I’ll admit, at first I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Makeda. A story about the Queen of Sheba? Would it be full of pomp and ceremony, or warfare and bloodshed, of royal protocol or simple fiction?
I’m pleased to say it was none of these, but rather so much more…
“He wanted to applaud her for her cleverness. With peerless skill at court, she had seduced his hidebound courtiers and made them laugh. Now single-handedly, with a feather’s tip, she had soothed his counsellors and brought the rowdy meeting to a seamless head.
…As a public figure, she had not disappointed. The private woman was what intrigued him now.”
Prue Sober’s Makeda is the story of a strong woman, a regal beauty who clearly knows her own mind and the mind of others. She has a firm grasp on the importance of matters of state, and the story itself demonstrates many times over, her skills of negotiation and diplomacy.
Moving beyond royalty, and the main characters of Makeda and Solomon the novel also tells the story of humanity, of the hardships of slavery and of the complexities of nationality and regional ties.
The word that most easily comes to mind when describing Makeda is luxurious – its scenery, its smells, its food:
“All at once, she felt a heady lift and gave herself a warning tap on the shoulder: the atmosphere was intoxicating, the wine, eminently drinkable.
A cold soup of crushed tomatoes and herbs served in shallow cups was followed by veal cooked in butter and sheep’s milk, and a rare dish of whole poached locusts, lightly cooked in a saffron broth. They peeled the shells and ate in companionable silence, watching each other, amused, as the juices ran through their fingers. Over the fatted fowl and venison, they gradually became immersed in conversation.”
And it is not without action, heroism and romance. In short, it is a well rounded, detailed account of an ancient kingdom. I really enjoyed this novel, and I’m sure that the imagery will stay with me for some time.
To find out a little bit more about the book, its characters and its time and place, I had a chat with the author Prue Sobers…
Perhaps an obvious question, but why the Queen of Sheba? What was it about this subject that you were so passionate about?
As a non-fiction author, I fell into writing a novel purely by chance. My husband and I sponsor three young Ethiopian boys through World Vision, and in a letter from one of the boy’s mothers, mention was made of an obelisk field in Aksum, an ancient highland city in Ethiopia. Out of curiosity and wanting to know more of the boys’ homeland, in delving further I discovered two stunning facts: during the fascist occupation of Ethiopia in the 1930s, Mussolini had looted a priceless sacred obelisk from the very same field and had it raised in Rome to celebrate his fifteenth anniversary in power. Through a connection of reports, I then learned that the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, with some forty million followers, has a story going back centuries about the Queen of Sheba. A tale is told in a medieval text, the Kebra Nagast, or Glory of Kings, not mentioned in the Old Testament account of the monarchs’ meeting, of how King Solomon seduced his palace guest of six months—Makeda, Queen of Ethiopia—who is identified as the Queen of Sheba. Although beyond the scope of my novel, according to the Kebra Nagast, a son was born of the royal union and he became Ethiopia’s first king. Many Ethiopians believe Makeda was a former ruler of Aksum in the tenth century, BCE, and that a royal bloodline existed between King Solomon and Ethiopia’s emperors.
Interestingly, Emperor Haile Selassie claimed lineage to Solomon last century - as had a line of Ethiopian emperors before him. The monarchy ended in 1974 when Haile Selassie lost power. Anyway—that’s where it all started. In the space of a morning, I had jotted down some ideas, and the tale of the legendary monarchs, Solomon and Makeda—relatively unknown in the West—and the theft of the sacred obelisk by Mussolini, became the focus of my research. The obelisk is featured in the sequel.
What do you hope people will enjoy most about your book, ‘Makeda’?
A number of things perhaps: learning something they didn’t know; maybe to escape for a while in the stuff of dreams, in grand scenes and the dazzling otherness of ancient royal life; the story is set in Jerusalem, but the novel also tells of a journey down the Nile by a small Ethiopian tribe, captured as slaves. Linked to Solomon’s early stance in the novel, concepts are explored here that are relevant to today’s world such as prejudice, tolerance and acceptance. The Arab Spring and the refugee debate are two modern issues that come to mind. And another idea which the novel probes is the difference between virtue and truth.
Above all, I want my readers to become immersed in the feelings of my characters; in sensing the attraction and developing passion between the protagonists, to understand ‘the how’ and ‘the why’ they occur. I don’t relate well to book characters whose minds and personalities leave me not caring for them because lazy writing has meant they are not written in deeply enough: ‘He saw her beauty and fell in love; she looked into his eyes and knew she would always love him.’ Why? I want to know. It’s all about the old adage, show me; don’t just tell me! Give me the evidence.
I also wanted to demonstrate something of Solomon’s wisdom, which is pretty light on in religious texts, through portraying his humanity, and his vulnerability and strengths. By the end of the novel, mostly I hope the reader feels they know and understand the man, as did Makeda; maybe even admire or love him a little.
How did you research this novel?
At my desk, I was researching two books at once, Makeda and its sequel—so I studied multiple sources, beginning with the Kebra Nagast and the Old Testament of The Bible which inspired the Makeda/Solomon story, plus a number of historical and archaeological non-fiction texts; and as well I used the State Library and the Internet, of course.
But I knew if I were to treat the novels seriously, I had to research on the ground as well, so travelled to Ethiopia, including Aksum, where Makeda ostensibly ruled in the tenth century, BCE. It was fascinating to visit ancient ruins, some of which claimed connection to the Queen of Sheba, and to be accorded access to wondrous medieval books guarded by priests in rural sanctums. Through a deacon friend, I was also granted an audience with the Nebrud of Aksum, the head of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in that city, and naturally—I met the Ethiopian people.
How did you find them?
In a word, inspiring! Some 80 per cent of the population are subsistence farmers, many living from harvest to harvest in harsh environments. But they are amazingly resilient. Ethiopians are earnest and spiritual and remain stoic in the face of what fate and climate dish up to them. They grin as they grapple with everyday life. And the youth have a great hunger for learning and improving their lot. The kids want pens, you know, not sweets, when you stop in their towns and villages.
And the landscape? What were your first impressions?
The greenness of the countryside. It was just after the rains, so I guess it shouldn’t have been so surprising, but I hadn’t expected the lushness. Apart from its ancient history, Ethiopia’s highland beauty rivals the best in the world. That means on a tourist level there’s lots to see and do in the mountains, and in a string of highland cities there’s a trove of ancient tombs and cultural relics. There are wonderful religious festivals where priests carry large fringed, gorgeously embroidered umbrellas.
I was entertained in people’s homes in cities, in round roofed huts, or tukuls, in the country, I ate with them, drank their wonderful coffee, talked food, crop growing and water wells, walked to the breathtaking Blue Nile Falls, a source of the Nile, explored mountains and underground mausoleums and learned how to correctly pronounce words. So ‘Betam ameseginalehu, Ethiopia!’ Thank you very much; I had an extraordinary time.
In the past, your focus has been on non-fiction . . . how did you find the transition from non-fiction to fictional work?
Mmm, that’s a great question! Exciting, absorbing, frustrating, challenging; looking back, a steep learning curve and unexpectedly fraught with more drafts than I care to remember. One of the most significant things non-fiction taught me was the importance of thorough research, and although this approach helped my novel writing, at the same time I had to curb a propensity for detail—to find shorter, sharper ways to make a point; to learn to leave stuff out, like extraneous paragraphs or clauses, and so allow the reader’s imagination to make connections. Importantly, I learned to leave the text alone for a while, then revisit it with fresh eyes. When you do that, words, phrases or scenes that were formerly special, even imperative to you and which may have weighed the writing down, become easier to cull; time away allows you to be ruthless and a better critic of your work.
When you’ve got a minute—what do you like to read?
A book I might hear or read about; something I might see here on That Book You Like, Mandi! An eclectic mix of genres, really. My recent leisure reading, such as it is, has focussed on novels, probably because there’s so much to read for research and fiction offers escape. But there’s a double reward because you can check what other novelists are doing and perhaps learn from them. Different authors have given me light-bulb moments in this way.
John Fowles of The French Lieutenant’s Woman fame: apart from offering three different possible endings to that novel, he presented an alternative ending to his novel, The Magus a decade after it was first published. I thought that was a marvellous idea: that fiction can be twisted and bent and perhaps turned in the opposite direction simply on a writer’s whim and then republished for new enjoyment. What confidence that reflected; what wonderful audacity. Other writer’s who have broadened my scope—Margaret Atwood, Chin-Ning Chu, Hilary Mantel—all for different reasons.
Whom do you admire as a writer?
Mantel, Atwood, as mentioned. I like Lionel Shriver.
Currently, it seems. I enjoyed early Grisham, some George Orwell, although I find him bleak at times. I hated 1984. I admire Alexander Pope, the sixteenth century poet. He translated Homer’s Iliad from the Greek. Have you ever read any of Homer’s verbatim translation? It’s not an easy read. But we owe our appreciation of Homer to the likes of Pope and perhaps other translators. Pope was a genius. He turned the words into English poetry of great eloquence and beauty.
What next for Prue Sobers?
Right now I’m trying to balance the requirements of online social networking to promote Makeda and Ethiopia with getting on with my sequel. Blogging, Facebook and Twitter saps a lot of time and energy; it’s not easy to do all when there’s so much introspection needed for plotting a novel and constructing dialogue. But hey, I’m in there, giving it my best shot!
I’m pleased to be able to offer one reader a copy of Prue’s Makeda this month.
All you need to do is:
1. Leave a comment on this post, or
2. Visit our Facebook page and leave a comment,
…and tell us where you’d most like to travel to, regardless of time or place.
I’ll draw one winner at random on Wednesday 4 April 2012. As usual, you’ll have 4 days to claim your prize or I’ll redraw.
If you’d like to find out more about Prue’s work, you should visit her at www.pruesobers.com
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