One Girl’s Fight to Learn in Ethiopia: An Interview with Writer Maaza Mengiste

Maaza MengisteBy Mikael Awake

Maaza Mengiste and I met six years ago. We were both in the audience of a literary reading called “The World Through the Eyes of Writers.” In hindsight, the title of the reading seems fitting because that’s the first thing I noticed about Maaza, her eyes: as big and bright as the eyes of saints in Coptic art. They gave her away as Ethiopian, as I’m sure mine did. I wasn’t used to seeing other Ethiopians at literary readings. We became friends.

Maaza stands nowadays on the grand stage of African diaspora literature. Her moving debut novel, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, tells the story of everyday Ethiopians surviving the overthrow of the empire and the ensuing dark years of violence under Colonel Mengistu Hailemariam’s dictatorship. The book was a runner-up for the 2011 Dayton Literary Peace Prize, as well as a finalist for a Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize, and an NAACP Image Award.

More recently, Maaza has leant her vision to a new project advancing the cause of girls’ education. Along with eight other global writers, Edwidge Danticat (Haiti) and Aminatta Forna (Sierra Leone) among them, she contributed a segment for Academy-Award-nominated director Richard Robbins’s documentary Girl Rising. The film is part of a larger “global action campaign” called 10×10, which seeks “to deliver a simple, critical truth: Educate Girls and you will Change the World.” For the film, Maaza traveled to Ethiopia to tell the story of Azmera, a teenage girl who refused an arranged marriage to an older man. Meryl Streep narrates the segment. I wanted to learn more about the project and Maaza’s work on it, and since it had been a while since we last spoke, it was also a good excuse to catch up. Read more