“Everything we know about war, we know with ‘a man’s voice’,” wrote Belarusian journalist and Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich.
Time and again, official archives record the ‘his-stories’ of war as the only stories, leaving women as “errant lines in faded documents”. If we were to ask, “What were women doing during this or that war?”, we would likely be left with accounts that either reduce them to the fetishised female warrior, or cut them down to size to fit the neat and narrow categories of “mothers, monsters, whores”*. In the Greek tragedies, women were the causes or trophies of conflict. In more recent times, they appear as refugees or the casualties of war.
Maaza Mengiste’s Booker-nominated novel, The Shadow King, excavates the stories that lie outside these recorded archives. Mengiste, who is a novelist, essayist, and filmmaker, brings to light the missing ‘her’stories of war: stories that were recounted only in the kitchens and drawing rooms when women got together to relive old memories, and never made their way into the official archives. Set during Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, The Shadow King is interested not so much in the tales of heroism — though there are those as well — but in the “small great human beings” caught in the midst of the Second Italo-Ethiopian war. Its primary subjects are Ethiopian women, the multiple battlefields they traversed, and how their stories were told and passed down.
With official archives falling short, Maaza Mengiste finds the answers in oral narratives and forgotten objects: letters, diaries, and photographs. Her book is a work of fiction but rooted in the accounts of war she grew up hearing as well as those she chanced upon years later. One of her most propitious discoveries is about her great grandmother Getey who went to court to claim the right to inherit her father’s gun, and enlisted and fought in the 1935 war.
Inspired by the stories of Getey and other warring women of Ethiopia, The Shadow King writes them back into existence. This sprawling narrative—written in the form of a ballad, punctuated by choruses and interludes—moves back and forth in time and between characters. Mengiste brings these women to life, giving each of them a rich backstory. Hirut is the young orphaned girl, who at the start of the novel, is struggling to settle into her life as a maid in the household of Kidane and Aster. By the end, she is a soldier and a brave guard of the Shadow King. Aster is Hirut’s violent and abusive mistress and Kidane’s wife who is grieving her infant son. She fights for the right to take up arms during the invasion and exhorts the women of Ethiopia to do the same, eventually leading them into battle. Ferres aka Fifi aka Faven is a highly literate woman, a prostitute employed by the Italian Colonel Carlo Fucelli, and a spy of the Ethiopian army. Aster and Kidane’s cook, who remains unnamed, is a Madame Defarge-like figure who serves as the voice of conscience throughout the novel.
Women’s Bodies as Battlefields
The story of Maaza Mengiste’s book centres them but unfolds through multiple perspectives. We enter the minds of Kidane who leads the Ethiopian army into battle, the Jewish-Italian army photographer Ettore Navarra who is forced to document its horrific atrocities, the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie who deserts his army during the war, and the ruthless Colonel Fucell who leads the Italian charge. But it is Hirut, Aster, and the cook who shoulder the narrative. By focusing on their stories, the author not only memorialises the role of women in this war, but also points to the ways in which the woman’s body itself is a battlefield, subjected to a continuum of violence that dissolves the boundaries between peacetime and war. The irony of women’s role in war, Mengiste suggests, is that they are always already at war — with the men who attempt to control them, the nation that enjoins them to remain chaste and pure, and institutions that lay down the boundaries within which their lives are to be lived.
For Hirut and Aster, Ferres and the cook, the violence of war extends to the camp, to where they sleep, to how freely they sleep, and how undisturbed their bodies are before and after the war. Hirut is raped by Kidane multiple times in the military camp. The war is just one among many battlefields she inhabits. While Kidane fights to free Ethiopia from the Italians, Hirut also fights Kidane’s endless power over her.
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When Hirut is captured and thrown into an Italian prison alongside Aster, she spends her days staring straight ahead, ignoring the taunts of the Italian guards in order to prove her worth as a soldier. They bear the double burden of being both soldiers and vigilant protectors of their bodies. As Maaza Mengiste puts it, “trapped inside a barbed-wire fence, […] she is still at war and the battlefield is her own body, and perhaps […] that is where it has always been”. In the enemy camp, Hirut and Aster’s bodies become markers for territorial capture, “stripped of context…folded flesh to be forced apart and used and disposed of at will.”
When, in a flashback, Aster lies on her marital bed, aware that she will be raped by her husband, the chorus tells her, “There is no way out but through it. There’s no escape but what you make from the inside.” Later, when Colonel Fucelli is galvanising his men for battle, he tells them, “There is no way but through. There’s no escape but forward.” The advice given to a young girl about to be raped is the same as the battle cry of a brutal colonialist commander. Here and elsewhere, Maaza Mengiste weaves striking parallels between the invasion of a land and its people and the relentless repression of women’s bodies.
In restoring the her-stories of war, Maaza Mengiste stood the risk of collapsing the differences between women in the feudal Ethiopia of the 1930s, deeply divided by class. But it is a risk she skirts skillfully. The women who inhabit her novel are laid out in all their contradictions, vested with varying degrees of power and precarity.
The contrasting worlds of Aster who is born into nobility, and Hirut and the cook whose combined possessions fit into a small box of a room in the servants’ quarters, are made clear from the very start. Aster shares an uneasy — often exploitative — alliance with them both. During the war, Hirut and Aster are fellow warriors, prisoners, and survivors, but Hirut also carries the lasting scars of Aster’s brutal whipping, inflicted in a fit of jealous rage. It is Aster who discovers Hirut’s rifle — her father’s Wujigra — the only thing the remains of her dead parents, and prods Kidane to confiscate it. But it is also Aster who helps Hirut’s parents flee to safety.
When the cook is punished for trying to help the desperate young Aster escape her marital home, she is the only one who can stop it. Aster pleads with her father unsuccessfully, but also uses the violence inflicted on the cook’s body to teach herself about “the breaking point of a woman’s will” and “the price of rebellion”. Yet, there is reciprocal tenderness between the two women. These uneasy alliances persist between “girls with scars” and “those who make those scars” in Maaza Mengiste’s book, lingering long after the visible wounds have disappeared.
What Maaza Mengiste has given us in this novel is a modern-day war ballad that restores the forgotten stories of women from the shadows of Ethiopia’s history. The women she writes of have always been fighters, during peacetime and war, whether they liked it or not. They know that “the only way forward is through” and so they do what they must to survive. In recorded archives, their survival stories, if they exist at all, are rarely more than “errant lines”. In The Shadow King, they step outside these lines to take centrestage.
*Taken from the title of Laura Sjoberg’s 2007 book, ‘Mothers, Monsters, Whores: Women’s Violence in Global Politics’.
Sohel Sarkar is a freelance journalist and editor, and a feminist researcher-writer. She writes about gender and sexuality, gender and technology, and popular culture, and has words at Color Bloq, Himal Southasian, Stylist, and Mental Floss among others. She can be found on Twitter and Instagram.
Featured image source: NPR.org