Maaza Mengiste learns the need for a desk


Author Maaza Mengiste left Ethiopia when she was about 4 years old.

It was two years after the revolution which brought down Emperor Hailie Selassie, who many Ethiopians believed was a direct descendant of King Solomon.

The Derg, the military junta which rose to power ruled ruthlessly, killing countless people along the way.

Such was the trauma of those days, and the change in her life when she arrived in the USA soon after, Mengiste remembers parts of her life in Ethiopia quite vividly. Those memories stayed with her as she grew older, and eventually she realized she needed to find out more if only to put them in some sort of context.

In time she began to write a novel about those troubled times. She began about five years ago when she was a graduate student. Not having a proper place to write, she set herself up in that great haven of writers everywhere, the local coffee shop.

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"They were great," she laughs, "They used to give me free coffee."

Yet Mengiste soon ran into a problem. As she began writing about the violence which rained down on Ethiopians during and after the revolution she found it hard to handle. Several times she bust into tears as she sat tapping words into her laptop.

"People thought I was crazy," she says. She eventually realized she couldn't keep writing the way she was going, and invested in a desk she could use at home.

This solved the problem of disturbing the coffee drinkers, but it didn't make writing some of the story any easier. Her finished novel, "Beneath the Lion's Gaze" tells the story of a family living through the revolution, and some of the people around them. Several of them have very close encounters with the brutal agents of the new regime.

She says after writing some of those passages she had to set them aside and not get back to them for weeks because she found the stories so traumatic even though they were fiction.

The novel is now out to critical acclaim, and it has been warmly received in the Ethiopian community. She says that has been a humbling experience, but she feels honored that many people who lived through those dark days have greeted her book so warmly.

She says she hopes it comes through as a tribute to the power of the human spirit just to continue in the face of overwhelming horror.

You can hear an interview with Maaza Mengiste this evening on the local segments of All Things Considered, with a reading and a longer excerpt online too