BookDragon Books for the Diverse Reader

Beneath the Lion’s Gaze by Maaza Mengiste + Author Interview

Maaza MengisteMaaza Mengiste‘s voice, delivered by telephone many thousands of miles away, sounds impossibly young and happy. She’s easy to talk to, easy to laugh with. She’s in Rome for another few months, enjoying the spring sun, sipping another cup of tea in a nearby café, and watching the many American tourists wandering by.

Her idyllic life for the moment seems at odds with her own early past — filled with uncertainty, inexplicable violence, and constant fear. Born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Maaza was just 3 years old when the 1974 Ethiopian revolution broke out, ousting a 3,000-year-old monarchy and replacing it with the brutal Derg regime that destroyed hundreds of thousands of lives before its collapse in 1991. Maaza was too young to understand what was happening, but perceptive enough to retain shattering images of that horrific time that have stayed with her through the years. Decades later, Maaza pieced together those memories to write her award-winning, critically acclaimed debut novel, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, published in early 2010.

At the core of Maaza’s searing work are one family’s hellish experiences during the 1974 revolution. The family’s patriarch — the good doctor Hailu — is a prominent, proud man highly trained to alleviate pain, cure illness, and save the dying. And yet he can do nothing for his beloved wife who lies in a hospital bed, shriveled, exhausted, and ready to pass on. Hailu’s elder son Yonas gravely tries to hold his family together, but is himself helpless when his young daughter becomes seriously ill and his wife Sara is crushed by the fear of potential loss.

Unlike the controlled, watchful Yonas, Hailu’s younger son Dawit is still idealistic, still fueled by a rash temper that once put a fellow student in the hospital when Dawit, too young to understand rape, witnessed that student committing a vicious crime against a family servant. Dawit is devoted to his dying mother, emotionally dependent on his sister-in-law Sara, and in love with a headstrong young woman. He looks on in anguish and disgust as the new regime claims his childhood best friend, who uses complicity as a way to escape his deprived past spent in a mud shack adjacent to the luxury of Hailu’s two-story home.

The revolution shatters the family’s lives: Hailu’s humanity, Yonas’ responsibility, Dawit’s ideals will all be tested. As if working pieces of an intricate puzzle, Maaza presents an epic historical moment too few of us know of, laying the most atrocious acts next to radiantly tender moments and juxtaposing utter cowardice with utmost bravery. The result proves unforgettable.

Based on the strength of that single novel, Maaza was chosen by the 10×10 team to write the Ethiopian chapter of the 10×10 documentary film. Her enthusiasm about the project is palpable, and she admits she is most excited about connecting to the Ethiopian girls. Almost shyly, she reveals her own experiences when, at age 7, she left the comfort of her family to escape the growing danger of remaining in Ethiopia and traveled alone to the United States as a tiny refugee. For over a decade, she grew up in a group home run by a Christian couple in a small town in Colorado: “No one has ever heard of it; it’s on the border with Kansas,” she says. She remained there, living with a revolving group of other refugees, until she graduated high school and left for college.

Maaza softly admits to her isolated youth as “difficult, and I wouldn’t want to wish it on anyone.” She adds, “maybe that’s why I feel so connected to the plight of children.” [… click here for more: author interview appears on pages 5-11]

Author interview: 10×10: Educate Girls, Change the World Book Club Kit, April 2011, pages 5-11

Readers: Adult

Published: 2010



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