Ethiopian-American Writer Maaza Mengiste Wins Prize from American Arts Academy

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Ethiopian American writer and the author of novels, The Shadow King and Beneath the Lion’s Gaze wins the 2020 literature award by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The academy noted on  its website that the winners have “exceptional accomplishment in any genre.” She won the prize in the category of Literature along with eight other writers, each of them receiving a $10,000 award.


“I’m overjoyed & honored to announce I’ve been awarded a 2020 Literature Award,” Maaza tweeted after the academy announced the winners on Wednesday.

Currently living in the US, Maaza was born in Addis Ababa but left Ethiopia with her family at the age of four because of political instability in the country caused by the military government called Derg. She spent her childhood in Kenya, Nigeria, and the United States.


Maaza’s debut novel Beneath the Lion’s Gaze is a gripping story of an Ethiopian family in the 1970s struggling to survive the stormy Ethiopian Revolution, which cost thousands, if not millions of lives. The book was named one of the ten best contemporary African books by The Guardian and translated into seven languages. It appeared in newspapers like The New York Times and Grant, and it was broadcasted on BBC Radio 4.


Maaza received multiple honors, awards, and nominations, including being runner up for the 2011 Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and a finalist for a Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize. She also earned an MFA degree in creative writing from New York University as a Fulbright Scholar.


The American Academy of Arts and Letters is a 250-member honor society which honors the country’s leading architects, artists, composers, and writers. Founded in 1898, its early members include William Merritt Chase, Childe Hassam, Julia Ward Howe, Henry James, Edward MacDowell, Theodore Roosevelt, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, John Singer Sargent, Mark Twain, and Edith Wharton. The academy gives out numerous awards, with recipients chosen by committees made up of Academy members.


Maaza Mengiste, besides Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, published books, The Shadow King and Addis Ababa Noir. Since January 2020, Maaza Mengiste has been the 19th “Writer in Residence” for the Literaturhaus Zurich and the PWG Foundation, a reading society in Zurich, Switzerland.