Maaza Mengiste recently got an e-mail from an Ethiopian who wrote, "You're the first female Ethiopian novelist I ever heard of."
Mengiste, author of the impressive debut novel "Beneath the Lion's Gaze," wasn't surprised, but hopes she won't be the last. She is one of several women African memoirists and fiction writers gaining serious literary attention in the West. Others include Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani of Nigeria ("I Do Not Come to You by Chance") and Aminatta Forna of Sierra Leone ("The Devil That Danced on the Water").
Mengiste's book opens in 1974, just before revolution tears Ethiopia apart. She writes from several different viewpoints, including that of a prominent doctor, his two sons (one an underground activist), and even exiled leader Haile Selassie.
"At first I tried to tell the story from one person's perspective, and found that too limited," she said. "My main point was to convey the essence of that time, the fear and chaos."
She got the idea for the book several years ago after reading a gripping newspaper account about the Dirty Wars in Argentina. "A lot of what happened there also happened in Ethiopia," she said. "I felt like there was a way to tell this grim -- on a grand scale -- story, to humanize the tragedy, even though it's so hard to fathom."
Mengiste, who now lives in Brooklyn, was a baby at the time of the novel's events, and her family moved from Addis Ababa to Colorado when she was 7. A recent full-page New York Times review called the book a bold move for an author of Mengiste's relative youth to tackle, especially writing some parts of it in the voice of Selassie. So far, she said she hasn't received any negative reaction from older Ethiopians.
"We'll see what happens when more people read the book," she said. "[Selassie] symbolizes so much historically, there's an aura around him still. I just tried to imagine what it's like to be 82 and isolated from family and friends."