History In the Footnotes: Leila Aboulela and Maaza Mengiste

In conversation with Bhakti Shringarpure

Icon of a placeSkram

Icon of an id badge

Organised byLitteraturhuset

Icon of a ticket120 / 70

Portrett av Leila Aboulela og Maaa Mengiste, og en illustrasjon av et afrikansk kart
Foto: Rania Rustom og Nina Subion

History is written by the victorious. But do we not also need to hear the story from the other side, from ordinary people caught in the middle of historical upheavals, forced to pick a side, or just try to survive? To those relegated to the footnotes in the history books, or not mentioned at all.

This can be said to be the starting point for the novels of Sudanese-Scottish Leila Aboulela and Ethiopian-American Maaza Mengiste, both writing about historical events in their home countries.

The backdrop in Aboulela’s new novel River Spirit is the dramatic time in the Sudan’s history in the late 19th century. In the span of just a few years, the country underwent several occupations, as well as a bloody revolution led by a man claiming to be al-Mahdi (the Islamic Messiah). Through a multitude of voices from different sides of the conflicts, and with the young orphaned girl Akuany as a turning point, Aboulela leads us through a central historical time in the Sudan.

A young, poor woman is also central in Maaza Mengiste’s The Shadow King, telling the story of 1935 Ethiopia invaded by Mussolini’s Italy. Told from as different perspectives as Ethiopia’s emperor Haile Selassie, the Italian soldier Ettore and the servant girl Hirut, the novel offers a complex picture of the events. Mengiste has emphasized that she was particularly interested in exploring women’s role in the resistance movement.

Mengiste was born in Ethiopia, and is currently living in the United States. She has explored Ethiopia’s recent history in both her critically acclaimed novels Beneath the Lion’s Gaze and The Shadow King, with the latter shortlisted for the prestigious Booker Prize. Mengiste has also made her mark as a photographer and an essayist.

Aboulela was born in the Sudan, today she lives in Scottland. She has published a number of award winning novels, short story collections and plays. River Spirit is the first novel in a planned series exploring Scotland’s role in the British colonization of the Sudan.

At the House of Literature, Aboulela and Mengiste meet writer and creative director of the Radical Books Collective, Bhakti Shringarpure, for a conversation about writing historical fiction, and about foregrounding the stories of women and ordinary people within big historical events.

The event will be in English.

Sign up for our newsletter

Sign up for our weekly newsletter – and get exciting news and events in your inbox every week!