Mengiste, newly named Guggenheim Fellow, encourages risk-taking

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

Maaza Mengiste, an English teacher, discovered that sometimes the scariest thing a writer can do is start over. It’s a hard-earned lesson she had to experience herself, but a vital lesson she passes on to her students.

Mengiste believes the benefits of a fresh start are immeasurable. This can be a time when ideas coalesce and, perhaps more importantly, experimentation begins. When she asked her students to do it again, “they looked at me in pure terror,” she said. But eventually “they came back with these spectacular writings. It was sometimes difficult to convince them, but towards the end of the semester, they often started to do it,” she said.

Learning to take risks was something Mengiste learned the hard way. Over a period of five years, she wrote an entire draft of a novel about the Second Italo-Ethiopian War. In the end, she decided this wasn’t the book she wanted to write. “It wasn’t the story I imagined,” Mengiste said. Much to the chagrin of her publisher and agent, she shelved it and started over. “I started to move away from the research I had done to ask myself, what really interests me in the subject of war? What really interests me is how memory works,” she said.

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

She is currently working on her next project, which explores the relationship between German Expressionist painters and their black role models from the 1920s to the 1940s and what happened to them when the Nazis came to power.

Mengiste didn’t believe it The King of Shadows would get the reception it has received, including being shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize. what I did and that I would like to be in conversation with them,” Mengiste said.

While working on the book, Mengiste shared her struggles with her students. They knew when she was experimenting and working on her revisions. She talked about the work that inspired her and the ideas she wanted to try. She created alongside them, demonstrating that a creative life is constantly evolving and that one idea or misstep can fuel the next moment of inspiration.

“I learned that being in risky territory for me just takes time. I can’t move into a new space right away. I have to do it in stages. I keep pushing and trying something and eventually something starts to break free,” Mengiste said.

She will often ask as she writes, what else can I do with this moment? How can I push it? It’s an exciting process, Mengiste said, and one that can be filled with joy despite the enormous difficulty. “I think as writers we’re supposed to always be serious, always wear the tweed jacket in a dark room, but there should be joy in it. You will be able to feel in the sentences that there is another kind of energy under the words. It comes from the writer,” she said.

There were days when joy was hard to come by – she said she experienced instances of sincere discouragement in the process. Over time and the new form of The King of Shadows was starting to take shape, Mengiste was starting to feel different. She started saying publicly in interviews that she was not afraid to fail. She might have used the press as an outlet, but those words were for herself. “I wanted to affirm and confirm for myself that it was nothing more than writing history. You have to push yourself to the precipice. It’s the only way to grow,” Mengiste said.

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