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Dinaw Mengestu 1978–

Writer

Ethiopian-American writer Dinaw Mengestu won critical accolades for his 2006 debut novel The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears. Its story chronicles a Washington, D.C., shopkeeper's struggle to come to terms with his Ethiopian past and current unhappiness in his adopted land, and it features some parallels to the real-life tale of Mengestu's own family. Critiquing it for the New York Times Book Review, Rob Nixon asserted that the first-time author “has written a novel for an age ravaged by the moral and military fallout of cross-cultural incuriosity…. There's something hugely hopeful about this young writer's watchful honesty and egalitarian tenderness. This is a great African novel, a great Washington novel and a great American novel.”

Mengestu was born in 1978 in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. For decades, Ethiopia was proud of its unique status as the only nation in Africa that had never been dominated by a foreign power in the era of colonialism, with the brief exception of indifferent Italian rule in the 1930s. The Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie held power for decades until class divisions in the country resulted in a Marxist-inspired military coup in 1974. The Derg, a military junta, came to power under Mengistu Haile Mariam and initially instituted a number of positive reforms, but opposition to it remained strong and the Derg grew increasingly repressive in its efforts to maintain power. In 1977 a massive crackdown to ferret out so-called counterrevolutionaries began and became known as the Red Terror.

Settled in Peoria

Many among Ethiopia's middle class were targeted in the Red Terror. Mengestu's father, an executive with Ethiopian Airlines, feared for his life after the sudden death of his brother in custody. On a business trip to Italy in 1978—when Mengestu's mother was pregnant with him—his father applied for political asylum. Two years later Mengestu, his sister, and their mother were reunited with their father in the United States. The earliest years of Mengestu's life in the United States were spent in Peoria, Illinois, where his father worked in the Caterpillar heavy-equipment plant as a factory laborer and rose to a management position. Later the family moved to the Chicago area, where his father began a messenger service.

Mengestu grew up feeling out of place as a black African in a suburban midwestern landscape. “I wanted an identity so badly,” he told Washington Post journalist Bob Thompson. “I was never going to be black enough. I was in an all-white Catholic school.” At his high school in suburban Chicago, he was the sole black student in the school during his first year there, which made him the target of racial epithets—and to which he reacted by throwing punches. “I tried desperately to get kicked out of the school,” he said in an interview with Aida Edemariam that appeared in the London-based newspaper the Guardian. Knowing so little about where he came from—he had almost no memory of his life in Ethiopia—bothered him, and he became somewhat obsessed with learning everything he could about Ethiopia, its political troubles, and the international community of political and economic refugees who had emerged from it, such as his family.

Some of Mengestu's extended family had settled in the Washington, D.C., area, and so he was already slightly familiar with the city when he began college at Georgetown University. He went on to earn a master of fine arts degree from Columbia University in 2005 and worked as a teacher in an after-school program in Harlem and taught English to new immigrants at the City University of New York. His first significant work of fiction came in the form of an unpublished novel that used the massive flooding of the Mississippi River basin in Illinois and other states as the central event. “It was very cerebral, full of memories without any characters,” he admitted to the Guardian's Edemariam. “It was terrible.”

Novel Tracks Immigrant Experience

By contrast, the genesis of Mengestu's first published novel was a far quieter, almost unnoticeable event that happened in the District of Columbia: “I saw this Ethiopian standing behind the counter of a very small shop,” he recalled in the Guardian interview. “It was late at night and there was nobody in the store, and I went home and wrote, ‘Almost nobody comes into this store any more.’” That first sentence became the basis for his novel The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears.

With a title borrowed from the work of early fourteenth-century Italian poet Dante Alighieri, Mengestu's novel is set in a Washington, D.C., neighborhood in transition. Logan Circle, which is located in the northwestern part of the city, had long been home to the city's African-American population, and by the early 1990s it was known as a high-crime area. Mengestu's story begins at the relatively recent period in the neighborhood's history when new, mostly middle-class residents began moving in and repairing its historic housing stock, a process known as gentrification. Its protagonist is Sepha Stephanos, a grocery store owner who is haunted by his earlier life in Ethiopia, when he witnessed the murder of his father during the Red Terror. When not in the store, Sepha's social life primarily involves meeting his two closest friends over a bottle of scotch and playing a game they made up in which they test their knowledge of the dozens of coups and dictatorships that have plagued the countries of the African continent in the twentieth century. “Our memories are like a river cut off from the ocean,” one of Sephas's friends says. “With time they will slowly dry out in the sun, and so we drink and drink and drink and we can never have our fill.”

Sepha's life begins to change when Judith, a white college professor, and her mixed-race daughter, Naomi, buy the property next door to his store and begin renovating it. When Judith moves in, Sepha ruminates over the fact that a white person is still a relative rarity in Logan Circle and that most who venture there are either police or social workers. As the novel progresses, a friendship develops between Sepha and Judith, and with Naomi, too, whose father is an economist from Mauritania, a North African country. At a turning point in the story, Sepha finds letters that his elderly uncle wrote to U.S. president Jimmy Carter during the Red Terror, describing what happened to his family. The uncle's letters mention the fate of his brother-in-law, Shibrew Stephanos, which is also the name of Mengestu's uncle who died in the Red Terror.

At a Glance …

Born in 1978 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; immigrated to the United States, 1980. Education: Earned undergraduate degree from Georgetown University, 2000; Columbia University, MFA, 2005.

Career: After-school program in Harlem, teacher; City University of New York, teacher of English as a second language; freelance journalist for Harper's and Rolling Stone, 2006—; published the novel, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, 2006; Lannan Foundation, Georgetown University, visiting writer fellowship, 2007.

Awards: New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Fiction, 2006.

Addresses: Office—Author Mail, Riverhead Books, 375 Hudson St., New York, NY 10014.

Father Revealed Details of Tragedy

Experiencing a first-person account of what happened in the Red Terror through his uncle's words is a crucial moment for Sepha in the novel, as it was for Mengestu himself, who grew up in an immigrant community largely shaped by events of such horrific detail that few could bear to speak openly of them. Even the details of his uncle Shibrew's death were not revealed to him until he was in college, when he began taping oral histories with family members. In the interview with his father, Mengestu learned that his uncle was taken from his law office, and a week later Mengestu's father was told that his brother had died and that he should pick up the body. “I think they said he had died of pneumonia in prison,” Mengestu told Thompson, the Washington Post journalist. “When my father went to pick up the body, he said he remembers him being bruised and beaten, and his face was swollen.”

Mengestu's debut novel won terrific reviews, and its author was compared to Chinua Achebe, the acclaimed Nigerian novelist. “Mengestu has a fine ear for the way immigrants from damaged places talk in the sanctuary of their own company, free from the exhausting courtesies of self-anthropologizing explanation,” declared Nixon in the New York Times Book Review. “He gets, pitch perfect, the warmly abrasive wit of the violently displaced and their need to keep alive some textured memories—even memories that wound—amid America's demanding amnesia.” The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears was also commended for presenting not just the tale of Sepha's flight from Ethiopia but also those of his friends: Kenneth, the Kenyan immigrant who becomes an engineer, and Joe, a Congolese who works as a restaurant waiter. The three characters had met while working at menial jobs in a hotel. “I wanted to kind of really get the whole continent,” Mengestu explained when talk-show host Tavis Smiley asked him about why he used a trio of African immigrants. “I wanted characters who would be able to say different things about Africa because, obviously, fifty-four countries and it's a really broad place.”

Mengestu made his first trip to Africa in 2006, when he visited Uganda to write an article about the Lord's Resistance Army for Harper's magazine. He then went to the Darfur region of Sudan to write an article on the humanitarian crisis there for Rolling Stone. Through his nonfiction writing, he hoped to bring some balance to the West's coverage of Africa and its troubles. “The explosion of violence that began three decades ago had muzzled the continent,” he wrote in the New Statesman about disinterest in African nations and their seemingly endless political crises. “The lights dimmed and, to the west, Africa became once again little more than the dark continent—a landscape riddled with wars and exploited by postcolonial powers.” In the same article he excoriated much of the Western media coverage as overly simplistic. “Conflicts that were created and sustained by cold war alliances and the deliberate manipulation of resources by a handful of men were reduced to age-old—and therefore inevitable—consequences of ‘tribal allegiances,’” he noted.

On that same trip, Mengestu also made a stop in Ethiopia and recounted in the Guardian interview that his first day was terrifying. First, he made a faux pas in a store and was instantly surrounded by children shouting “Ferenj!” (foreigner!) and asking him for money. He spoke no Amharic, Ethiopia's main language. “It started raining, and it took me three and a half hours to get home,” he told Edemariam. “I was thoroughly soaked and I had no idea where I was, and I refused to ask anybody, because I didn't speak the language, and the only thing I could take comfort from was that if I walked and no one could hear me speak, then I was Ethiopian.”

Selected writings

The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, Riverhead Books, 2006.

Sources

Periodicals

Guardian (London, England), June 19, 2007.

New Statesman, June 14, 2007, p. 60.

New York Times Book Review, March 25, 2007.

Washington Post, March 1, 2007.

Online

“Dinaw Mengestu,” The Tavis Smiley Show,http://www.pbs.org/kcet/tavissmiley/archive/200703/20070309_mengestu.html (accessed December 10, 2007).

—Carol Brennan

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Mengestu, Dinaw 1978–

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