Maaza Mengiste’s The Shadow King Is a Powerful War Song

Fifi Bat-hef

“She does not want to remember but she is here and memory is gathering bones.”

Maaza Mengiste’s second novel tells the story of the second Italo-Ethiopian war when Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935 following their embarrassing failed first attempt (battle of Adua, 1896) to colonise the country and restore the lost legacy of the Roman Empire. What gives The Shadow King its epic scope is the multifaceted approach Mengiste views this history told in the point of view of both nobility and servant, emperor and slave, evil colonel and sympathetic soldier. These voices collide and conflict presenting a work woven from many interconnected viewpoints with links to feudalism, colonialism, fascism and anti-Semitism. The cast of the novel is complex and painfully human in their contradictions – there’s a rapist who grieves for his son, a sadistic Italian colonel who had a tyrannical father growing up, and we even view the fleeing emperor from the lens of a father who blames himself for his daughter’s death – giving readers a window to see how trauma and grief shaped their motivations without absolving their wrongdoings.

The essence of The Shadow King is about ‘what it means to be a woman at war’ – at war against the foreigners who’ve come to conquer them, against Ethiopian men who subjugate them and against their own selves too. We read about women behind battle lines and those who broke tradition to be on the front lines – women as spies, women as prisoners of war who refused to be broken but once they were, unflinchingly embraced all of their broken selves. We read about the small acts of rebellion like keeping a ledger of those tortured and killed by the Italians to later sing their names in defiant remembrance. We read about a marriage crumbling down and a tender love blooming, in the midst of a growing shadow army of women. The resilience of the protagonist to redefine herself from a meek indentured servant who went through multiple brutalities – “she knows who she is, but she also knows she is lost” –  to fierce soldier – “she is Hirut…and she is no longer afraid of what men can do to women like her” – is the embodiment of the strength of these women. In a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it-moment, Mengiste used the same advice given to a child bride about to be raped as a war-cry a colonel gave to his army before battle showing that merely existing as a woman is often a kind of warfare. Mengiste writes of the female body as a battleground and explores how allegiances shift when those who fight alongside women decide that their bodies are not their own to control.

“She is a soldier trapped inside a barbed-wire fence, but she is still at war and the battlefield is her own body”

History is usually written with a Eurocentric lens which inaccurately places Africa in a minor and isolated role peripheral to world history. One of the many ways The Shadow King succeeds is in its centring of Africa in world history by highlighting that one of the first battles against European fascism which set the stage for the second world war was fought on African soil with black women as active participants. Africa gets its name from an ancient Egyptian word ‘Af-Rui-Ka’ which means ‘a place of beginnings.’ Based on archaeological and anthropological evidence, the human species originated in the Awash Valley in Ethiopia and migrated from there to the rest of the world. The continent was home to glorious civilizations which saw developments in science, medicine, engineering and architecture. An Ethiopian character undermined the notion that Africans were without history in a heated exchange with an Italian colonel: “You can find an Ethiope in the earliest books. We are older than this Roman culture you’re so proud of. We existed before you, when you were all just peasants, not even a people.”

Africa has a rich oral storytelling tradition while in the West memories are captured through written records and imagery. These different ways of remembrance are played out in the structure of the book with transitions between multiple short chapters titled Chorus, Photo and Interlude giving readers a more holistic understanding of the war. The omniscient Chorus, a literary device used famously in Classical Greek tragedies was so well done it could make Homer weep with pride, yet uniquely Ethiopian and inspired by the amzariwoch music – the oratory roots of Ethiopian culture. Toni Morrison wrote of her appreciation for the Greek tragedies and its similarities to her community: “A large part of the satisfaction I have always received from reading Greek tragedy, for example, is in its similarity to Afro-American communal structures – the function of song and chorus, the heroic struggle between the claims of community and individual hubris.” Mengiste used the chorus to reflect how song preserved memories of individuals and the history of communities. This collective voice bears witness to both acts of cruelty against women and acts of resistance by women that went unnoticed, pushing back against the dominant narrative which often centres men and whiteness.

“Ethiopia’s gifted azmari will sing of this day for years: of how the women dropped their baskets and their jugs. How they pushed away their looms and piles of wool. They rise to their feet nearly in unison, unaware of their own glory, and lift their faces towards Aster’s voice. That they pause long enough to listen to the soft tap of distant gunfire is a detail that the songs will repeat again and again. The musicians will make of the women’s frowns a forewarning of what’s to come. The singers will use the women’s gasps and exclamations as signs of their growing strength.

One azmari after the next will sing these words as they play their masingo: that the first battle cry was already forming in the women’s throats. Aster knew she just needed a way to usher it out. The women were ready but did not know it. There were bullets to be made and gunpowder to mix and rifles to load and enemies to shoot.

Women! Those who can make bullets, come to me! Aster’s voice carries across the valley before breaking into echoes and scattering into the horizon. She is one woman. She is many women. She is all the sound that exists in the world.”

The chapters titled Photo are about an Italian-Jewish soldier who was conscripted in a war by a country that refused to acknowledge him. He was tasked to photograph Italian victories and Ethiopian ‘barbarism’ which were then sent to Rome for the purpose of political propaganda, fixing the country firmly under the colonial gaze. It is impossible to not delight in the way Mengiste described this compromised soldier-photographer: the physical, “a taker of photographers, a thief of moments” against the shadowy “an archivist of obscenities, a collector of terror”. Mengiste writes about the lifelong rage that will accompany the women in front of the camera and the effect on the men behind it, representing the stains war leaves on both victor and defeated. Some of the Photo chapters are only a few lines in length, but haunting in description:

“A woman slumped against a walking stick, paralyzed leg dangling beneath her long dress. A row of braids that fan out to thick, dark curls. Tattoos gracing the line of her throat to her jaw. Bruises near her eyes, at her mouth, a thread of blood dried against her ear. She is mid-sentence, her tongue against her teeth, curving around a word lost forever.”

Through visual language Mengiste forces her readers to look at the display of power over a captive, the humiliation of this woman and ask ourselves what might have happened to her before and after memory freeze framed. In another Photo description she writes, “…sharp cheekbones, a slender chin, narrow eyes unafraid to glare at the photographer. A finger pointed, an accusation, an eternal damning.” The intent was to fix Ethiopian prisoners in a pose and objectify them in a frame, and while successful, these photos also captured much more than they intended – the pride, the fury, the defiance. The photographs rendered the captives mute but they were far from voiceless.

The use of photos in the novel is not just as a literary device but one steeped in historical fact. The second Italian-Ethiopian war is said to be one of the most photographed wars with cameras in large circulation between the troops and ordinary soldiers. Whoever wields the camera controls the narrative, and war photography has the power to dictate storylines and serve as significant influencers of how the public understands war. In her book On Photography, Susan Sontag writes: “To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge-and, therefore, like power.” This show of strength was important for the new Italian fascist society, and the camera served as a tool to legitimize the imperialistic ambitions of Benito Mussolini.

“Certain absences are so stressed they arrest us with their intentionality and purpose, like neighborhoods that are defined by the population held away from them. Where is…the shadow of the presence from which the text has fled? Where does it heighten, where does it dislocate?” Toni Morrison, Unspeakable Things Unspoken, 1988

Italy’s colonial past with its fascist legacy is still not part of the national conscience. These absences and omissions, as Morrison wrote, are intentional in negating controversial aspects of Italy’s colonial history and a way of silencing the past. Perhaps the greatest strength of The Shadow King is how it helps us understand the malleability of history and memory. In one country, the history of women in combat was displaced while in another, the memory of a colonial past was suppressed.

The Shadow King also asks questions that are still relevant today to both Ethiopia and Italy in forging a shared memory of the 1935-1941 occupation: How can Italy make amends? – “I’m sorry, he adds, as if that is an apology, as if those are words strong enough to pull the ripped seams of her together and hold her intact.” – How can Ethiopia exorcise the ghosts of a feudal past without forgetting? – “..what is forged into memory tucks itself into bone and muscle. It will always be there and it will follow us to the grave.” – In what language should the two countries come to term with their shared past? – “He is speaking in a halting Italian, a slow Amharic, as if they are both aware that language will never trudge the distance between them.”

There’s so much going on in the pages of The Shadow King. One can read it for the story alone and come away satisfied. But there is such amazing craft on display, from the structure to the symbolisms to the use of music and photographs as a way of bridging the gap between history and storytelling. A small feature that speaks volumes on Mengiste’s eye for detail is in the choice of names for most of her characters. The protagonist, for instance, who was trapped in the feudal system goes by the name ‘Hirut’ which is Amharic for ‘freedom’. Mengiste used the weight of words, the lyricism of music and the shock of photos to write a story that needed to be told. 

There are shadows underneath the surface of history – the stories that have not been told, the songs that have not been sung. Just as Simonides reconstructed a collapsed building from memory, Mengiste retraced this often-overlooked history from collective memory while highlighting the fallacy of it all – that Abyssinian women who were subjugated by their countrymen then brutalized by the ferenjoch, and still went on to bravely fight for their freedom, had their contributions relegated to ‘errant lines in faded documents’. In one powerful war song Mengiste both honoured their memory while charging at the patriarchal structures that revere men’s efforts while erasing the central part women played in this war. In all wars.

“Sing, daughters, of one woman and one thousand, of those multitudes who rushed like wind to free a country from poisonous beasts. Sing, children, of those who came before you, of those who laid the path on which you tread towards warmer suns. Sing, men, of valiant Aster and furious Hirut and their blinding light across a shadowed land.

Sing of those who are no more,

Sing of the giants still amongst you,

Sing of those yet to be born,


Reader, Maaza Mengiste sang her heart out.

Fifi Bat-hef is an independent book reviewer with a bias for literary fiction. You can find her on Goodreads and Instagram @kenyanbibliophile.


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