If I had to stack Beneath the Lion’s Gaze on a shelf, I’d put it in the “historical fiction” category. The Ethiopian-American writer Maaza Mengiste’s first novel is more about history than story, more about facts than poetry, more about politics than love. In a recent interview on World Literature Today, Mengiste confessed that she intended to write a detached nonfiction account of Ethiopia’s Derg regime, but instead discovered that informing audiences of this gruesome era through one family’s story was much more powerful and true.
I met Mengiste at the Jaipur Literature Festival in January. Mengiste was a strong and wise voice throughout several sessions, including a panel on African women writers. I remember Mengiste and other women on the panel pushing back against the label “African.” Why must you label us as African writers, instead of just writers? The women claimed. Rising diaspora voices like Mengiste offer literary insight into diverse places and people. With feet in the States and their homelands, such writers have the unique opportunity to tell a particular, localized story in a language that is accessed around the world.
Mengiste’s story is about an Addis Ababa doctor named Hailu, and his extended family’s encounters with the communist Derg regime that seized rule from Ethiopia’s kingly monarchy which ended with the reign of Haille Sellasie. One of Hailu’s sons Dawit is a rebel who fights the Derg. Another, Yonas, is a mid-aged father trying to guard his family from the political forces in the city. These characters are just a trumpet for history to flow, and Mengiste crafts them as such.
The scene in which Yonas searches for Dawit’s body at the coroner’s office, and is warned that, should the body be found, Yonas must pay 125 birr for the bullet that killed his brother, powerfully breathes life into modern myth regarding Ethiopia’s former government. I have heard from so many Ethiopians on so many accounts that the Derg was so bloody and ruthless, they forced victims to pay for their own bullets. This scene, where Mengiste writes modern myth into a fictional, believable story, is one of the novel’s most moving passages.
Unfortunately, I found Beneath the Lion’s Gaze out of touch with lower- to middle- class Ethiopians. Since Hailu is a doctor in the highly stratified post-WWII Addis Ababa, he and those in his family travel by their personal Volkswagon, live in a large house with separate bedrooms for each child, and eat meat often in the novel. As a volunteer in rural Ethiopia with good friends in Addis, I find this setup highly unbelievable for most Ethiopians at the time.
Furthermore, Megiste’s American perspective is evident in the ways she describes various elements of Ethiopian life. For example, in one scene Yonas leaves work early to tuck his daughter, Tizzie, into bed, and to pray with her before she sleeps. However, most Orthodox Christians I know understand prayer to be much more corporate and universal than the personalized practices of us in the West; i.e. for many Orthodox believers prayer is repeating the same phrases at the beginning of every meal and crossing one’s body out of reverence for God.
It was difficult for me to finish Beneath the Lion’s Gaze. I wanted to hear a story that better sympathized with both the rebels and the fighters during this difficult time in Ethiopian history. Mengiste’s to the point prose told this complex story clearly, but it left very little room for humanness to grow. Though the external arc of the story expertly wove together history and place, the internal emotional arc left me feeling empty.
Beneath the Lion’s Gaze should be a must-read for any travelers coming to Ethiopia, Cold War historians, or African enthusiasts. As one of the only internationally published Ethiopian writers, Mengiste’s upcoming novel on Ethiopia’s Italian occupation promises an informing experience similar to Beneath the Lion’s Gaze. Camille Gibb’s Sweetness in the Belly is still my favorite novel set in Ethiopia. Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone and Beneath the Lion’s Gaze are waitlisted contenders.