Beneath the Lion’s Gaze

Paru sur le magazine Africultures le 17 mai 2016

Nothing escapes the burning look of Maaza Mengiste, and especially not the history of its native country, Ethiopia. The young author distinguished herself during her first novel  Beneath the Lion’s Gaze. A painful fresco of a country battling against its fate, during the revolution of 1974. In this period, Maaza Mengiste and her family was forced to flee their country. Today, she lives in New York, and goes  frequently in Ethiopia. She confesses us in this interview, realized for the first time in France, her fears and her hopes for this earth :  » which is the house of my parents and mine  » and reveals us its next novel, inspired by the fight of the Ethiopian women against the fascism.


Maaza Mengiste- presse-
Maaza Mengiste

In what way can you say that Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, is a testimony of Ethiopian History ?

The book tells the story of one family who lived through the Ethiopian revolution, which began in 1974. In one way, it is about this revolution that was in Ethiopia. It is about a historical event. But it is also about a family, and about the human cost of conflict and war. I realized as I was writing this, that I was examining what it is that makes us love, that makes us hate, that makes us betray those we love. How do good people, those people with good intentions, become those that we fear the most? This is a human story, it is a testimony of human history.

Can you tell me, what are your principal influences in your work ?

My biggest influences in my work are other writers. I read as much as I can and I read books from all over the world. The best literature can cross boundaries and languages, it reminds us that we are all connected by hopes and dreams, even by our sorrows. After literature, I’m very inspired by photographs and art. They are both documents and metaphors of our world. When I look at a photograph or a work of art, I imagine what was left out of the frame, and sometimes, that leads to a story.

 What are your favorite writers ?

One of my favorite books is Homer’s The Iliad. It is a story of war, but it is also a story about loyalty and love and friendship. Homer taught me how to write about war and conflict, he reminded me to focus on the personal stories within the larger struggles. Through this book, I began to understand the many compromises humans must make in order to remain enemies of each other. I also understood that within war, there are very few heroes. Everyone is compromised. Everyone betrays some of their own ideals.

 In your book, fate has a big part, how it impacts on people’s destiny/life. How your own family did live and manage all this ? 

I do not think fate had a big part in my book. Actually, I think it was the political situation (the revolution) and also the desire of the young people for change. I think many people thought that if they were poor, then that was God’s will, it was their fate to stay poor. But the young people of 1974 believed that they could change things by changing politics, by forcing the government to change. We see this even today in countries across the world. People are refusing to believe in fate. They want to make their own future, they want to create a country that matches their dreams. Even in America, this is happening.

Do you think that your novel, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, looks like what is happening right now around us ? 

Yes, I do think that it resembles what has happened in many countries, such as Syria, Iraq, Egypt. My book tells about people who believed that change was possible, and who were willing to make demonstrations and protests to force a government to listen. Like in some of the other countries we hear about in the news today, in Ethiopia, the revolution moved from a moment of hope to something more dangerous and violent. The young people were betrayed by leaders who took advantage of the instability they caused. I see some of that in other places, yes. And of course, when the revolution became dangerous and bloody, Ethiopians fled their country. Before that, no one left Ethiopia. It was our home, we loved it and wished to be there.

 In your novel, there is a lot of violence. Was it made on purpose ? Was it a way for you to get rid of it ?

You know, people say there is a lot of violence, but there was not so much. You see more violence on the news, or when you watch some movies. But in the book, you begin to know the characters, so when there is violence, it feels more powerful, it feels more violent. I wanted to show what happened during a civil conflict. I wanted to show the price that so many people paid for the sake of a better future. I was writing this when the US was in a war with Iraq and Afghanistan, and as an American, I felt ashamed of what was done in those countries. When I was writing my novel, I was writing about more than Ethiopia, I was also writing about America, and I was writing about the way those in power treat others who are powerless. I wanted to show that, and it seems that those in power use violence in cruel and in humane way so that is what I wrote. It was not really catharsis, it was very difficult to write those scenes. It was difficult to imagine what people experienced in prison. I felt, as I was writing, that I was stuck in a nightmare. I felt glad when those scenes were finished.

 In your novel, starvation is killing your country, but there are riots… To your opinion, could hunger be one of the sources of revolutions ? Do you think this actual dryness could  be one of these sources  ?

The revolution started because of many reasons, but one of them was the famine. There were people starving in the rural areas, yet people were living well in Addis Abeba. People were starving, yet government officials were getting rich. The young people wanted more equality.

 Your novel is full of poetical dreams, what is your dream for Ethiopia ?

My wish is that all those who paid the highest price for Ethiopia – those who died in the revolution, in other wars, in other conflicts in the country – will be rewarded with a more just and more equal country.

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