Maaza Mengiste

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Fiction gives me the right to do it.

Maaza Mengiste (born 1974) is an Ethiopian-American author.


  • Part of my concern in this book was to center the story on people who are often not written about in history—the farmers, the peasants, the servants who don’t have the social standing to make them newsworthy—because the stories that get remembered are so often about people who are already famous or noteworthy.
  • Some of my favorite writers are those who break form. I wanted to see if I could do that under their tutelage. I’m really proud of being able to combine the stories of the Ethiopians and the Italians, to force questions about both of them, about loyalty, about racism, about being subjugated by the very people who should be protecting you. These were the questions I wanted to bring forward.
  • I write fiction that revolves around archival research and historical events. What I search for in documented history: what happened, is not necessarily what I seek when I write it down: what was it like, and what was left out. I go back to something Breyten Breytenbach once told me, that fiction tells a truth that history cannot. I lean into fictive truths.
  • Fiction gives me the right to do it. It's not an autobiography. I did have the right to tell this story. My position is that you write from the place that you are, and it's not a detriment, and it's not something that undermines any kind of authenticity. I had to understand very early on that I'm writing this book as an American, with very, very strong ties to Ethiopia—and a deep love, my family is there—but ultimately, I am writing it with an American way of looking at things. That doesn't mean that the story is not authentic. Or then you have to question what "authentic" means…

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