The Most

Woman in the World


Maaza Mengiste

Award-winning author, professor, human rights advocate, polyglot

The Most

Woman in the World

Born in Ethiopia, Maaza Mengiste worked in business consulting, PR, and film before bursting onto the literary scene with her debut novel, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze. An advocate for girls’ education, she contributed to the documentary GIRL RISING and serves on the advisory board of the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights. She teaches creative writing at Queens College and Princeton University, and is finishing her second novel. This is her story.

On Wandering: I was born in Ethiopia. In the mid-’70s, there was a revolution and an authoritarian dictatorship took over. My grandfather had worked in the Emperor’s court, so it wasn’t safe for us to stay. We lived in Nigeria for a while, and then Kenya. When I was seven, my family moved to Colorado. Since then, I’ve lived in Michigan, Los Angeles, Italy, and New York. My first language was Amharic, then English (which I spoke with a British accent when I first arrived in the U.S.), and later Italian.

On Expectations: I went to college thinking I would become a doctor. That’s every Ethiopian parent’s dream for their child. But as soon as I got there, I knew I couldn’t do it. I wanted to focus on reading and writing, but I didn’t know how to tell my parents. I didn’t come from a literary family. We knew engineers and doctors. Those were the practical things you were supposed to do, especially when your parents sacrificed so much to put you through school. When I called to say I was going to be an English major, my dad said, “But you already know English.” They didn’t get it.

On Feeling Lost: Right out of school, I worked as a business consultant, but I was miserable. At night, for my sanity, I would bartend so that I could relax and talk to people not in business suits. I had this kind of double life. After two years, I connected with an advertising firm that needed a copywriter willing to work for free. That’s when my writing career really started, but I was still lost.

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I always wear this gold bracelet that my grandmother gave me when I was 12. I promised her I’d never take it off, and I never have. Sometimes I get in trouble at the airport... I tell them, ‘You can pat me down, but it’s not coming off.’

I started writing screenplays and eventually moved to L.A., where I worked as a writer at a big studio, developing scripts. It was supposed to be my dream job, but I quickly realized, “Oh my gosh, I hate this.” It sounds great, until you realize that the revisions we had to make were based on what would sell, rather than what made for a good story. Sometimes the material began as a really interesting script, but we had to dumb them down: The guy had to get the girl in the end, but she had to resist in the beginning. They were formulaic, and most of the people I worked with were unhappy and mean. I would look at my bosses and think, “I don’t want to become that kind of person.” It was very dog-eat-dog.

It was supposed to be my dream job, but I quickly realized, ‘Oh my gosh, I hate this.’

On Taking a Leap: I was feeling stuck in a job I hated, and I had this idea in my head for a story about Ethiopia and the revolution.​ ​I’d often ask myself whether the risk to leave was worth it​. Eventually​,​ I had ​a mini-epiphany: What was the alternative?​ And I realized that I was already living the alternative. Why not go for it, then? I had never even written a short story, but I applied to graduate school and got into the MFA program at NYU. That’s when I really became a writer. I was teaching full-time, and I was writing every night, every weekend. I still do that. My weekends and most nights are still dedicated to writing. I have to be disciplined about it—it can’t be based on my mood.

On Restlessness: I now understand that​,​ while every human being deserves happiness in the purest sense, we shouldn't ever aim for being content. Contentedness is complacency. We should look at discontentment as a gift from life;​ it is the energy that helps propel us into the next act. Restlessness is something to nurture, not something to turn away from. It leads to ambition and to innovative thinking​,​ and there’s nothing wrong with that, especially for women.

On Triumph: I wrote my book not thinking about whether it would be published, but when I ultimately sold it, that felt like a victory. I was scared to celebrate because I didn’t want to jinx it. But my parents came from Ethiopia, and my family had a big surprise party for me. They blew up the cover of the book and wrote notes on it. Before then, my parents had never talked about what happened in the revolution, but my writing about it gave them an excuse to tell me the stories I’d always wondered about.

Another triumph was when I threw my second book away. I’d been working on it for a number of years, and it wasn’t working, so I got rid of it. I spent a few days feeling like I’d been punched in the gut and staring at a blank screen. But within two weeks, I started writing again. I’m almost done with it now.

On Style: When I’m out and have a speaking engagement, I like a relaxed, elegant look. Nothing too flouncy. The Emily dress is perfect—clean lines but not too conservative. If I’m working from home, I wear the ugliest shapeless frocks. My husband hates it. And I always wear this gold bracelet that my grandmother gave me when I was 12. I promised her I’d never take it off, and I never have. Not once. Sometimes I get in trouble at the airport; I’ve been surrounded by security guards in certain countries. I tell them, “You can pat me down, but it’s not coming off.”

On Purpose and Success: My definition of success has changed. When I first started writing, success meant book sales or how much publicity my book got. Now, it’s really about the work. Success is writing something that creates a conversation or challenges a conversation that’s already happening. I want to complicate my readers’ assumptions about the world, and force them to ask questions they never thought to ask. That, for me, is a breakthrough.

Success is writing something that creates a conversation or challenges a conversation that’s already happening. I want to complicate my readers’ assumptions about the world, and force them to ask questions they never thought to ask. That, for me, is a breakthrough.


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