National Endowment for the Arts - The Big Read
The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears

The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears

by Dinaw Mengestu

The stories he invented himself he told with particular delight. They all began in the same way, with the same lighthearted tone, with a small wave of the hand, as if the world were being brushed to the sideā€¦


Dinaw Mengestu. Copyright Matthieu Zazzo.

Jo Reed: Dinaw, can you just give me a synopsis of the plot of The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears?

Dinaw Mengestu: The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears is the story of Sepha Stephanos, an Ethiopian immigrant who's been living in Washington, DC, for 17 years and Sepha owns a small, little grocery store in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of Washington, DC, and there he has two friends, Joseph from the Congo and Kenneth from Kenya. And the three of them together form a little surrogate family of expatriates, refugees, immigrants who gather together in the store weekly to tell stories about home, the countries that they lost, the families that they miss. And at the same time next door to Sepha is a new resident, a white woman named Judith, and her biracial daughter, Naomi, who move into the neighborhood, and Sepha forms a very close attachment first with Naomi and then eventually with Judith and the three of them begin to form what could also possibly be another family, but then all of these possible relationships begin to dissolve and crumble as the neighborhood goes through a series of semi-violent upheavals due to the rapid gentrification happening across the neighborhood.

Reed: What inspired this book?

Mengestu: This book was inspired by a series of different narratives in my own life. I often say that many writers grow up saying that they heard a lot of stories in their family and those stories inspired them to write, and I think for me it might be almost the exact opposite. There was almost an absence of stories in our house. We didn't actually speak that much about what happened to my family in Ethiopia before we came to America, and yet at the same time there was always this sort of looming sense of tragedy and the—some of the violent things that had happened to my family that I grew up with and was very sort of cognizant of from a very young age. And so I think inevitably when I became a writer—when I began trying to write my first real novel these stories became essential to that story; they became the first things that my mind was drawn to. And so in many ways the story of Sepha Stephanos became the story of my family, became the character through which I could talk about the death of my uncle, he was the character through which I could talk about the migrant experience in America, and then also at the same time there is a lot of my own history inside of Washington, DC. I went to DC for college and I saw some of these neighborhoods rapidly gentrifying during my time in Georgetown and a lot of times you don't know exactly what to do with those narratives and so they become a part of your imagination and then years later you find them working themselves into the novels that you start to write.

Reed: At the heart of the book, for me, there are two things that seem to be almost opposed to one another. One is a dislocation and then the other are these relationships that take place within this...

Mengestu: Yes, I would definitely agree that there are sort of two seemingly opposing ideas that underlie the novel. There is the sort of rupture that happens when someone leaves their home, when someone loses a community, when someone loses a family, and then at the same time after that rupture there's a sort of necessity and need to create a new family, to create a new life. And so Sepha Stephanos loses his home, he loses his father and he loses his country, and he's been in America for 17 years and during those 17 years he's never really found a way to make America home and yet at the same time he's incredibly isolated and knows that there's a need for him to be able to say that he's no longer living in the past but has actually established real relationships, a real life. And then in order to do so there involves a sort of tricky balancing act between how much of the past can you hold onto and how much of it do you need to let go in order to move on with your lives. And so the sort of struggle to create a home is very much at the heart of the novel as is the sort of anguish and loss that comes with losing anything important in your life.

Reed: Yeah. There really is the presence of loss I think that informs this novel.

Mengestu: Yes, definitely. I think loss is as central to the novel as is the possibility of finding a home. The two ideas are I think the sort of optimistic sides of the novel. There's a lot of love I think between the characters and those are there, hopefully, to try to temper some of that loss to say that within that loss there is always the sort of possibility of regeneration.

Reed: You have Sepha go back and forth between remembering Ethiopia and being quite present in his life in Washington and then fantasizing about what another life in Washington could be like. Let's talk about Sepha's memories. What happened in Ethiopia? What caused him to come to the United States?

Mengestu: The main reason why Sepha left Ethiopia was because of the death of his father. In 1974, there was a communist revolution in Ethiopia and Sepha was about 15 years old when that took place, and like a lot of young men at that time in Ethiopia he was semi-politically engaged and that engagement led to the death and arrest of his father. And it's really at that moment that Sepha was forced to sort of break from Ethiopia both physically and emotionally and so he ends up in Washington, DC, and even though he's been in the country for 17 years he's constantly sort of engaged with recycling the past. So even as he's living in DC and walking through his life day to day, his thoughts are constantly returning back home. And yet, at the same time, even as they're returning back home, you can sense that there's a reluctance to admit where that rupture really came from; he's really almost frightened to return back to the moment of his father's death. And so the novel is a slow journey back through time and perhaps more specifically it's a slow journey back to the moment that Sepha's life really turned over, it's back to the moment that Sepha's father was taken away and then killed. And Sepha needs that journey to happen over the course of a long period because he's quite reluctant to admit that, and then as the novel progresses you can see Sepha learning to come to terms with that, learning to accept that his father is gone and that this country may have very well vanished with him. And as a result of that he's forced to recognize that he can't continue to live in the past; he has to accept who he is and what he's become.

Reed: And when he first arrives in the United States he stays with his uncle who is an amazingly generous person. I was really very touched by his generosity towards his nephew, everything he had he was willing to share with him, but his uncle chose one way of living in the United States and that way was not going to work for Sepha. Explain his uncle's choices.

Mengestu: You know, Sepha's uncle lives within a sort of community of Ethiopian immigrants and he perhaps, to some degree, performs the expected narrative of an immigrant better than Sepha does. He works hard, he's very generous to his nephew as you said, and Sepha I think chooses a slightly different path where he's not attached to the sort of idea of slowly working your way up; that's not the role that he really wants to play. And so Sepha unlike his uncle separates himself from the community, separates himself from the narrative of an Ethiopian diaspora or any diaspora community. And what he really seeks out is a more isolated and sort of solitary existence, one where he's not expected to slowly perform certain measures of success because really what's important to Sepha isn't moving forward in life but remaining very loyal to the past and that's where he, I think, becomes rather stuck as a character.

Reed: He says at one point, and I'm paraphrasing, he didn't think God killed his father and spared him so he could carry bags for the rest of his life.

Mengestu: One of Sepha's first jobs in Washington, DC, is to work at a hotel, which is oftentimes a role many immigrants end up playing in this country, and it's not that he finds the work beneath him or demeaning or belittling by any measure; it's that he doesn't see the necessity of that work. He doesn't see the value of that work when in fact his greatest emotional concern, his greatest sort of need, is to stay loyal to the memory of his father and that memory I think kind of haunts and pervades over everything that he does, even small gestures including running his store, including the friendships that he makes. They're all sort of circumscribed by this relationship he has to this character of his father.

Reed: His friendships with Kenneth and Joseph both of whom have come from Africa, they met while they were all working at the hotel, those friendships were very compelling and I found very moving. We talked about how they provided a family for each other but they also provided a place of understanding.

Mengestu: Yeah, definitely. The sort of dynamics between Sepha, Joseph and Kenneth they're born out of a strange empty space to some degree. All three characters have lost their homes, are sort of isolated, lonely men in Washington, DC, and yet together the three of them manage to again create the sort of surrogate little family around Sepha's store and it's probably the only community that any of them have. And yet at the same time you can get a sense within that community that not only are they supporting each other but they're also constantly performing for each other. There's a way in which Sepha, Joseph and Kenneth are at their best with one another and perhaps at the same time constantly deceiving themselves in relationship to one another more so than any other time in their lives. So, for me it was a very sort of loving dynamic and yet at the same time one that's fraught with a lot of problems as well because they rarely show themselves to be as vulnerable as they really are except for certain moments in the novel.

Reed: And we see a very telling moment in the novel, when Sepha goes to the restaurant where Joseph is working and they look at each other through the restaurant glass.

Mengestu: That particular moment—there's a scene in the novel where Sepha's been wandering through Washington, DC, and he finally decides that he needs to go see Joseph and he sees him from a slight remove. He sees Joseph standing on the other side of the glass wall at the restaurant and he knows that Joseph is a waiter but it's really the first time that the two of them acknowledge that they're seeing each other for who they really are, and there's a great, I think, sense of understanding in that moment. Nothing is said but yet just within that regard they both know that there's a moment of honesty and integrity that's actually taking place between the two of them, perhaps taking place for the very first time. And again throughout the novel all three characters have this constant concern with beauty and how they're perceived and there's a sense that all three of them see themselves as slightly diminished or slightly deformed characters now that they're in America. And so that moment of recognition of saying, “I can see you. I know who you are” that passes between Joseph and Sepha is perhaps one of the most intimate parts of their relationship.

Reed: Sepha's background in Ethiopia—he certainly came from an upper-class family or a pretty prosperous family and coming to America he's carrying bags in a hotel or he's the owner of a small, dusty corner store and that transition not only from country to country but it's also transversing class.

Mengestu: Very much so. I think sometimes one of the hardest things to recognize that happens with losing a home and a culture and a language is losing your sense of place in the world and that's both an issue of class and very much an issue of race in the context of America particularly. And so Sepha, Joseph and Kenneth all three of them they are all actually in different socioeconomic classes in the United States, but at the same time all of them are again slightly deformed by this anxiety over whether or not they're really there. There is a doubt about how other people actually see them and all three of them are forced to confront not only issues of quiet racism but also feelings of insecurity, feelings of not exactly worthlessness but of being held in a lower esteem than they would like to be, and that definitely complicates their identities not only towards each other but really in terms of how they see themselves.

Reed: Well, into this neighborhood of Logan Circle moves Judith and her daughter, Naomi, and they move into a house next to Sepha's store and it's a big, grand house, and for people who don't know Logan Circle describe what it's like and what it was like then.

Mengestu: When I first saw Logan Circle it was I believe in 1996 when I first went to Washington, DC. DC is comprised of many traffic circles and some of them are quite beautiful and quite lovely and they're all adorned with statues, many of them military figures, and Logan Circle was, at that time, one of the more beautiful circles in Washington, DC, and yet at the same time it was also one of the most destroyed. It was—a lot of the houses that surrounded the circle had been abandoned and burned out. There also used to be a large number of prostitutes that would come to the circle late at night, and so my first experience of Logan Circle was when it was in that state, and even at that time you could sit in the circle and stand in the circle and you could have a very strong sense of the historical grandeur that surrounded that place. And so when Judith moves into Logan Circle she buys one of these beautiful houses that has fallen into ruin and she begins to restore it to some of its previous grandeur, and there is that inevitable tension between what the neighborhood currently is and what it perhaps is trying to become and what that means for the community that still remains inside of it. And so Judith represents a lot of those problems that come with class and race.

Reed: And in a way Sepha straddles this because he is certainly not part of Judith's cohort but he's also a bit of an outsider in the neighborhood itself.

Mengestu: Yes. Sepha occupies a very strange place in the community. He is, to some degree, a part of it in that he's been a resident for a very long time and owns a small grocery store, and yet at the same time he's also not a part of it. He's an African migrant, not an African-American who's been a part of this community for generations like many of the other residents. And so he remains slightly outside of the community and at the same time when Judith comes in Sepha's able to play this sort of middle ground where he is both attracted and attached to Judith and her daughter, Naomi, and at the same time does have a loyalty to the community but where his loyalty lies is kind of impossible to say because he's neither really here nor there in some degree.

Reed: Yeah. The term I was thinking of was “in it but not of it.”

Mengestu: Yeah, very much so.

Reed: But the class relationship is certainly one that he has with the community because Judith comes in, and in restoring the house to its grandeur, money seems to be no object.

Mengestu: Yes.

Reed: And that sets up a great deal of tension.

Mengestu: Yes. I mean it sets up a great deal of tension not only between Judith and the community because people want to see their communities renewed and restored and yet at the same time there is this sort of anxiety of what that's going to mean for the people that actually live there. So when you begin to transform a community are you able to do so in a way that not only allows the community to get better but that allows the people who actually live there to continue to remain invested in their homes and in the places that they've grown up and lived in for many, many years? And Judith is able to come in and because of her affluence she's able to almost sort of ignore some of those concerns and so she sets about rebuilding, renovating this beautiful house, and within that you can also see Sepha's relationship to Judith and the class anxieties that end up encircling them are performed through that rehabilitation project. Sepha walks into Judith's home and he can see himself in relationship to this wealth. He can see himself as a poor man in comparison to Judith's beautiful house.

Reed: Exactly. Before he walked into that house he could fantasize or daydream about perhaps pursuing her romantically or even in terms of a close friendship, but once he walks into that house and then walks back to his apartment that just seems impossible to him.

Mengestu: Yeah, exactly. Again there's the problem about Sepha feeling slightly diminished now that he's in the U.S., but at the same time I think there is this sort of intersection of class and race that are performed in Sepha's semi-courtship of Judith. There are sort of a lot of potential barriers and obstacles to their relationship and yet at the same time I think the greatest obstacle that really emerges is Sepha's anxiety over his sense of worth in comparison to someone like Judith.

Reed: Yeah. Naomi who's Judith's daughter is an odd little girl. She's very, very independent. Why don't you describe her?

Mengestu: Naomi's a very precocious child. She walks into Sepha's store one day and by doing so kind of automatically claims him as hers and their relationship really unfolds from there. She's a child and yet she's also the one I think who dictates how their relationship is performed. And for Sepha to some degree I think there's a great relief in that because finally here is someone that he can fully be himself with. Their relationship unfolds over these evenings and afternoons spent reading stories and sharing stories, and it's really through Naomi that Sepha begins to come alive and Naomi, symbolically to some degree; not to talk about your characters as symbols, but she does represent the sort of duality of the novel. She's biracial, she has an African father and an American mother, and to some degree I think Sepha's able to attach himself to her partly because a lot of the anxieties of race are diminished in someone like her.

Reed: The time that they spend together in the store and the games he would play with her, the stories that he would tell which really reflected the kind of stories that his father would tell, his father being a great storyteller, and it seemed to me a way in which he was able to reclaim his father in a very positive way in the present through his relationship with Naomi.

Mengestu: Definitely. The act of storytelling between Sepha and Naomi is very much a re-creation of the storytelling that Sepha's father performed for him, and so as a young child Sepha's father told him stories about monkeys and Sepha begins to do the same thing with Naomi and there's a ritual that's encapsulated in that gesture where it's one way of saying, “This is who I am and this is where I come from.” And at the same time Naomi implores him to read The Brothers Karamazov and that's a novel that Sepha loves to read because Sepha is also a rather literary man. And that allows him to perform another side of himself that I don't think anyone else is witness to except Naomi.

Reed: Yes, what does he say? He would read the book the way his father read the book; he would make it an event.

Mengestu: Yeah, because storytelling is not just the act of recounting a narrative or recounting a history. It's very much an act of sharing a part of yourself, and so how you tell the story becomes a part of who you are as much as it is about the story itself.

Reed: Well, tell us about the title, The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears. It comes from Dante. Explain the title, what it means and how it works in the heart of the book actually.

Mengestu: The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears comes from Robert Pinsky's translation of Dante's Inferno and at the very end of the inferno after traveling through hell Dante is allowed to have one brief glimpse into heaven, and the final lines are “Through a round aperture I saw appear some of the beautiful things that heaven bears,” and that particular line resonates I think throughout the novel in many ways. The novel is also the story of these multiples circles of Washington, DC, and the same way that there are multiple circles of hell inside of Dante's inferno, and perhaps more importantly there is this sort of constant search for beauty throughout the novel. Joseph at one point in the novel says, “Only an African can understand those lines of poetry because that's exactly what we live through. We've traveled through hell and we're still waiting for the beauty that's going to come after that.” and I think that's sort of true for all the characters. They've all journeyed through very difficult lives and now they're waiting for something beautiful to happen. They're waiting to see beauty in their lives, they're searching for beauty within themselves, and so it's not a finished journey by any measure; it's very much a sort of ongoing process and that's one of the reasons why I love those lines. It's Dante's anticipation of heaven just before he can actually get there.

Reed: What experiences shaped you as a writer?

Mengestu: There's always the mix of the experiences that you have in literature, which are probably first and foremost as a writer. You begin to love to write because you grew up loving to read, and as a young man I think especially growing up in the Midwest with the sort of very complicated identity of being both black and African and not knowing exactly where I fit in I found that books were oftentimes the most comfortable place for me. And so by the time I was in high school I spent most of my weekends and evenings devouring books and that's where I often felt the most at home, and so that was probably the central event to my wanting to become a novelist. And then as you grow older you begin to understand that you can incorporate all these various threads of your own experiences and the experiences of your family. So I would say perhaps even more so than the things that happened to me are the things that happened to my father and to my mother and to my uncles. I would say the death of my father's brother, which happened before I was even born, was a central moment in my family's life and therefore a central moment in my career as a writer.

Reed: He was murdered. Correct?

Mengestu: He was killed during the revolution in Ethiopia in a manner that's slightly similar to the death of Sepha's father in the novel. We don't actually know what happened to my uncle, only that he was arrested and then died while in prison, and so in some ways the death of Sepha's father is my attempt to imagine the death of my uncle. And so those experiences I think set the course for my writing.

Reed: You grew up in Peoria, and really please forgive my ignorance but I just don't think of it as having a large Ethiopian or African presence.

Mengestu: I don't think it does either. When we came to America, and my father came to America in 1978 just before I was born and we joined him two years later, at that point there weren't many African migrants coming to America so that African migration to America began fairly recently and really the Ethiopian migration to America began after the revolution in 1974 and really picked up throughout the '80s and '90s. And so when we arrived in America our story was quite particular and quite strange and the only image or news that people ever had of Ethiopia was of course of the famine, and so when we arrived there was a sort of narrative disconnect between the lives my family lived in Ethiopia and the dominant narrative of what Ethiopia meant in America. And so growing up the stories that we always heard, or the stories that we always heard on the news about Ethiopia, were of course of famine and to some degree the civil war that was happening at that time. But by and large Ethiopia was a sort of place of immense poverty and desperation, almost hell on earth-type narrative versus the story that my father and my mother had of a country and a home that they loved, their family members that they grew up with, of this beautiful countryside that my father had been born and raised in. And so our experiences in America were quite strange to say the least at the very beginning.

Reed: Did your parents strive to create an Ethiopian household in Peoria?

Mengestu: My parents didn't strive to create an Ethiopian household in the States because I think they were too busy trying just to create a house. We were a young family. We—my father and my mother were—they both knew English but they were definitely learning to get much better at it and so they worked long hours and my sister and I went to school and then daycare and so we were also very isolated in America. There weren't other Ethiopian families that we could spend time with and I think there was also a concern about becoming American not for themselves but really for us. My parents wanted to make sure that we had the fluency of language, that we had the sort of cultural knowledge that we would need, and so growing up our childhoods were sort of strangely Ethiopian in the house and yet at the same time completely American outside of it. We went to a Southern Baptist church on the weekend when we first came to America and so all of our close friends were predominantly white Midwesterners.

Reed: Was it when you came to Georgetown that you were able to more—I don't know if “assert” is the right word but—figure out what it meant to be an American with a very strong Ethiopian lineage and a very close one?

Mengestu: I think figuring out my identity as both an American and an Ethiopian, to some degree, it began when I was in high school and there was actually no one else in my school who had a narrative anything remotely like mine and not knowing which cultural lines I was supposed to choose. There was the battle of whether or not you were going to be African-American or just American and your name was strange and people didn't know how to pronounce it, and so I was always struggled—I always struggled with the sense of not knowing exactly who I was or what I was supposed to say when people asked me where I was from. And I would say some of that began to resolve itself in college but really I think it was the act of writing that gave me the ability to say, “I'm both completely American and I'm Ethiopian as well.” You begin to write your way into the world by writing—when you write fiction—and for me writing a character who was Ethiopian and also living in America was one way of saying, “This is who we are and we're here in this country.” And at the same time I think I've come to believe that one of the more remarkable things about America is that it allows for that duality. You don't actually have to choose sides; there are no sides to be chosen. America is a country sort of comprised of multiple narratives and that's part of its beauty and its grace, and so for me to say I'm American doesn't exclude my Ethiopian background and heritage by any means.

Reed: Yeah. It was interesting because I read a review of The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears and it was quite laudatory and it said, “This is a great African novel, a great Washington novel and a great American novel.” And I read that and I thought I don't really see this as an African novel; this to me is just such an American novel; it's an American story. Did you see that? What do you think?

Mengestu: I was sort of okay with that understanding of the novel because the way that it was—all of those things were said in commas rather than in hyphens and it was one way of asserting that the American novel is unique and that it can encompass all of those things and that's something that I feel like is quite particular to the American novel. Where I often do find myself feeling a little bit more uncomfortable is the—sort of the first reviews of the novel where they said, “Ethiopian writer Dinaw Mengestu” and I always wondered well, at what point did I become just an Ethiopian writer versus also an American writer. And you're right; I do see the novel and all my work as products of the distinctly American culture and literary heritage even as they reach out to other parts of the world. Even as they take place in Africa, they're always coming back to America at the same time and they're trying to—or at least I'm trying to—assert the expansiveness of an American literary tradition to say that one of the great things about our culture, our literary output is that we can traverse the globe and we can bring all of these stories, all of these narratives onto our shores and assimilate them to some degree. We can make them a part of our narrative, part of our cultural history because this country is sort of founded on those ideals.

Reed: This is at a true risk of overgeneralizing, but you went to Columbia and got an MFA and typically children of immigrants are not encouraged to do that. It's much more law school, medical school, a position that's much more secure and to make one much more secure in America. How did you end up at Columbia getting an MFA and how did your family respond?

Mengestu: I had to ease my family into the idea that I was going to be a writer someday. When I began at Georgetown I think it was—I began the School of Foreign Service and it was slightly predicated on the idea that I would go to law school or become a diplomat to some degree. I was never really quite sure exactly which story I was supposed to try to tell them but really quickly I knew that I wanted to be a novelist, and so even after I became an English major I told my parents that law school was still an option or perhaps I would get a Ph.D. someday. And when I told them that I was going to Columbia to get an MFA by that point I was already very confident that writing was really where my heart and future were going to be. And so I think I stopped being so concerned with what and how they would react to that, and even then, even after I was in graduate school and almost finished with graduate school my father would still say to me that it was never too late to go back to school to get another degree in computers. And they were always very, very supportive even as they were very, very anxious, and so I think I've been very fortunate with that. My parents have never tried to discourage me and they've never stopped worrying over me at the same time.

Reed: You're also known for your nonfiction writing. You've written journalistic pieces for Harper's, Rolling Stone, The Wall Street Journal mostly about Africa. How did that door open up for you?

Mengestu: I'd say all of my—all the journalism that I've done or at least the sort of serious reporting began very much in the wake of The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears. In the novel Joseph, Kenneth and Sepha spend part of their evenings playing a game around the dictators and coups throughout Africa's history, and part of the reason why they play that game is because they used to spend a lot of time in college researching the different histories of African coups and African dictatorships. And while doing so I became incredibly frustrated with not only the number of coups that had happened in Africa since the end of the colonial era but about our perception and understanding of them. We tend not to realize that these events are really the products of individual men who have chosen to make politics into something else, who have chosen a path of violence rather than democracy. And so after the novel was finished I had it in my head that it would be very important to me to be able to try to actually experience some of these narratives myself, to actually talk to rebel leaders, actually go into a place of conflict, and so I was speaking with an editor at Rolling Stone about the situation in Sudan and Darfur at that time and expressing my general frustration that this very complicated political story has basically been cast in the Western media as the story of hell, that Darfur was a hellish place and people were sort of fighting this ethnic conflict and battle, and I thought the story was much more complicated than that. And fortunately the editor agreed with me and was kind enough to send me to Sudan to report on that story, and from there my work has kind of continued along the same lines. I'm always interested in trying to find who the characters are behind these conflicts as a way of exposing not just the men responsible for them but as a way of saying, “We can understand these narratives, right. They're not as so distinct or separate from our own political histories.”

Reed: How is it moving between fiction and nonfiction?

Mengestu: Writing fiction is so much easier for me than writing nonfiction; that's why I don't do it that often. Oftentimes I like to do a long assignment like that after I'm finished with a book, and so the last story I did was on the eastern Congo and I did that shortly after I finished my second novel, How to Read the Air. And I find that when a novel is finished oftentimes I need a little bit of space before I can begin really devoting myself to the next work, and so the nonfiction becomes a way for me to continue to write and to continue to engage the world in a way that's much more practical than the work of a novelist. At the same time, after you do a story like that you come back home and you have your notes and you have your research and it's often very difficult for me to—both to relive those experiences but then too to find a way to transform those into a story that I feel like is both compelling and accurate at the same time. So fiction you're free from those concerns; fiction you can spend months rewriting a page in order to get the right dialog, in order to get the right descriptions. If you're writing about a conflict, you're very much confined to the stories that you've been able to accumulate and you're also very much obliged to making sure those stories are presented with the dignity that they deserve.

Reed: 2012 was a very good year for you.

Mengestu: Yes, 2012 was a very good year.

Reed: You were given a MacArthur Award. What was that like?

Mengestu: When I received the phone call about the MacArthur I was actually in Nairobi for a literary festival, and I remember seeing an area code on my cell phone from Chicago, which sort of alarmed me because it had been years since I had lived in Chicago and no one knew my cell phone number that I could think of in Chicago or would call me in Nairobi to tell me anything. And so when I did receive the phone call of course you're incredibly elated but also very, very scared to some degree. There's a remarkable amount of “Why me?” and I still don't have an answer to that question, and then fortunately you're left with a long time to keep that news private so for months the only person who knew was my wife. And that allows you time to sort of think about what that fellowship will do for you and your work, and you know, it's—again it's still an ongoing process for me; it's been incredibly important in helping me write my newest novel and I imagine it will be incredibly important to writing the next few books that I hope I have.

Reed: Yeah. If nothing else, and it certainly is a lot more, it does give you breathing room.

Mengestu: That's definitely without a doubt and it allows you to really give your work some—it allows you to relieve yourself from some of the pressure of turning things over faster than you might like to, and so you can linger on a project longer; you can take greater risks with a project than you might have been willing to do so without that support. So that's always incredibly important and also a fellowship like that it gives you a sense that the work that you've been doing, which at the very beginning of my career seemed almost destined to be not marginalized but to be put off into a corner—

Reed: Also, we like to think, there's no monetary support but having the book chosen as a Big Read selection is also a validation of sort that we see the book as something that really can speak to people and does speak to people very powerfully.

Mengestu: No. Definitely. I mean when you look at the novels on the Big Read's- list they are some of the greatest classics in American literature and they present this incredible canvas of narratives that have shaped and defined this country's history for such a long time that to be a part of that is an incredible honor.

Reed: Thank you. I really appreciate it. It was such a pleasure talking to you.

Mengestu: And a pleasure talking to you as well, Jo.

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