Dinaw Mengestu’s Voice Is Exotic and Midwestern

Published: October 15, 2010

Early in Dinaw Mengestu’s new novel, “How to Read the Air,” the main character, a troubled young Ethiopian-American named Jonas Woldemariam, goes to a job interview, only to be asked, “Where’s that accent of yours from?” by a prospective boss baffled by his seemingly alien provenance. “Peoria,” Jonas replies, puzzling his interviewer even further.

Ed Ou/The New York Times

Dinaw Mengestu with copies of “How to Read the Air.”

Excerpt: ‘How to Read the Air’ (penguingroup.com)
Sunday Book Review: ‘How to Read the Air’ by Dinaw Mengestu (October 10, 2010)
Sunday Book Review: ‘The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears’ by Dinaw Mengestu (March 25, 2007)

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Ed Ou/The New York Times

Dinaw Mengestu is a journalist as well as a fiction writer.

Life has sometimes been like that for Mr. Mengestu, too. His name, “so clearly foreign and other,” he admits, and pedigree can make it difficult for some of the people he encounters to see past an ostensibly exotic exterior to the very American core underneath.

But as a novelist, Mr. Mengestu, 32, has made such doubts and confusion about identity and belonging his stock in trade. His work is populated by exiles, refugees, émigrés and children of the African diaspora, all struggling both to find a place in the American landscape and to make sense of their attenuated relationship to the world they left behind.

“It’s less about trying to figure out how you occupy these two cultural or racial boundaries and more about what it’s like when you are not particularly attached to either of these two communities,” he said recently in an interview in Manhattan at the offices of his publisher, Riverhead Books.

In nearly two hours, Mr. Mengestu never raised his voice, never demonstrated much emotion, never lost his composure, no matter how painful the subject. His characters tend to be like that as well. “As a writer, it’s a great narrative tool to have that character who is slightly detached but at the same time observant of his reality,” he explained, “because I think that’s pretty much what being a writer is — being there, watching and internalizing.”

Mr. Mengestu’s first novel, “The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears,” focuses on an Ethiopian shopkeeper, living in isolation in a gentrifying neighborhood in Washington, who develops a tentative bond with a professor of American history, a white woman, and her precocious biracial daughter. The New York Times Book Review named the novel, whose title derives from Dante’s “Inferno,” as one of the notable books of 2007, and Mr. Mengestu quickly became a literary name to watch.

“How to Read the Air,” published this week, addresses similar issues of self-image and estrangement from a different angle. With his marriage and job prospects crumbling, Jonas Woldemariam abandons New York and returns to his native Midwest, where, almost like a Kerouac character, he goes on the road to retrace a trip that his exile parents made before his birth and that poisoned their own marriage.

“Dinaw writes with a very lyrical grace, with a quality of freshness and observation in his sentences,” said Deborah Treisman, fiction editor at The New Yorker, which in June included Mr. Mengestu in its prestigious “20 under 40” list of outstanding young fiction writers.

“He obviously has a deep interest in studying the details of immigrant life and aspirations,” Ms. Treisman said, “but I would say he is 98 percent an American writer, who is getting more comfortable with his own voice.”

Born in Addis Ababa in 1978, Mr. Mengestu came to the United States two years later and grew up in Illinois, first in Peoria and then in Forest Park, a Chicago suburb. During the interview he summoned nostalgic memories of those early years: a white Baptist church’s warm embrace of his immigrant family, his father’s job at the headquarters of the Caterpillar tractor company and the hope of rising to middle-class comfort that that newcomer’s luck inspired.

Lurking in the background, though, was the trauma that had driven his parents from Ethiopia, namely the revolution that followed the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie and, he said, “split the family cleanly down the middle.”

Some relatives became high-ranking officials in the new Marxist military government, while others, because of their class background as landowners or their political activities, were arrested or jailed or who even perished, including an especially beloved older brother of his father’s.

“We had no memories in our house,” Mr. Mengestu said. “We were never allowed to, we never spent time talking about it, and yet you’re very aware that it haunts everything. It’s that absence that creates the concern for it. Nothing can be passed on.”

He added, speaking of his own reaction, “You know there is this history that precedes you, but you have no access to it whatsoever.”

At the elite Roman Catholic high school he attended in the Chicago area, his situation grew even more complicated. He was the target of racial epithets from white students, he recalls, but also had to confront “the question of my authenticity” in his dealings with other black students, since “it was always really clear that ‘you are the black kid who sounds white, the black kid who doesn’t seem like he’s black,’ and no one can figure out exactly why.”

Voracious reading provided some relief for the “anger and angst” that Mr. Mengestu said he felt then, and at Georgetown University, he gravitated to literature. Afterward he earned an M.F.A. in fiction at Columbia and held a variety of jobs while writing his first novel, which began when he spotted a solitary Ethiopian storeowner while on a walk one day through the Adams-Morgan neighborhood in Washington.

“Even then, he seemed very much above the fray,” said Norma Tilden, an English professor at Georgetown whom Mr. Mengestu named as a friend and mentor. “I was always very clear that Dinaw was holding back a lot, not in a reticent way, but just that there was a lot there, and he would get to it when he wanted.”

Much of “How to Read the Air” was written in Paris, providing yet another layer of distancing. Mr. Mengestu’s wife, Anne-Emanuelle, is French, and like American writers from Hemingway to James Baldwin, Mr. Mengestu felt, he said, a need to “get away and find a private space to work in,” one that would allow him to “see New York and Illinois more clearly.”

Mr. Mengestu also produces nonfiction, writing for magazines like Rolling Stone, Harper’s and Granta. He spent part of the summer in eastern Congo, reporting on the conflict there for Granta, and has also written from Uganda and Darfur, in Sudan.

In fact, when Mr. Mengestu went to Georgetown, it was originally with the idea of “possibly some day working with the State Department,” an ambition that was derailed when he took his first economics course and realized “this cannot possibly work.”

But even in Africa, issues of identity continued to pester him. In eastern Congo he ran into problems trying to interview Hutu rebels from Rwanda, who, like his high school classmates, didn’t know what to make of him.

“I could speak English as well as I wanted to them, but they could only see that my features are what they consider Tutsi, and that was definitely threatening to my life,” he said rather matter-of-factly. “They would look at me, and my translator would say, ‘No, he’s American.’ He was always very specific, telling me, ‘Don’t confuse them, don’t try to say you’re Ethiopian, just tell them you’re American, don’t complicate things with this extra layer, because nobody’s going to believe it.’ ”

Mr. Mengestu has begun work on a third novel, which, he said “seems to be the last component of this cycle” on the African diaspora and is likely to be followed by something that doesn’t have “that same sense of dislocation and displacement.” To those who know him well, that strategy makes perfect sense.

“The topics he writes about are very heartbreaking, really, but he is not somebody who is walking around the world with sad puppy-dog eyes,” said the critic Marcela Valdes, who has been a good friend since both were graduate students. “He’s a much more vibrant and charming personality than that. He has the ability to go deep and look at stuff that is hard, but he also has a joie de vivre.”

A version of this article appeared in print on October 16, 2010, on page C1 of the New York edition.


**The Daily Beast

The Daily Beast: Best New Writers

In the latest installment of our writers to watch series, The Daily Beast speaks to Dinaw Mengestu about his new novel, How to Read the Air, and the harrowing experience of immigrants.

Dinaw Mengestu is one of a cosmopolitan new generation of novelists—Chimamanda Adichie and Chris Abani among them—whose work is mapping the African diaspora.

Mengestu’s celebrated first novel, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, published in 2007, traced the lives of African emigrants living marginal lives in Washington, D.C. The novel brought him international attention, winning first-book awards from The Guardian and the Los Angeles Times and a “5 under 35” award from the National Book Foundation.

In his elegiac second novel, How to Read the Air, excerpted in The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 issue, Mengestu explores the ways in which the bonds of marriage in an Ethiopian immigrant family are frayed by displacement and upheaval. In the novel, newlyweds Mariam and Yosef are separated when he is jailed in their native Ethiopia, then forced into political exile during the 1970s. Yosef has become a stranger by the time Mariam rejoins him in Peoria, Illinois, after three years. When Mariam is three months pregnant with Jonas and already bruised from her husband’s fists, they set off on a honeymoon driving trip from Peoria to Nashville. Three decades later, as an adult pondering his own failed marriage, their son Jonas retraces that journey, musing on what went wrong between them.

Mengestu’s background—born in Addis Ababa in 1978, he came to the U.S. at the age of 2 with his mother and sister to join his father, who had fled during the Red Terror—is similar to Jonas’. And like Jonas, Mengestu grew up in Peoria and lived in New York. So naturally the reader wonders how much of the story is autobiographical?

“Even before I knew which direction the novel was going in, I knew I wanted to write a novel that was undeniably grounded in America, even if told partly from the perspective of an Ethiopian immigrant,” he says. “Knowing that, it was almost inevitable that I would return to the Midwest, and Peoria in particular, where my family first settled after leaving Ethiopia. Peoria is such a seemingly quintessential American city, and I had always wanted to draw on that in either my fiction or in nonfiction. The Midwest is also a landscape that I have always been infatuated with, perhaps because it’s the first one I can truly remember. I had a lovely, and beautiful childhood there (one very different from Jonas, the narrator of How to Read the Air) and hopefully some of the affection for that landscape is evident in the novel.”

Mengestu went to Georgetown for a B.A., and then Columbia for an MFA. “The MFA program did one great thing for me: It taught me how to be a better reader and critic. Nothing I wrote during my time at Columbia remains—but learning how to really deconstruct a work of fiction, that of course is a permanent part of me now. Many of my closest friends where made at Columbia, and over the years they have been some of my best readers and critics and I remain in their debt.” Among them: Marcela Valdes, Wells Tower, Mark Binelli, and Julia Holmes.

Article – Writers to Watch Dinaw Mengestu Ethiopian author Dinaw Mengestu (Photo: Bill O’Leary, The Washington Post / Getty Images)

After several years in New York, Mengestu has been living in Paris with his wife, Anne-Emmanuelle. Their youngest son, Louis-Selassie, was born in September. His older son Gabriel is 13 months old. “The two together make for a somewhat hectic life,” Mengestu says. “Our life in Paris has been generally boiled down a to a fairly simple, and lovely routine. We spend the first hours of the morning blurry eyed and exhausted, trying to remember who needs to be fed when, and then if all goes well, we manage to catch up on a little bit of extra sleep late in the morning, before heading out to the park where our oldest son, Gabriel, takes control over the sandpits.

Book Cover – Writers to Watch Dinaw Mengestu How to Read the Air. By Dinaw Mengestu. 320 pages. Riverhead. $25.95. As a journalist, Mengestu has reported from Africa for Harper’s, Rolling Stone, and other publications. His first novel was finished before he started writing nonfiction, he says. “The fact that I have always been deeply invested in politics, and African politics in particular, inevitably played a role in my first novel and of course in my decision to write about a handful of particular conflicts in Africa as a journalist,” he says. “In the case of my second novel, I definitely drew on images that I had taken with me from Darfur and Chad—the desert landscape full of abandoned villages, for example, was born directly out my experience in Darfur. Those images, and to some degree the politics behind them, were radically reconfigured in How to Read the Air, but still to my mind remain essentially true.“

His new novel depicts the hardship and hopelessness of Yosef’s journey from a jail in Ethiopia to stowing away on a cargo ship in Sudan, to Europe and finally the U.S. How typical is this?

“In thinking about Yosef’s migration out of Africa, I was less concerned about how true it may or may not have been to the Ethiopian experience (although I know for certain that such stories do exist in the Ethiopian diaspora) and more concerned about how accurately it reflected the general hardship and sacrifice that accompanies almost all the current migration out of Africa. Yosef’s migration out of Ethiopia in the 1970s is perhaps even more true today across Africa. Every year, thousands of African migrants try and cross into Europe on tiny, dangerous boats, often washing up on the shores of Italy and Spain half-dead.”

Jonas’ mother Mariam must learn a new language, new customs, and learn to know her husband again. Did the stress of all the changes influence how she responded to her husband’s violence? “I think it’s a common story for many people—immigrant or not. In Mariam’s case, her marriage to an angry, violent man slowly whittles away an important part of her identity. The same thing happens to anyone who is trapped in an abusive relationship, who struggles to make ends meet, whose dreams fail to materialize.”

The bitterness between Mariam and Yosef spills over, seeming to stunt their son Jonas’ marriage. “I wanted Jonas’ marriage to Angela to slowly dissolve, not because they no longer loved one another, but because they were unable to turn that love for each other into something that they could both build stable, functional lives out of,” he says. “Writing the end of their marriage began there for me, and as much as possible I tried to show how a marriage or a relationship can slowly fall apart in small, discrete moments that on their own are hardly that significant but that taken together reveal how much suffering and loss has actually taken place. Jonas’ marriage in that regard is very different from his father’s. Yosef comes to America with the scars and wounds created by this awful migration—and those have helped turn him into a deeply cynical, angry, and frightened man. His marriage to Mariam and by extension his only child are bound to feel the effects of that.”

The novel’s title draws in part on a passage from Rilke’s Duino Elegies (“Throw the emptiness in your arms out into the space we breathe; maybe birds will feel the air thinning as they fly deeper into themselves”). Is How to Read the Air an elegy?

“The Duino Elegies are notoriously cryptic, and part of the reason why I have always loved them is because they invite multiple readings over the course of a lifetime. When I began writing this novel, the first elegy was in my mind quite often, particularly the early passages in the elegy that have to deal with releasing the emptiness we feel out into the world where it can be absorbed and transformed into something else. The storytelling, the lying, the retracing of the past—all of these I think offer a release to Jonas, the narrator. I returned to that poem often while writing the novel and inevitably found myself using images from the poem throughout the story.”

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Jane Ciabattari’s work has appeared in Bookforum,The Guardian online, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Columbia Journalism Review, among others. She is president of the National Book Critics Circle and author of the short-story collection Stealing the Fire. Recent short stories are online at KGB Bar Lit, Verbsap, Literary Mama and Lost Magazine.

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