By Mikael Awake
Maaza MengisteÃ‚Â and I met six years ago. We were both in the audience of a literary reading called Ã¢â‚¬Å“The World Through the Eyes of Writers.Ã¢â‚¬Â In hindsight, the title of the reading seems fitting because thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢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 IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m sure mine did. I wasnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢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,Ã‚Â Beneath the LionÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Gaze, tells the story of everyday Ethiopians surviving the overthrow of the empire and the ensuing dark years of violence under Colonel Mengistu HailemariamÃ¢â‚¬â„¢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 girlsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ education. Along withÃ‚Â eight other global writers, Edwidge Danticat (Haiti) and Aminatta Forna (Sierra Leone) among them, she contributed a segment for Academy-Award-nominated director Richard RobbinsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s documentaryÃ‚Â Girl Rising. The film is part of a larger Ã¢â‚¬Å“global action campaignÃ¢â‚¬Â calledÃ‚Â 10Ãƒâ€”10, which seeks Ã¢â‚¬Å“to deliver a simple, critical truth: Educate Girls and you will Change the World.Ã¢â‚¬Â 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 MaazaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢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