Every Saturday we hope to share with you our thoughts on reading and books. We thought that it would be good practice to reflect on our reading lives and our thoughts about reading in general. While on occasion, we would feature a few books in keeping with this, there would be a few posts where we will just write about our thoughts on read-alouds, libraries, reading journals, upcoming literary conferences, books that we are excited about, and just book love miscellany in general.
The book I am sharing below is the reason why we came up with this annual reading theme in the first place – plus, it is a perfect fit for our quarterly reading theme on horror and deliverance in books as well.
The Shadow King (Amazon | Book Depository)
Written by: Maaza Mengiste Publisher: Canongate Books (2020, first published 2019) ISBN: 9780393083569 (ISBN10: 039308356X) Awards: Booker Prize Nominee (2020),Los Angeles Times Book Prize Nominee, Fiction (2019), HWA Gold Crown Nominee, Longlist (2020) Bought a copy of the book. Book photos taken by me.
When I first envisioned this year’s annual theme, I had narratives like this one from Addis Ababa written by Mengiste in mind: the ferocity, the deliberate reshaping of history from the lens of the vanquished, the wresting back of power amidst despair and helplessness.
What I did not realize was the toll it would take on me as a reader. I recognize that I am perceiving this from a privileged position. It is important to point out, however, that the Philippines has been colonized and vanquished by multiple countries as well: Spain, Japan, United States of America. This has inevitably produced a more-insidious-fully-absorbed-and-unchecked-colonial-mentality and the semi-automatic servile positioning of one’s self when compared to another in my generation and the one that came before, and the one before that. Yet, while my ancestors had undoubtedly lived a similar narrative as the one that Mengiste has fearlessly portrayed here, I did not experience these horrors myself, nor have I had the opportunity to have conversations with my grandparents and their grandparents about our subjugation as a people: both imposed through physical violence and the mindf**ery that has kept it in check for generations to come.
Mengiste’s writing is more than just disturbing: it rips open the savagery that has always lived beneath the surface, the gaping wounds that will take perhaps an eternity to fully heal (if at all), and exposes the brutal ugliness that is incessant and prosaic and aching in places you thought were invulnerable, all the while her teeth gnashing – merciless in her portrayal of rape, nakedness, and raw violence that is relentless.
This is not what you would call a pleasant beach read – no ma’am. I tried bringing it with me while I was on vacation early this year with my family in Abu Dhabi – and ended up shelving it for months. I had to read fantasy, feel-good, YA fiction to wash away the aftertaste of cruelty in my mouth. Then when I thought I can handle it yet again, I went back to it, and quickly finished it while I was in the US with my family.
The anger here is seething, begging to be released. There is also contempt for the conquerors and anyone who think themselves superior to other people – through some misguided ideal or lies they tell themselves. I was also particularly struck by the portrayal of gaslighting here and the lies that those in power tell themselves to be able to perhaps live with themselves. See the quote below.
Then there is the nakedness of the emperor held in esteem: a symbol for deliverance or a stooge to enable people to find the courage to sacrifice themselves for what they feel to be a greater good (whatever that means) – and the hollowness of the object of adulation – the cowardice and the vanity, the absence of integrity.
This is a novel that has lacerated my innards and made me reflect on the invisible role played by women in men’s war games. This is a book that will stay with me for a long time to come. I am now on the lookout for Mengiste’s Beneath The Lion’s Gaze (Amazon | Book Depository) – because I welcome stories that will shake the very core of my being, and this book is definitely not for the faint-hearted.
#SurvivalStories2021 Update: 101 out of target 100