The highly anticipated Addis Ababa Noir looks at the many faces of Addis through the lens of some of the most talented writers from Ethiopia. Published by Akashic books as part of a series exploring the dark underbelly of cities around the world, Addis Ababa Noir was edited by Maaza Mengiste and includes 14 short stories. The book is not currently available in book stores in Addis but online sales are possible.
MaazaMengiste’s newest novel The Shadow King was published in 2019 to wide praise and is currently shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Set during Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia, The Shadow King revolves around women joining the resistance to fight Mussolini’s forces. Her first novel, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, told the story of a family forced to contemplate the price of freedom and revolution amidst the violence of the Red Terror.
A number of stories in Addis Ababa Noir are set in the Derg era. The period is often shrouded in silence. Personal accounts of violence and tragedy are left unaddressed. Stories written by children of the Derg era are not very common and this anthology may be the best place to find several.
Maaza Mengiste’s Dust, Ash, Flight connects brutal dictatorships across the world as Argentinian specialists come to Ethiopia to locate and identify the remains of prisoners killed by the Derg. The narrative shifts between the researcher, the photographer who took final portraits of prisoners in Argentina before being killed, and Gedion, a singer who performed at the funerals of Derg’s enemies. Loss clings to these characters as some wonder about their personal complicity and causing others grief. Others choose desperate hope over the devastating certainty of loss. Maaza describes Ethiopia as a ‘country full of people still waiting to properly mourn their dead’. This sentiment is shared in other stories in this anthology.
Violence and death tinge these stories as characters are haunted by what they experienced many years ago and in different places. In Rebecca Fisseha’s The Ostrich, the main character is haunted by the violence of the Derg she witnessed as a child. Ghosts follow her across an ocean and lead her to revisit Ethiopia and trace the origins of her trauma several years later.
Meron Hadero’s A Kind Stranger is an uncomfortable tale of a man imparting the story of his betrayal of a woman he loved because she denied him her affection. Each sentence is ripe with emotion, forcing the reader to waver between shock and derision, feeling the urge to judge but unwilling to.
In Agony of the Congested Heart by Teferi Negussie Tafa, a man’s quest for freedom and equality for Oromia is hijacked by the militant Derg. Although the story is told in a bland style, its relevance to the darker nature of the country’s history is paramount.
The dark and sinister parts of Addis teeming with life but hidden from plain view are brought to light in this collection. In Michael Awake’s Father Bread, legends of men transforming into hyenas come to life. In A Night in Bela Sefer by Sulaiman Addonia, sexual taboo and repression are explored as a circumcision takes place. “We are a land of laughter and preaching except when it comes to sex and politics,” the main character says. Addonia is the acclaimed author of Silence is My Mother Tongue, a poignant novel about immigrants displaced due to the Ethio-Eritrea war set in a refugee camp in Sudan, as well as The Consequences of Love.
In classic noir style, crime is a significant part of this anthology. Hannah Giorgis’s A Double-Edged Inheritance is a tale of vengeance and retribution. Linda Yohannes tells the story of a house maid stealing from her boss in Kebele ID. The relationship between employer and employee that reside in the same house is fraught in power imbalance. Solomon Hailemariam’s None of Your Business is a succinct tale of police violence against the backdrop of the rule of law.
Ghosts, murder plots, adultery and madness descend in a selection of these stories. In Girma T. Fanaye’s Of the Poet and the Cafe, a man finds himself erased from memory, evidence of his life gone. In The Blue Shadow Mahtem Shiferraw tells the story of ghosts and murder. LelissaGirma’s Insomnia follows the protagonist’s sleepless meandering through Hayahulet and Bole as he approaches death.
Bewketu Seyoum’s Under the Minibus Ceiling is filled with astute observations of the social fabric of Addis with passengers in a taxi serving as the perfect microcosm. In signature humor, in the span of a taxi ride from Arat kilo to Megenagna, Bewketu presents prejudices and posturing, laying bare personalities in absurd and amusing light.
Adam Reta’s surreal Of Buns and Howls revolves around a family and a missing son. “I wanted to establish a vantage point from which I can formulate what an Ethiopian noir can be. And I thought what’s darker than being an immigrant and then disappearing,” explained Adam in a live discussion hosted by Politics and Prose in August.
Addis Ababa Noir is a must-read for anyone curious about the dark side of the city. The beauty and wonder of life in Addis is under scrutiny as closer examination reveals the mysterious and sinister. The impeccable selection of authors and the mastery of style make this anthology an excellent study of what genre fiction can become in the hands of Ethiopians.