Maaza Mengiste was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and left that country when she was four years old, after the communist revolution of 1974 forced Emperor Haile Selassie from power. Her deeply affecting first novel, “Beneath the Lion’s Gaze,’’ is set during that terror-filled era and from the opening page it immerses us in the lives of a doctor and his family as they struggle first to adapt to the brutal Derg regime and then merely to survive it.
Mengiste, who graduated with an master of fine arts degree in creative writing from New York University, spoke from her home in Brooklyn.
Q. What memories do you have of wartime Ethiopia and have you returned?
A. So much of what I wrote was based on memory. I was two or three when some of these things happened, but they do stick in my mind. At four, my family and I went first to Nigeria then to Nairobi but we returned to Ethiopia to visit my grandparents. I still made visits during the rule of the Derg.
Q. What details remain?
A. The general sense of fear that kids pick up. Playing outside and hearing gunshots. There’s a scene in the novel where soldiers break into Hailu’s house and that happened just that way to us; I remember that moment.
Q. In your parents’ house?
A. We were living with my grandparents (the family was structured very much the way it is in the novel). My grandfather had been the equivalent to a US senator or a justice in the emperor’s time, and he was taken in for questioning a few times. Other family members who were taken in for questioning weren’t so lucky.
Q. Did you feel compelled to write this novel?
A. I did, although in some ways I was really frightened to write it. How could I do justice to history and to the pain that people endured? How to tell a story, how to write a book in terms of craft? That was another issue.
Q. When did you start writing?
A. I was living in Los Angeles when I read a magazine article about the anniversary of Argentina’s Dirty War. This story was so similar to what I knew happened in Ethiopia that I realized there was a way to tell such stories and encompass the human tragedy. Later I wrote a short story to get into graduate school, and it became the groundwork for this book. When I turned in the first 11 pages and my professor at NYU, Breyten Breytenbach sensed I was hesitant about it he said, “Sometimes fiction tells us truths that history cannot.’’ That was all I needed.
Q. Did you consult oral histories
A. Yes. One of the first books I read was “Notes from the Hyena’s Belly: an Ethiopian Boyhood’’ by Nega Mezlekia. I went on to read political science and history; I asked questions and listened to people.
Q. Including your own family?
A. That was really difficult because only then did I realize how fresh and how painful those memories are, especially for my mother who lost three brothers. When I started getting my family’s recollections the book was almost done so I went back and made revisions.
Q. Your story revolves around one family. Why?
A. Emotionally the only way I could proceed was by containing the events within this family. But it was very hard. Certain passages in the book when I first wrote them, I couldn’t return to them for at least another year. I stopped writing in cafes, in public, because I would break down.
Q. Why is the doctor such a central character?
A. Initially I was going to tell this story from the perspective of the child, but that meant limiting the story’s perspective. It wasn’t until the book was almost done that my editor pointed out that Hailu was the main character. In a quiet way, he kept creeping in.
Q. Is your portrait of the emperor almost sympathetic?
A. I grew up with a mythical sense of this man, and I was still intimidated by him. I found it difficult even to write his name on my computer. But gradually I started to see him not as an emperor but as an aging leader, and I wanted to convey the complexity of someone who has done so much, who may have outlived his era, but who retains some of the qualities that made people adore him.
Q. Were you tempted to soften some of the harshest realities?
A. I was writing this novel while the wars were going on in Iraq and Afghanistan and I just couldn’t imagine skirting any harshness or reality when these things continue today. But the fact that this fictional family remains together is some consolation.
Q. Is the novel published in Ethiopia?
A. Not yet. I’m hoping it gets there because I’ve heard that the younger generation of Ethiopians don’t know that much about what happened during this era because nobody talks about it. It’s still too painful.
Anna Mundow, a freelance journalist living in Central Massachusetts, is a contributor to the Irish Times. She can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.