·The Italian Files
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Thea 0:14
In October 1935, Italian troops attacked Ethiopia starting the second Italo Ethiopian war. As Mussolini put it, "Italy too could now fulfil its destiny to have a place in the sun". On the fifth of May 1936, the Italian Army entered the capital Addis Ababa and Mussolini in Rome, with all the pomposity of fascist rhetoric declared the war over. Ethiopia was he said the jury and de facto Italian

Welcome to the Italian finals, a podcast of conversations about lesser known protagonists, themes and stories of Italian culture, society and history I'm Thea Leonarduzzi.

Despite Mussolini and his declaration of victory, the reality in Ethiopia was rather different. The resistance continued for years. And today we're going to talk about this with our guest, the novelist essayist and photographer Maaza, Mengiste, author of the Shadow King, a powerful novel set during those dark and violent days. Not only does the novel follow the lives and struggles of the invaded people, it adds another dimension to the story, the protagonist to the African women who participated in the resistance. Maaza Mengiste was born in Addis Ababa, but left Ethiopia as a child in the 1970s when her family fled the revolution. She lives now in New York City, and I'm very pleased to say joins us now Maaza Hello, and thanks so much for being with us.

Maaza 2:09
It's wonderful to be here.

Thea 2:11
I wanted to begin by asking you about the modern perceptions of this war. It was, to be clear, a brutal, imperialist war, you know, Mussolini ordered systematic horror villages were burned, prisoners were executed, without trial, mustard gas was used by the Italians in these huge aerial bombardments against combatants and civilians alike. But still, I think the general view in Italy today is is of a war that was, you know, not much more than an exercise in propaganda and fascist propaganda and attempt to increase the myth of a new Roman Empire. I don't think the bloodshed has kind of being registered. Really, I know that you lived in Italy for a time while you were working on this book. Yes. What was your impression there of the way that the war is framed now?

Maaza 3:03
Well, you know, you ask an excellent question. Most people in Italy did not know about the colonial enterprise, did not know anything about the war. Those who didn't know about the war tended to imagine it as just a benign, very quick, bloodless conflict. There is a saying about the Italians that the Italians say about themselves, which is the "Italiani Brava Gente." Italians are decent people. There was there is and there was a general perception amongst those who knew anything about the war, that it was bloodless, it was quick. It was basically, I guess, a kind of gentlemen's agreement between the Italians and the Ethiopians that they leave. The Italians built roads, they put up communication lines, the Ethiopians, East Africans actually benefited from the Italians being there. And there was no harm done. And this is if people knew anything about it. For the most part, those who might have had an opportunity to learn anything in school, have mentioned to me that the history books had one line. Mussolini went to East Africa and then by 41, the Italians were out. So there really is no, there was no real concrete knowledge about what happened.

Thea 4:44
Do you think that's changed at all? I suppose I'm wondering about the state in Italy of debate around colonialism. Now, more broadly, as you said, there's Libya, there's Eritrea, the Somalia to think about to is Italy inching towards having more of a reckoning, a reckoning of the sort that we If we're kind of having in the UK in the US, do you think or do you think when we're miles off that yet? I

Maaza 5:05
I would have agreed that this was happening a few months ago before this new right wing government was installed in Italy. But I I remember when I lived there several years ago, what I felt and what I still feel now is that Italy is really there on the front lines of a battle for European decency, in terms of how it deals with migrants and refugees, but also how it deals with its population that is second generation, those children of immigrants that are now European who claim Italy as their country, reclaim Europe as their continent. I saw that generation in 2010 2011 2012, making what I felt were huge strides in conversation about identity and community and belonging and human rights. And I think that that fight has gotten even stronger. And I think that generation has laid a real path for another younger generation to step forward. And I believe that they are, but with this new right wing government, that quotes or admits to admiring Mussolini, that wants to create laws that that restrict freedoms, and I think try to erase the diversity in the country. I think that this generation of Italians who are from all of these different places, they have a fight, but they are starting, there is a momentum building. And I find that encouraging, and something for all of us to watch.

Thea 7:02
Absolutely. And the momentum is you saving the momentum will have to be considerable to to get up these hills that seem to have become steeper, since the most recent election. I'm wondering if we can compare the memory of the war in Italy with with with how it's remembered in Ethiopia? How does Ethiopia remember those days?

Maaza 7:23
Well, Ethiopia every year has a commemoration for the survivors or for the fighters of this war. There are different markers in the year that remind people about this war. But really, what those markers focus on are the stories of heroism are our stories of victory defiance, which I guess is normal, it's it's the way that we want to remember the devastations of conflict and war, we don't want to focus on what was lost. And so Ethiopia has this and sometimes it features women, but it mostly features men. And the stories that get told tend to be the stories of men as well.

Thea 8:16
And also, I mean, I wonder about the war itself that can be considered the the first real war of the Second World War. On the other hand, the circumstances aren't, as we've sort of said that they're not very familiar to many people beyond Ethiopia, which is partly why the Shadow King, your novel is so so compelling. Do you think your novel is an exception in that regard? Or are we seeing other writers and artists whether of Ethiopian heritage or not, are we seeing other others tackling this corner of history as well?

Maaza 8:45
Yes, I have often said that my book walks a path that was opened first by other writers. There are writers currently working now in Italy, who have written about this period from their perspective. There is the Italian Somali writer ie Igiaba Shego, the Italian Ethiopian writer Gabriella Ghermandi, there is another Italian Somali writer Ooba Christina Ali Farah, there are scholars who have been studying this period, who helped me when I was doing research, there are artists like Jeremiah, Mikhail Gabrielle, who is doing art based on this history of really compelling work that's pushing against the silences in Italy. So I think that there, there is work that is happening. The book that I wrote, joins these other voices, and I think speaks specifically about the women fighters but I don't think this book would have been done without the work of all these other people.

Thea 10:04
It's great to have such a such a rich list of names for people to go off and familiarise themselves with there. So I've been thinking about these women, Italy is slowly rediscovering the role of women in the Italian resistance against fascism, but I'm not sure that people are really tending to look much beyond the borders in your book though the main characters are women who fight for the freedom of their country and so by extension against fascism, too. I'd be interested to know how well known these women are in Ethiopian history. You talk about the, you know, these markers in the in the year of celebrations commemorating heroism heroic acts in the war, but and not many of those feature women. I'm wondering about the average Ethiopian in the street, have you stopped them and, and gave them a name of a woman who did something remarkable? Would they tend to know who she was?

Maaza 10:58
Oh, well, if you had a history of women, fighters, in the first conflict with Italy, in the Battle of Adwa, in 1896, when Italy tried to colonise Ethiopia the first time and Empress Taytu lead an army of 40,000 men. So this is a history that's known throughout Ethiopia, there are women that I believe most Ethiopians might know, or some who know history would know. But I think that the general perception, which was my, my perception, before I really started researching for the Shadow King, is that these were isolated incidents, that these stories were few and far between. There was maybe one or two or three or four women and of course, it happened in 1896, with an empress. But, and maybe somebody knew someone in their family. But there wasn't the knowledge that there were actually 1000s of women who rose up and fought. We've heard the stories of, of women who were spies, let's say in the homes of Italians, when they served as cooks, or they served as cleaning women, where they might have been the companions of Italians. We've heard of women who used traditional roles to subvert the war. But we never really thought that there was a there was such a large number of women who picked up guns and fought right alongside men.

Thea 12:43
Which is really interesting, isn't it? Because I mean, the memory, it's so fresh, still, it was only you know, a couple of generations ago, really, that this was happening. So why do we think that these stories have sort of, you know, been been stunted or silenced in that way you'd think they would be living on in the families?

Maaza 13:00
Absolutely. I think part of it is that when when the war ended, the women who were soldiers went back to their traditional roles. And in those roles where they were in the kitchen, or working in the fields that they if they lived in on farms, those workplaces where they could share stories, and the stories that would get told that would get counted as history would be the stories of the men who came back. And maybe because the men tended to tell their stories more, maybe because the stories of women in battle also involved other kinds of personal intimate wars, maybe those were those things that they did not necessarily want to speak about. I suspect also that in a home, in a family, perhaps for a generation, a woman's story might be told, or when a nation only speaks of the stories of men, then those stories that the women have eventually get forgotten.

Thea 14:08
And that goes for sort of all walks of life, whether there's a war involved or not. Absolutely. Can you tell us a bit about how and when you decided to write this book then because it seems like something that would have been bubbling away in you tugging at you, you know, for a while or was it more sudden that that did it was there a kind of a tipping point for you, when you just knew you had to just start?

Maaza 14:32
I knew that I wanted to write this book for a very long time, but I was a bit intimidated by the history. When I thought about the idea of this for a book I had never written seriously. I did not grow up in a in a life that were I was writing and I knew I wanted to become a writer. This was a growing realisation as I went from one career to another that I absolutely hated. And I had this idea for a book, and I did not know how to do it. And then at the point, when I said, I really, I really need to see if I can write if I'm capable of writing. I knew I couldn't do this one initially, I had so much research to do, I understood that. So I focused on what would become the first book, which was beneath the lions gaze, which was an a more immediate history, a history that I had personal memories from it. And I thought, let me try to figure out how to write how to research how to develop information and a plot through this book. And then if it goes, okay, then then let's see how we can do this next one.

Thea 15:51
You certainly managed it. Very, very impressive. You do talk about the kind of the daunting feeling daunted by how much historical research was involved to write a book like the Shadow King, how did you take that on, you know, how was it to take on the archives in, in two nations, Ethiopia, and Italy, presumably each presenting their own challenges.

Maaza 16:18
I spent a lot of time on research. And I realised now, maybe it was too much, because one of the best lessons I learned from the book is that you really only need to know or you really only need to write what your characters would know. And so if there are five battles going on at some at any given time, my character may only need to know about one of them. But in my research, of course, I wanted to know about all of them. And it made this this moment in history, much more interesting for me to know so much about it. But maybe the history isn't, didn't need to be so daunting. I'm learning this. You know, they say that every book that you begin, it's like starting for the first time. So as I'm moving into a new project, I'm trying to remind myself of all the things I all the lessons I learned from the Shadow King. But I do love to research and I'm right back into it again. The daunting part about all of this, I think, is that both countries had their own challenges in terms of what is remembered and the way it's remembered. Both countries have their own propagandas. Both countries wanted to remember this war, or be remembered in this war in a very particular way. And my task, as a novelist was to complicate those notions of heroism, maybe altruism of nationalism, that was very apparent in both countries, and see what would happen with characters that were stuck in the middle of all of that, and maybe didn't necessarily have an allegiance to the nations that they were fighting for.

Thea 18:14
It's interesting to hear you talk about how you think you almost did too much historical research. And I know exactly what you mean, just I mean, from writing my own book, but I think I wonder if it's partly that you feel you have to know everything before you can kind of put pen to paper before you can start telling a story you think you need to know everything and it's almost like you're looking for kind of a definitive story because that's what archives tend to suggest that there is archives can kind of be stifling, you know, they can freeze, they can freeze you they can be static, when in fact, what we're dealing with so much of so much of the story that we're trying to tell so many of the stories that we're trying to tell have to do with memory, which is in fact constantly shifting and and I think you know, that's something that you've been keen to avoid, isn't it with your with your own project of photography archive, a digital archive of photographs from the second Italo-Ethiopian war? Tell us about that project.

Maaza 19:09
This is a project that sprang from my collection of photographs that Italian soldiers took while they were in Ethiopia, and across East Africa. I became very interested in in those images that were not taken by photo journalists that seem to avoid a lot of the censorship that happened in the official photographs that went out from Ethiopia and Eritrea, and so on soldiers that had their own handheld personal cameras. Were recording their lives and recording their days of war in really intimate ways, images of them in their tents, playing cards, or around the table with a harmonica, with Ethiopians in the market at a water well, moments that seem to defy the fact that there was a war in the background, I became very interested in those because those, those photographs seem to me another way to remember this time, another way to curate memory, to cut history into small, manageable, maybe acceptable parts. And I wanted to see what would happen if I put them all together and started looking at the gaps or started looking at what seemed to suddenly arise out of these images. And from those photographs, that collection, I have created a website or a project that I call Project 3541, which is really developing an archive or maybe a database that will host some of these images for educational and artistic purposes. And so I am, I have started this and I'm slowly slowly developing it, to make it larger and create a website that's a little bit more in depth than it is right now.

Thea 21:25
Well, I mean, you describe it as a labour of love and that that comes through abundantly but also importantly, as an act of reclamation. Can you unpack that for us a little?

Maaza 21:37
it's a way to acknowledge that this history happened. It's a way to reclaim the silences that have grown around this moment. And I hope by showing photographs of the human beings that were there on the ground, we can begin to understand a bit more about the very the person, the people that were there, that they weren't just statistics in a history book. They're not just numbers in a ledger. But these were human beings. Obviously, the Ethiopians that the Eritreans, the Somali that are pictured in some of these, they are human, they're not just figures to move out of the way because Europe wants land. These are people with memories and families and ambitions and hopes. And I wanted to recognise the same for the soldiers who were often from the poor, poorer parts of Italy, who had never left home, this was going to be the furthest they had ever been. They took their cameras, they were promised a quick, easy war. And they were lied to by a government that would eventually devour them, when Mussolini created an alliance with the Nazis and the Nazis then came into Italy, they were betrayed in every way. And I want to recognise and reclaim some of the stories that I think get lost in in all of the propagandas and deluded memories of this time.

Thea 23:21
And you really do, I mean, I've spent a good few hours looking around on the website. And it's a remarkable thing. It's just so it's so moving to see these people, you know, standing. There's one of in particular, I saw this morning of a woman and Ethiopian woman, in in her uniform standing by a horse and she's standing up so straight and so proud, in a way you don't almost it was almost a bit of a double take to note her as being a woman, because she was such a, you know, male pose. It's not something that my eyes had really kind of seen before, in that particular historical context. And I just love how it it kind of troubles the all of these voters because you're asking people to submit their own records. It's, it's refreshingly, you know, it's democratic. It's like history from the bottom up.

Maaza 24:12
Thanks. Thank you for that. And I know that that picture that you're talking about, and what I love about that picture also is that if you look at her feet, she's wearing these shoes that are they're ill suited for war in a

Thea 24:32
very inappropriate footwear. And

Maaza 24:36
soldiers went barefoot, but for this picture, she wanted to put on her best shoes. It's just this this special little thing in this in this image that she is so proud that she wants to wear something that is, as you said, completely inappropriate. With with the uniform, but I think that this sense of like you're mentioning of recognising. Something else within the pictures, recognising the human being recognising perhaps the emotion that they wanted us to, to get is something that that's special to me about some of these pictures. People have been reaching out and sending me, photographs. Italians, Ethiopians, Eretrians, I'm slowly getting a sense of, of what I have this, this collection keeps growing. And now I think the next question for me, which is part of the work that my novel was doing is how to make sense of these images, how to frame them in a way that is respectful of the history, but also respectful of the individuals and the families that are still alive today. And so this is a this is definitely a process that's, I'm still working on.

Thea 26:02
Absolutely. Well, let's focus a moment more on on the novel on the novel itself. I'd like to talk about the style and the language. People have described the novel as, as work of epic realism. It has this Greek style chorus. For one thing, there's an epigraph from the Iliad, that word spoken by Helen of Troy, is that a note that you set out to hit from the beginning? And how did that how did the language come to you because the thing that comes, the thing that kind of stands out, for me, the word that keeps coming to my lips is, is elevation, it's like you're elevating the history that you're writing about.

Maaza 26:41
It did not come to me in the beginning, that I have to say, it came after a miserable failure of a draft where I had written completely at the mercy of all the research that I had done. And the book was, it was a chronicle of facts. And, that meant that the language was dry. It was the book conveyed information, rather than developing characters developing any questions about memory, all these things that I was interested in from the beginning. And when I had finished that draft, I was quite disheartened. I was really, I was so disappointed. And I started to think about what I really wanted to do, what kind of story I wanted to tell. And I wanted, I started thinking about all of the stories that inspired me. And I went back to look through the Iliad, because I imagined I imagined some of my characters endless wars as it was another it was a great Trojan War. This was a war of epic proportions, with characters with human beings that had done things that were epic and heroic, and the language was flat and that draft. And you were absolutely right, that I made it a very conscious decision to elevate the language to recreate a kind of musicality in the sentences and paragraphs, and even the structure of it. That had always attracted me in books, or in stories like The Iliad. This is why I love opera. It's why I gravitate towards certain writers. Also, I started thinking about the Ethiopian singers, they as Maori, the village Gredos, that kept this history alive, by singing of battles, by singing of people's heroic acts, through verse in music with rhythm, and I thought, somehow, I need to create a language that emulates that. So I got rid of that first draft of the book that I done that I had done, and started again, thinking of all these things, and really trying to push myself to write at the edge to constantly be on the precipice of what I what might be complete collapse. And that the book was written with that momentum.

Thea 29:47
Gosh, it will and you've been you've been rewarded for for that risk that the Shadow King was shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize. It's been translated into, I think, too many languages to list. It's been called a masterpiece and model In classic Salman Rushdie said it. It lyrically lifts history towards myth, which is a great way of putting it. I'm wondering how it was, how was the novel received in in Italy and also in Ethiopia? How would you know what, maybe there was an interesting difference there.

Maaza 30:16
It took people by surprise in many ways, because this was a history that they did not know things and been that brutal. And so the reading, people are still reading it, people are still talking about it. It has continued to develop the conversations around fascism, racism, history, propaganda, all of that. And so I think for Italy, it was eye opening. In Ethiopia, what was interesting was that people knew this history. They knew some of the brutalities, but there were generations maybe like Italy that had never heard of it, or had not known how bad it really was. I think, in both the countries, I had readers who then after reading the book, started asking their families, for family stories about this war, and would send me messages about, even having women in their families that fought, and they had no idea about it until they read the book. And I think for both of them, both countries, the book, maybe broke through some of the silences, that that had kind of solidified over the years.

Thea 31:44
And that's one of the best things really, isn't it? I imagine it must be just so immensely gratifying to have people get in touch with you. I've had like the odd thing from from my own book, when people write to me and say, oh, you know, I read this bit, and it made me want to ask my grandmother about this. And then they end up having these rewarding conversations, all of these unspoken things that come to light. And it's almost like you've performed a small service, in your case, a much greater one, because we're talking about a magazine or the magnitude of the history that you're talking about.

Maaza 32:22
I think that this book has had developed a more complicated language around this history. But I also think that one book cannot do it all. The histories are much more complicated than then even I know, as much research as I have done. And I'm waiting and very excited for those other books that begin to tell stories from people's families. You know, interesting I was, I was watching a few years ago, a rerelease of Carlo Levi's Christ stopped at Eboli, Cristo si è fermato a Eboli. And it's set in a small village, a tiny, tiny village where Carlo Levi had been sent in prison forced into exile by Mussolini. And it's this little tiny place in the hills of Italy. There's no of course no Ethiopian there. And yet the war in Ethiopia is everywhere, because the young men have left that village to fight. And I realised that in the fabric of Italy, in towns that may have never seen an Ethiopian, this history is present in many different ways. And I think there are many more books to be written still.

Thea 33:50
Absolutely. You've talked about how you you threw the first draft away. And I don't know what the structure of that one was like, but the structure of what you've ended up with this is quite something. There are so many moving and interweaving parts as we follow the lives of, of your multiple protagonists. Was there any aspect that you found particularly challenging? Or conversely, any particular bit, any voice that you just felt totally at ease with, where we're the prose seem to flow unended.

Maaza 34:24
The most challenging part that I had was trying to piece it all together, trying to

Thea 34:31
I can well imagine. I can imagine a vast sea of colour coded post-its

Maaza 34:37
I really was colour coded post-its and index cards that kept moving and shuffling.

Maaza 34:48
I had them all taped across the wall and I would keep moving it. Sometimes I felt like oh my god, this is a bloodbath. when I would try to structure it. And then the parts that felt, Oh, this is fun. When I would get to the chorus, they seem to just spring up with a life of their own and take me along with them. And I would just be trying to catch up, though it was, it was really, you know, each character had their own enjoyable moments, but the chorus for me it was, was really a lot of fun.

Thea 35:31
How did you manage the kind of the delicate dance between wildly different points of view? Because you're in a woman's mind one moment, then you're in a man's mind and a soldier's and in an invader and then in the mind of an invaded person. You manage them all with equal sensitivity, but how was it to sort of constantly be reframing the way that you see the world through your character's eyes?

Maaza 35:56
It came in parts, I remember that. It's funny how when you finish a book and completely forget about all the agony...

Thea 36:09
It exactly you look back and you're kind of like, oh, it all came. And you just forget the days of just fitting your head against the table.

Maaza 36:18
Yeah, and I think it came in part, it came in waves, I would do a series of scenes with Aster trying to get to the core of who she is. And I would have to work on them again and again and again. And then once I felt like I had something, I would let say move to Kidane. And he was probably one of the hardest characters as well as Carlo Fucelli. And I would have to work again and again and again, and then put these characters in a scene together and see what came and then have to work on the two of them or three of them again and again. So it was it was a slow process. But I have to say that when when revelations happened, it was just a euphoric feeling. But my God, it took a long time sometimes to get there.

Thea 44:01
We should say, film rights to the Shadow King have been bought. Can you tell us anything about that? Is work already underway? I imagine you're deeply involved.

Maaza 44:12
It's in progress, Kasi Lemmons is attached to direct. And I'm really excited to see what happens with it. I know that they're in the midst of getting everything together, the cast and the funding and all of that. So I'm keeping my fingers crossed that everything continues to work smoothly.

Thea 44:37
As are we. And Maza Mengiste, it's been such a pleasure talking to you. Thanks so much for joining us.

Maaza 44:44
Thank you so much. This was a pleasure. Thank you.

Thea 44:53
Maza Mengiste's novel The Shadow King is published by Canongate in the UK, and WW Norton & Company in the US. As you'll find it in all good bookstores. For more on the photography archive of the second Italo-Ethiopian war, visit Project That is all for today's episode. You've been listening to the Italian Files, created by FILL, the Festival of Italian Literature in London and supported by the Italian Cultural Institute in London. It was produced by Emily Naylor. More from us in two weeks time.