Mengiste, newly appointed Guggenheim Fellow, encourages risk-taking

Maaza Mengiste, Professor of English Studies, is the recipient of a 2020 Guggenheim Fellowship.

Maaza Mengiste, a professor of English, has found that sometimes the scariest thing a writer can do is start over. It’s a hard-earned lesson that she learned herself, but an important one that she passes on to her students.

Mengiste believes the benefits of starting over are immeasurable. It can be a time when ideas merge and, perhaps more importantly, experimentation begins. When she asked her students to start over, “they just looked at me in horror,” she said. But eventually “they would come back with these spectacular lyrics. It was hard to convince them at times, but they often started towards the end of the semester,” she said.

Learning to take risks, Mengiste learned the hard way. Over a period of five years she wrote a complete draft of a novel about the Second Italo-Ethiopian War. In the end she made the decision that it wasn’t the book she wanted to write. “It wasn’t the story I had in mind,” Mengiste said. Much to the chagrin of her editor and agent, she threw it aside and started over. “I started to detach myself from my research to ask myself what really interests me about the subject of war? What I’m really interested in is how memory works,” she said.

A decade after she began writing the epic story of a young woman defending her homeland in Ethiopia, Mengiste’s 2019 novel The Shadow King helped her win a prestigious Guggenheim fellowship. The award was announced in early April. “This novel made me feel pity and fear and gave me goosebumps more times than was reasonable,” Namwali Serpell said in her New York Times review of the novel.

She is currently working on her next project, which examines the relationship between German Expressionist painters and their black counterparts in the 1920s-1940s and what happened to them when the Nazis came to power.

Mengiste didn’t think so The Shadow King would get the reception it had, including being nominated for the 2020 Booker Prize appreciate my work and with whom I would like to talk,” said Mengiste.

While working on the book, Mengiste shared her difficulties with her students. You knew when she was experimenting and working through her revisions. She shared work that inspired her and ideas she wanted to try. She has created right alongside them, demonstrating that a creative life is ever-changing and that one idea or misstep can fuel the next moment of inspiration.

“I have learned that it just takes time for me to go into risky territory. I can’t move to a new apartment right away. I have to do it gradually. I keep pushing and trying something and eventually something starts to come off,” Mengiste said.

When writing, she often asks what else can I do with this moment? How can I push it? It is an exciting process, said Mengiste, and one that can be full of joy despite the enormous difficulties. “I think as writers we should always be serious and always wear the tweed jacket in a dark room, but there should be joy. You will be able to feel in the sentences that there is a different kind of energy underneath the words. That comes from the author,” she said.

There were days when joy was hard to find – she said she experienced instances of genuine despondency during the trial. Over time and the new form of The Shadow King began to take shape, Mengiste began to feel different. She began to say publicly in interviews that she was not afraid of failure. She might have used the press as an outlet, but those words were addressed to herself. “I wanted to validate for myself and confirm that this was about nothing other than writing the story. You must push yourself to the abyss. That’s the only way you can grow,” said Mengiste.

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