I just finished the best historical fiction novel, The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste, an Ethiopian born novelist. It is one of the most fascinating books I’ve read in a while. It’s the story of the Second Italio-Ethiopian War in the 1930s when Mussolini invades Ethiopia. It’s also the story of some complex and brave Ethiopian women who join in the defense of their beloved country. It is also the story of a Jewish Italian war photographer sent to the POW camp run by terrible Nazi Colonel Fucelli. Lots of toxic masculinity with these two guys and then add in Kidane, a leader of one of the local militias, and you’ve got some meanness going on. But you’ve got some tough women who become more empowered as they begin to play a more important role in the war. Mengiste grew up hearing the story of this war with Mussolini from her father. She learned much later that her great grandmother Getey took her father’s gun and went to war against the Italians when they invaded in 1935.
The Shadow King is a peasant named Minim who Hirut and Aster dress up as the emperor Haile Selassie who has gone into exile in Bath, England. Hirut and Aster teach Minim to imitate the Emperor’s mannerisms. Minim as the Shadow King appears to the Ethiopian troops from the mountain tops to encourage and assure the troops. Hirut and Aster are his female bodyguards. I love the irony that the name Minim means Nothing, and the name Haile Selassie means Might of the Trinity. The Emperor Haile Selassie in real life does go into exile in England. He became the face of resistance in the League of Nations, and Britain helps him regain his throne at the end of WW2 when Mussolini and Hitler are defeated. And in real life, the Emperor claimed to be descended from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Selassie has a complicated legacy in today’s Ethiopia. His vision of the world was one of equality between the African countries and the white Western countries. He started the University of Addis Ababa and Ethiopian Airline. He is known as the modernizer of the country. He messed up during three terrible famines in his country in 1958, 1966 and 1973. During the 1973 famine he threw himself a birthday party costing $35,000,000. Yep thirty-five million while his subjects were starving to death. Needless to say, there was a Marxist coup in 1974 which ousted him, and he was assassinated in 1975.
Mengiste has a beautiful writing style often described as lyrical, and it truly is. I leave you with two beautiful quotes from her notes and acknowledgments:
“The story of war has always been a masculine story, but this is not true for Ethiopia and it has never been that way in any form of struggle. Women have been there, we are here now.” And, “To those women and girls of Ethiopia who would not let themselves be completely erased by history, who stood up when I was looking for them and made themselves known. I see you. I will always see you.”
Lithub.com- “Writing About the Forgotten Black Women of the Italo Ethiopian War” by Maaza Mengiste (September 24, 2019)