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  • NYS Writers Institute

Q&A: Maaza Mengiste, author of The Shadow King

"Read the first chapters of your favorite books, locate that joy again."

-- Maaza Mengiste

Maaza Mengiste was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. A Fulbright Scholar and professor in the MFA in Creative Writing & Literary Translation program at Queens College, she is the author of The Shadow King

which was shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize and was a 2020 Los Angeles Times Book Prize Fiction finalist. Praised by Salman Rushdie as “a brilliant novel…compulsively readable”, The Shadow King was named best book of the year by the New York Times, NPR, Elle, and Time magazine.

From the publisher:

"Set in Ethiopia at the very start of WWII, The Shadow King tells the story of orphaned Hirut, who struggles to adapt to her new life as a maid. Her employer, an officer in Emperor Haile Selassie’s army, rushes to mobilize his strongest men before the Italians invade.

As the war begins in earnest, Hirut and the other women long to do more than care for the wounded and bury the dead. When the Emperor goes into exile and Ethiopia quickly loses hope, it is Hirut who offers a plan to maintain morale. She helps disguise a gentle peasant as the emperor and soon becomes his guard, inspiring other women to take up arms.

But how could she have predicted her own personal war, still to come, as a prisoner of one of Italy’s most vicious officers? The Shadow King is a gorgeously crafted and unputdownable exploration of female power and what it means to be a woman at war."

Her debut novel, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, was selected by The Guardian as one of the 10 best contemporary African books and named one of the best books of 2010 by Christian Science Monitor, Boston Globe, and other publications.

You may purchase Maaza Mengiste's books at the independent and local Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza.

Q: What advice do you have for college students and young people during these uncertain times of plague and protest?

None of us knows what's going to happen tomorrow or next week or next month. What we know is what the past has shown us: that decent people have always existed, that generosity is never fully eroded, that courage continues to rise up and demand justice. Have faith in that.

Q: What advice do you have for aspiring writers who are seeking motivation to write during quarantine?

Be gentle with yourself. We're writers, not robots. Take time to listen to music. Read if you can. Watch films if you can. Look at paintings. Learn something new that's completely outside of your daily life. All of this will seep into your writing when you're ready.

Q: Have you acquired any new insights during the past few months?

I took so much for granted before the lockdown: hugging friends hello, sitting in crowded restaurants, brushing past strangers on the street. So much of what makes life rich are those interactions we've dismissed and sometimes gotten annoyed by...yet all of it matters because everyone matters. Every human being is essential.

Q: What books do you recommend we read?

Just read. It doesn't matter what it is. I've found solace in old favorites, as much as anything new. Picking up art books and browsing through them has helped me feel a bit of what I miss about galleries and museums. Read the first chapters of your favorite books, locate that joy again.

Find out more about Maaza Mengiste at her website and follow her at: and


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