Likely Stories : The Shadow King, by Maaza Mengiste

May 20, 2021

I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry.

Maaza Mengiste is the author of The Shadow King.  She was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.  She is a Fulbright Scholar and professor with an MFA in the Creative Writing & Literary Translation program at Queens College.  The story is based on the early days of the 1935 invasion ordered by Mussolini against Ethiopia.


I will begin with the prologue.  She writes, “[Hirut does not want to remember but she is here, and memory is gathering bones.  She has come by foot and bus to Addis Abba, across terrain she has chosen to forget for nearly forty years.  She is two days early, but she will wait for him, seated on the ground in this corner of the train station, the metal box on her lap, her back pressed against the wall, rigid as a sentinel” (3-4). 

Hirut Getey is the center of the story.  Maaza continues, “She has watched while a parade of young women, raising fists and rifles, marched past the bus taking her to Bahir Dar.  They stared at her, an ageing woman in her long drab dress, as if they did not know those who came before them.  As if this was the first time a woman has carried a gun. As if the ground beneath their feet and not been won by some of the greatest fighters Ethiopia has ever known” (3-4).  The story is that of brave women who fought amongst their men, however their story has been forgotten--until now.

Maaza writes, “The real emperor of this country is on his farm tilling the tiny plot of land next to hers.  He has never worn a crown and lives alone and has no enemies.  He is a quiet man who once led a nation against a steel beast, and she was his most trusted soldier: the proud guard of the Shadow King. […] We must be heard.  We must be remembered.  We must be known.  We will not rest until we have been mourned.  She opens the box” (6).

Here is an example of Maaza’s prose.  “This is Hirut.  This is her wide-open face and curious gaze.  She has her mother’s high forehead and her father’s curved mouth.  Her bright eyes are wary but calm, catching light in golden prisms.  She leans into the space in front of her, a pretty girl with slender neck and sloping shoulders.  Her expression is guarded, her posture peculiarly stiff, absent the natural elegance that she will not know for many years is hers.  […] It is easy to see the sharp slope of her collarbone, the scarless neck that rises from the V collar of her dress.  It is this picture that will preserve the unmarked expanse of skin that spread across her shoulders and back” (7).

These passages demonstrate the powerful, fluid, and absorbing prose Maaza has written. This novel revives the history of women who fought with their men.  The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste is one story any reader can never forget. 5 Stars!

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and happy reading!