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€¦


Introduction to the Novel

In this novel, Dinaw Mengestu describes the pain of exile, when one is violently uprooted from his or her homeland. Having fled the Ethiopian Red Terror of the late 1970s to live and work in Washington, DC, Sepha Stephanos is acutely aware of the loneliness, sadness, and dislocation that accompany his pursuit to find a quiet refuge from the ghosts of his old life. Seventeen years have passed since Stephanos immigrated to Washington, where he began working as a hotel valet and met his two companions, also African immigrants, “Joe from the Congo” and “Ken the Kenyan.”

Dinaw Mengestu and his sister, Bezawit (Courtesy of the Mengestu family)

Meeting weekly in Stephanos's neighborhood grocery to reminisce about their pasts, they play a bitterly absurd game matching African dictators with countries and coups. Their friendship is a way to navigate living in between two worlds: the Africa they left behind in the midst of war, and the America they never feel at home in. Stephanos meets Judith, an American history professor, and her biracial daughter Naomi, when they move in next door. As Judith renovates the four-story brick mansion, Stephanos builds a friendship with Naomi, who visits his failing shop and transforms the quiet, somber space to a haven of imaginative storytelling and reading Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov aloud. However, as Judith becomes part of the gentrification process that displaces longtime residents of DC's decaying Logan Circle, tensions arise, and Stephanos's relationships with both Judith and Naomi become precarious.

"What was it my father used to say? A bird stuck between two branches gets bitten on both wings. I would like to add my own saying to the list now, Father: a man stuck between two worlds lives and dies alone. I have dangled and been suspended long enough.”
—from The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears

Alternating from past to present, the novel poses questions not only about the immigrant experience in America and the fraught nature of attaining the American dream, but also about the complex nature of various displacements: from one's country, one's past, one's prior ambitions, and one's lost loves.

Major Characters in the Novel

Sepha Stephanos
After he watches his father beaten and kidnapped by soldiers, Stephanos flees Ethiopia to the United States. He opens a shabby local grocery in Logan Circle and lives a very quiet and lonely life, haunted by his past.

Listen to Dinaw Mengestu talk about Sepha Stephanos.
Transcript

Kenneth
“Ken the Kenyan” is a smartly dressed engineer and one of Stephanos's two close friends. He encourages Stephanos to be ambitious in his new country.

“A man, I told myself, is defined not by his possessions but by the company he keeps. That was a phrase I had stolen from my father, along with this: the character of a man is like the tail of a monkey; it is always behind him.”
—from The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears

Joseph
“Joe from the Congo” is a waiter at an expensive restaurant, aptly called The Colonial Grill. His real passion is studying literature. Even though he relinquished his dream of getting his PhD, he's kept all his college books and quotes poetry to illustrate a point.

Listen to Willing Davidson, a fiction editor at The New Yorker, talk about Stephanos's African friends.
Transcript

Judith
A professor of nineteenth century American history, recently separated from her husband, she moves to Logan Circle with her daughter Naomi. Intent on creating a home for Naomi, Judith meticulously restores a four-story brick mansion while finding comfort and companionship with Stephanos.

Listen to Willing Davidson, a fiction editor at The New Yorker, talk about Judith moving to Logan Circle.
Transcript

Naomi
“Stubbornly independent,” and taking pride in being able to chastise the world's shortcomings, Judith's eleven-year-old biracial daughter develops a special friendship with Stephanos.

Listen to Willing Davidson, a fiction editor at The New Yorker, talk about Stephanos's friendship with Naomi.
Transcript

Mrs. Davis
An elderly African-American woman, she is a longtime resident of Logan Circle and is Stephanos's neighbor. She represents the sizeable community concerned about recent evictions due to rapid gentrification.

Listen to Urban Institute researcher Peter Tatian talk about the dramatic changes Logan Circle has seen in recent years.
Transcript

Uncle Berhane
Stephanos's "uncle" is a family friend and the only connection Stephanos has to his family back home. He too fled Ethiopia, leaving behind a more prosperous life, and now lives in a small apartment in a densely populated Ethiopian enclave in suburban DC.

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