Maaza Mengiste

Acclaimed Ethiopian novelist Maaza Mengiste, the author of “The Shadow King.” 


New novel documents Ethiopia’s female heroines in war against Italians

What you need to know:

  • The Shadow King tells the story how of a determined but ill-equipped Ethiopian army repulsed an attack from the Italians 85 years ago.
  • The novel lifts to the forefront the unassailable power of women’s courage and prowess in conflicts throughout history.

A new novel by the Ethiopian author Maaza Mengiste, titled The Shadow King, captures the valuable contribution of the gallant heroines who were part of the national army that defeated the invading colonial Italian army in Ethiopia 85 years ago.

The protagonist is a young woman called Hirut. One of her only treasured worldly possessions is a rifle she inherited from her father. Now orphaned and working as a servant as Ethiopia prepares for an invasion from Italy, Hirut keeps her weapon close by and recalls how her father taught her to aim and shoot.

An emblem of comfort, power, and independence, Hirut’s rifle is a symbol of her future as an extraordinary soldier. As the battle between Italy and Ethiopia intensifies, Hirut demonstrates integrity, resilience, and determination in the face of brutal treatment and imprisonment.

After the loss of her parents, Hirut has come to live with the beautiful, formidable Aster and her husband Dejazmach Kidane, a former friend of her mother’s. Hirut’s relations with her new guardians are complex.

When news arrives that the Italian army is preparing to invade Ethiopia, Kidane leads an army of soldiers in the resistance.

The rifle was too big for the small crate so Hirut kept it tucked into the pile of straw and blankets that she uses as a mattress. On those nights when she is at her most tired, she sleeps so she can feel the rile by her side and pretend it is her mother’s arm. 

Aster comes across Hirut’s gun when she is searching for her missing necklace in the servants’ room. After the Emperor Haile Selassie declares that all weapons become property of the Ethiopian soldiers, Kidane and Aster seize Hirut’s prized rifle.

True emperor of Ethiopia

The rifle, a Wujigra, has five grooves in the barrel, marks that Hirut’s father said helped him count the Italians he killed.

There is one bullet left for the Wujigra. Her father made her promise to keep the two separate until she was in real danger. “…my child, you hold it like I’ve taught you and you aim it at the heart like I’ve shown you and you must fear nothing except leaving your enemy alive,” he said to her.

Kidane informs Hirut that he needs to keep the gun because war is coming. “…We’re going to war and we need all the weapons we can get.” he tells her.

“My father gave it to me. He said to always keep it near me,” Hirut, who is not keen to surrender her weapon, says.

“If we don’t gather every weapon in this country, we’ll lose before the war begins,” Kidane says.

“…The emperor himself told everyone to contribute their weapons. He said it himself, on the radio. We all have to do it. Even your father would do it if he were alive.”

On October 3, 1935, the Italian commander Emilio De Bono enters Ethiopia with his soldiers by crossing the Gash River. There are reports of planes dropping leaflets telling Emperor Selassie’s people to rebel against him. The leaflets say that his cousin, Iyasu, is the true emperor of Ethiopia.

Women fighting on the frontline

On top of heavy artillery the Italian planes are dropping bombs and mustard gas. They are targeting civilians.

Selassie orders his army to let the enemy in so the world can see which country is the aggressor.

Selassie’s wife, Empress Menen, addresses the nation on radio calling on the women to take action against the aggressors.

Aster’s pleas to Kidane to let the women fight on the frontline fall on deaf ears as he insists that women will only ferry supplies, cook, care for the wounded, and bury the dead.

Aster is determined to go on the frontline and she tells one of the women simply known as the cook thus: “We women won’t sit by while they (Italians) march into our homes…”

Against the might of an Italian army equipped with more advanced artillery, Kidane’s army boasts a powerful drive and superior knowledge of the land. Hirut begins to make crucial decisions and devises a plan to be certain that hope among their army sustains.

“She has always understood the shifting terrains of truth. She knows that it is belief that makes a thing so,” writes Mengiste in her novel that was shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize.

Shadow King's trusted guard

Kidane’s army registers successes abut also suffers devastating losses near Debark. Selassie leaves for England and his order to Kidane is to settle his camp permanently in the mountains surrounding Debark. He is to help protect this territory while the emperor gathers weapons and assistance from abroad.

Each finely drawn, emotionally complex character in The Shadow King must navigate the conflicts and blurred lines between political duty and personal responsibility. Col Carlo Fucelli, head of the Italian army, leads his soldiers with paternalism and bravado but cannot bring himself to admit how much he depends on the care and tenderness of Fifi, the Ethiopian woman whom he loves. Fifi and the cook come to live with Fucelli in his camp.

No one has discovered that Ferres is the stunningly beautiful woman named Fifi; once known as Faven. She spies on the Italians and sends messages to the Ethiopian army. Ferres provides special services for only the richest Italian army officers at astonishing price.

Minim is a young musician who plays the krar, a five-or six-stringed bowl-shaped lyre. Minim, a slightly built modest peasant farmer looks like Emperor Selassie. With Selassie abroad, Kidane asks Minim to become the Shadow King, hence the title of the book, to boost the morale of the soldiers.

Hirut helps disguise Minim, who acts, dresses and rides a horse like Emperor Selassie. Hirut herself becomes the trusted guard of this Shadow King. She is dressed as a Kebur Zebegna, a member of the emperor’s elite army. A rifle Aklilu took from an Italian is on her back.

Fucelli constructs a new prison in the cliffs of Debark. Known as the Butcher of Benghazi, Fucelli is killing captured Ethiopians by throwing them off the cliffs of mountains.

The Ethiopians are scared of burials. They are burying their dead at night without ceremonies because Churches have become easy targets for the Italian planes. Cemeteries are also deliberately bombed. Priests are arrested for praying over fresh graves. The priests are thrown over the cliff.

Fifi and the cook keep a ledger with names of the dead that they will read out when the war ends.

Throughout the epic, elegiac The Shadow King, interwoven with Hirut’s journey are the moving stories, fraught memories, and hard-won battles of other soldiers, both Ethiopian and Italian.

Alongside Hirut, the magnificent Aster fights for her own rightful place in the army, teaching the women how to make gunpowder and refusing to be undermined by Kidane.

As Kidane’s army prepares to surround the Italians, the Shadow King and his female guard step forward onto that highest mountain peak and gaze below. The army looks up and grows silent, awed by the presence of Emperor Haile Selassie.

The army looks toward Hirut, their new image of mother Ethiopia, the one who represents all the women who have survived the war to raise their guns and fight or rush onto the battlefield to carry the wounded.

Hirut jumps into the line of gunfire and swerves around it. She smells the tang of spilled blood and the suffocating aroma of new flowers. She spins in the chaos, pushed by instinct, guided by something else not her own.

Hirut is captured by the Italians. Aster is also arrested and undressed. They are both imprisoned in a single-roomed jail. The seminude photographs of Hirut and Aster are developed. They are made into postcards and passed out to Fucelli’s men. They are sent to newspapers. The photographs of the women are distributed to shops in Asmara and Addis Ababa, in Rome and Calabria, in officer’s clubs in Tripoli and Cairo. 

Influence of women warriors

After receiving the message from Ferres to attack, Kidane orders his army to ambush the Italian camp. Hirut and Aster help the ambushing Ethiopians in the attack. Seifu grasps Fucelli’s head and arches his neck. Kidane is wounded and dies thereafter. Hirut says a prayer over Fucelli, asks God to damn him to eternal fire.

The Shadow King is a gripping, exhilarating depiction of female warriors. As she grew up, author Maaza Mengiste heard stories about the Second Italo-Ethiopian War and imagined heroic battles fought by brave men. But the reality of those stories was even more moving and extraordinary. After researching the war on a Fulbright fellowship in Italy, Mengiste learned that her own great-grandmother had fought in that battle.

Like Hirut, Mengiste’s great-grandmother was at first denied her rightful access to a gun and forbidden from fighting. But after successfully suing for access to her father’s gun, Mengiste’s great-grandmother enlisted in the army and proudly demonstrated her patriotism in war.

An epic, elegiac novel about the majesty and influence of women warriors during the Second Italo-Ethiopian War, The Shadow King lifts to the forefront the unassailable power of women’s courage and prowess in conflicts throughout history.

“The story of war has always been a masculine story,” writes Mengiste, but this version of the story has never been the reality.

The 448-page novel that was published by W. W. Norton and Company in 2019 is divided into three sections: invasion, resistance and returns. With gorgeous, lyrical language, a heroic protagonist, and a panoramic historical story wrought with sympathy for the characters on both sides, The Shadow King is an extraordinary second novel of uncommon scope, emotion, and power.

A spectacular work of literature tracing the chaos of war and the complexity of human relationships, The Shadow King reminds readers, above everything else: “Women have been there, and we are here now.” 


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