A Matter of Place

A conversation with Maaza Mengiste, Wayetu Moore, and Neel Mukherjee

Shaun Randol, Maaza Mengiste, Wayetu Moore, and Neel MukherjeeShaun Randol, Maaza Mengiste, Wayetu Moore, and Neel MukherjeeCredit: Montana Agte-Studier

On September 17 at the Brooklyn Book Festival, I moderated a conversation between Maaza Mengiste (Beneath the Lion's Gaze), Wayetu Moore (She Would Be King), and Neel Mukherjee (A State of Freedom). The panel, titled "A Matter of Place," was designed to explore the role geography plays in storytelling, with an understanding that sometimes the setting plays a role that is equally important to that of the characters.  

Beneath the Lion's Gaze by Maaza MengisteWhat follows is an abridged version of my opening remarks, which set the scene for the engaging conversation. Click here to listen to the conversation featuring these three remarkable writers, including short readings from each of the authors and Q&A from the audience.

Maaza Mengiste's debut novel Beneath the Lion's Gaze is a gripping story of family, love, and friendship set in Addis Ababa at the beginning of the 1974 Ethiopian revolution. It is a story very much rooted in a specific place and time, but the themes transcend culture and history. 

A State of Freedom by Neel MukherjeeNeel Mukherjee's novel A State of Freedom follows multiple narratives through sundry spaces across wonderfully diverse India. The author dares the reader to examine whether the grass on the other side is actually greener, or even grass at all. 

Wayetu Moore's debut novel She Would Be King reimagines Liberia's early years and takes the reader on a journey from the South to Jamaica to a slice of Africa's west coast. 

The common thread between these three novels is the idea of freedom. Broadly speaking, Beneath the Lion's Gaze reveals the terror and heartbreak people endure under the thumb of a devilish and murderous autocratic regime. A State of Freedom shows what happens when individuals in one place crave, envy, and sometimes achieve a different life. She Would Be King explores people breaking the bonds of slavery through the powers of magic.

She Would Be King by Wayetu MooreThe freedom of a person, place, or spirit may be a shared theme, but these three novels are distinctly rooted in a "place" as we generally conceive of it -- that is, geographical: Ethiopia, India, and in the case of Moore's book, Virginia, Jamaica, and Liberia.

During phone calls with the authors ahead of the panel, we all very quickly decided that, while a geographic situation matters to develop characters and a narrative, there are other ways to think of "place." For example, a place in time or in the interior of one's self.

We did not define "place," but the audience should keep in mind the fluidity of its definition as we navigate the conversation. 

Click here to listen to the conversation.



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Shaun Randol founded The Mantle in 2009. Today he is the Editor-in-Chief and Publisher. You can email him at shaun [at] themantle.net. Shaun is the co-editor of Gambit: Newer African Writing. He is also a member of the PEN American Center and serves on the boards of Nomadic Press, the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative, and Africa Book Link.