A Novel Brings Ethiopia’s Women Warriors Out of the Shadows


The 1935 war between Italy and Ethiopia is considered by some to be the first real conflict of World War II. Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia also yielded innumerable tales about Ethiopians who stood up to fight a European power. Queens College Professor Maaza Mengiste, a native Ethiopian who grew up hearing those stories, thought there had to be more to them.

“If there were stories of courage, then surely there had to be stories of deep fear or resentment or confusion,” she told CUNY’s Book Beat podcast. “I started realizing that the stories I grew up with didn’t make a book. The stories that really make a book are the stories that are really human, meaning all of our complex emotions.”

Mengiste’s new novel, The Shadow King, follows the Ethiopian women warriors who fought the Italian army. The book pays tribute to their contributions and efforts, which have long been relegated to the “shadows” of Ethiopia’s history. 

The Shadow King predominantly focuses on Hirut, an orphaned servant girl who works for Kidane, an officer in Emperor Haile Selassie’s army, and his wife Aster. Things take a dramatic turn after Kidane begins mounting his own defense against the Italians. Aster refuses to stand by the sidelines and joins the effort by training local women, while Hirut rises to become a powerful soldier.

Their stories are not without sorrow—both physical and emotional. Kidane brutally sexually assaults Hirut after she joins his ranks, and she and Aster are later captured by the monstrous Colonel Fucelli. Blending history and fiction, The Shadow King has been described as an epic, and it carries the designation well.

Mengiste weaves together a myriad of voices to narrate this complex story. Her portrayal of Hirut’s experience as a woman soldier stands out especially. In a beautiful scene that captures the women’s joy to be part of the fight, Mengiste writes, “Hirut loses herself in the group, dancing and cheering and singing beneath the thick beam of light filtering through the trees. This is where all the light in the world has settled, she thinks. This is where it has been while she was struggling in such darkness.”

It took Mengiste nearly a decade to finish the novel. But her efforts, which included traveling to Italy and becoming fluent in Italian, have paid off. Not only does The Shadow King shine a light on an overlooked chapter of history, but it’s also received glowing reviews from The New York Times and blurbs from prominent authors such as Salman Rushdie, who described the book as a “brilliant novel, lyrically lifting history towards myth.” In 2020, the book was short-listed for the Booker Prizes

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The Shadow King
W.W. Norton, 2019

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Maaza Mengiste (Assistant Director, Creative Writing and Literary Translation, English) | Profile 1

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Queens College