Addis Ababa Noir
edited by Maaza Mengiste
The Akashic Noir series has a very successful formula. Each book is a collection of short stories occurring in the same geographical place. Writers who live there contribute dark fiction centered on specific places in that place. I like the series because I get a sense of what that place is like, often at its worst. The Noir books also introduce new (to me) writers that have a style I want to explore more.
Of all the Noir collections I’ve read, Addis Ababa Noir is the most compelling. Editor Maaza Mengiste takes the idea of Noir well beyond the well trod paths of crime stories. Mengiste’s vision of Noir embraces myth, memory and the paranormal. The stories are embedded in Ethiopia’s recent traumatic history and current tensions.
The first section, Past Hauntings, centers on the fall out from the 1974 revolution and the Derg’s military rule. “Ostrich” by Rebecca Fisseha is a ghost story. A dead man lying in the road in front of the National Palace haunts the woman telling the story. She sees the man every day on her ride to school. He’s lying there, dead in the street every morning and no one else sees him. Even after she’s left Ethiopia, the memory of this specter stays with her until she returns to Addis to see if he’s still there.
Hannah Giorgis story, “A Double Edged Inheritance” deals with how a person’s actions cause repercussions down generations. Meskerem left Ethiopia as a refugee when she was a child. Her unwed mother was ostracized by all in her family except Aunt Almaz, who acted as a guardian angel for the girl. When Aunt Almaz dies, Meskerem returns to Addis to take care of her aunt’s estate. She learns that her father was the son of a powerful general. She is reunited with her father who is also an important general. Personal and national histories collide when Meskerem learns the role her grandfather played in the tragedies her family suffered.
The Translations of Grief section deal with the psychic trauma of loss. Mikael Awake’s story “Father Bread” tells of a man working the grey space between right and wrong. Abba Dabo is known for his good works. He brings bread to the homeless on Sundays and runs an orphanage. The way he runs the orphanage though is morally suspect and the pain that causes ultimately leads to a deadly encounter with the Ethiopian version of a werewolf.
Mahtem Shifferaw’s tale, “The Blue Shadow” is a different kind of ghost story. We follow the spirit of the newly departed, Weyzero Fantish. Her spirit moves about in the wake of sorrow she is responsible for.
The stories in the Madness Descends section pull at the loose threads of reality. Girma T. Fantye’s “Of the Poet and the Café” is a reality bending morality tale. At the center of the tale is the poet, Woubshet, who is so traumatized by the critical response to his one published book that he tries to find and burn them all. One day he wakes up and finds that the café he’s managed for years, doesn’t exist. The people he’s known, no longer recognize him. As he grows more and more frantic, I wonder if the whole poetry thing was a delusion or did his desire to erase his embarrassment by burning all of his books erase him in the real world.
Police and Thieves closes the book with more traditional crime stories that pick at the divisions in Ethiopian society. “Kebele ID” is a heist tale that plays out against the divide between the wealthy and impoverished ethnic minorities. “The Agony of the Congested Heart” traces a pair of friends from the Oromo region from youthful revolutionary idealism to the mature, fatalistic reality that changing leaders isn’t enough to root out institutional corruption.
“None of Your Business” by Solomon Hailemariam is set in Ethiopia but is a story we’re all too familiar with from Portland, Kenosha and Louisville. Hailemariam confronts police brutality and violence in a very personal context. Indiscriminate police violence at a protest sets off a chain of events that ends in the death of a child. This is an uncomfortable story because we can’t hide behind our First World delusion of superiority saying, that sort of thing only happens over there. Injustice is tragic and devastating wherever it happens.