Ethiopian-American novelist Maaza Mengiste delivered the Global Centre for Pluralism’s eighth Annual Pluralism Lecture today, 19 May, following opening remarks by Princess Zahra. The lecture, entitled “The Moment of Encounter: History, Disruptions, and Transformations” was held virtually, in partnership with the University of British Columbia.

In her opening address, Global Centre for Pluralism (GCP) board member Princess Zahra reflected on how the Covid-19 pandemic has created an urgency for conversations and actions centered on building respect, empathy, and a more equitable, just, and prosperous future for all.

“The pandemic, and the inequalities that it has magnified, are a stark reminder of the urgency with which we must come together across our differences to build a more inclusive society,” Princess Zahra said.

“Engaging with one another to build mutual understanding and appreciation across our differences – the kind of dialogue which is at the heart of pluralism – must continue. There are important lessons to be learned from the past year as the pandemic has transformed our societies and our institutions. Our ability to work remotely has shown new approaches to reducing our climate footprint and, for example, brought education to remote communities. These and other positive outcomes have the potential to strengthen our ambition for greater equity in and across our societies.”

The GCP’s annual lecture series features leaders in pluralism, who are making a difference in their chosen fields. Maaza Mengiste is a critically acclaimed novelist and essayist whose work examines the individual lives at stake during migration, war, and exile. Her award-winning novels include Beneath the Lion’s Gaze and The Shadow King

While introducing Ms Mengiste, Princess Zahra acknowledged the writer’s ability to bridge divides by writing about the struggles and lives of individuals and communities.

“How we talk about history — at school, at home, and through literature — is a powerful part of how we create a sense of belonging and shared destiny as a society. Ms Mengiste’s work reminds us of the hidden stories and voices that we must seek to amplify,” Princess Zahra said.

“Her writing considers how historical narratives and collective memory are shaped over time. History and memory are central to pluralism. We see this in many countries where education is critical to building a pluralistic society.”

Meredith Preston McGhie, Secretary General of the Global Centre for Pluralism, gave additional opening remarks that reemphasized the link between Ms Mengiste’s lecture and the Centre’s mandate.

“The work we do at the Centre focuses on these actions and decisions needed to advance both better structural and cultural responses to diversity,” Ms Preston McGhie said. “This Annual Pluralism Lecture is one such initiative. It provides us an opportunity to learn from distinguished speakers like Ms Mengiste, whose writing tackles issues at the very heart of pluralism — collective memory, historical narratives, belonging, and identity."

Ms Mengiste’s lecture began with the story of a photograph: two men standing side by side, inches apart from one another. One is East African, off to the side, wearing old and torn clothing on his slender frame, shoeless. The other is Italian, centred in the photo with a relaxed expression on his face and well-fitting clothes adorning his powerfully-built frame. Ms Mengiste said she spent many hours examining this photo, sensing that it was trying to tell her something.

She described Benito Mussolini’s fascist intention to colonise Ethiopia in 1935, joining other European colonial powers staking a claim on the African continent, and the propaganda effort involved.

“One of the first steps towards invasion and war involved photographs, a visual narrative to establish a definition of Ethiopians as uncivilized, backwards in every sense, and lacking in all imaginative capacities,” Ms Mengiste said. “The photographs sent back to Italy through the press portrayed the stark differences between East Africans and Italians. Those pictures highlighted the exotic and unusual — the seemingly unbridgeable gaps that existed between two vastly dissimilar groups of people. By the time the invasion happened and war broke out, it was clear to Italians that Ethiopia needed the benevolent hand of Italy. This would be a civilizing mission.”

Before engaging in a conversation with Nahlah Ayed, host and producer of CBC Ideas to discuss some of the lecture’s themes, Ms Mengiste went on to recount the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, offering it as an example of what history can teach us about the future. As an example of the relationship between visible and hidden, power and subjugation, men and women. Between west and east, caucasian and African, known and unknown.

“We have been taught for so long that an answer must always follow a question — that if we cannot point to a resolution then we have failed. But what if, in that space between knowing and confusion, is an entire landscape where something else beyond answers but equally vital exists?” Ms Mengiste asked, hinting at the steps towards tangible progress. 

“What if, cradled within each moment of encounter, is a force that can lead us towards real transformation? What if to be disturbed is just one step towards that journey? What if every step forward takes us not into the territory of comfort and certainty, but towards new disruptions and greater leaps?”

In his closing remarks, President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of British Columbia Santa Ono concluded by acknowledging that understanding our shared history can “advance or erode efforts at building thriving societies that value diversity. An inclusive approach to history is, therefore, integral to pluralism.”

“An important application of striving for a better world is to unpack and carefully consider the difficult, sometimes painful, lessons from our past. By learning from those mistakes, and addressing them with tangible solutions that can benefit all, we can move forward towards more pluralistic societies, together,” Mr Ono said. “Thank you, Maaza Mengiste, for giving us the opportunity to hear your boundless wisdom today and leaving us with plenty to discuss.”


Learn more about the Global Centre for Pluralism and the Annual Pluralism Lecture.