“Some children dream of being in a band,” Mengestu has said, “I had my dream of being on a list.” In 2010 his dream came true as he made The New Yorker's “20 under 40” list of fiction writers to watch. Mengestu was born in 1978 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and didn't return there until 2006. He left with his mother and sister for the United States when he was two years old—reuniting with his father who fled during the communist revolution.
Mengestu primarily grew up in the Midwest—in Peoria and Oak Park, Illinois, where he experienced the “indelible mark” of racism, marginalization, and outsider status. “Not African American or black enough for some” but called a “n--- to his face” by white students, Mengestu experienced isolation and bigotry. Books became a way to escape and make sense of the world he lived in. Reading On the Road and The Catcher in the Rye as a teenager, he recalls learning that he “could be very happy completely alone for a long period of time if I had enough books with me.”
Always knowing he wanted to write, even though he told his parents he was going “to be a doctor then a lawyer,” Mengestu worked on The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears for close to four years, as he moved from job to job. The novel won him many accolades, chief among them a fellowship at the Lannan Foundation, The New Yorker's list of “20 under 40,” the National Book Award's 5 under 35 award, and a MacArthur Foundation “genius” fellowship in 2012. He followed the success of his first novel, now translated into more than a dozen languages, with two other award-winning novels: How to Read the Air (2010) and All Our Names (2014). In addition to these three novels, Mengestu has written widely about recent geopolitical upheaval on the African continent—most notably on the violence in Darfur for Rolling Stone. Like Saul Bellow and James Baldwin, Mengestu avidly self-identifies solely as an American writer, refusing to add adjectives such as “immigrant,” “African,” or “African American” to qualify his experience or works.
Mengestu lives in West Harlem with his wife and two young sons and serves as the Lannan Chair of Poetics at Georgetown University, his alma mater.
On February 7, 2014, Josephine Reed of the National Endowment for the Arts interviewed Dinaw Mengestu. Excerpts from their conversation follow.
Josephine Reed: What inspired this book?
Dinaw Mengestu: This book [was] inspired by...a series of different narratives in my own life.... [T]he 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 [im]migrant experience in America, and then also at the same time there is a lot of my own history inside of Washington, DC.
JR: His friendships with Kenneth and Joseph, both of whom have come from Africa, were very compelling.
DM: The dynamics between Sepha, Joseph, and Kenneth [are] born out of a strange empty space to some degree. All three characters have lost their homes, are sort of isolated, lonely men, 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.
JR: Naomi is an odd little girl. She's very, very independent. Why don't you describe her?
DM: 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 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 is both—she has an African father and an American mother, and to some degree I think Sepha's able to attach himself to her because a lot of the anxieties of race are diminished in someone like her.
JR: Did your parents strive to create an Ethiopian household in Peoria?
DM: [M]y 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.... 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.
JR: And was it when you came to Georgetown that you were able to “assert” or figure out what it meant to be an American with Ethiopian lineage?
DM: 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 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.... [ 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.
JR: 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?
DM: 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 [I] 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.... [S]o 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. I thought the story was much more complicated than that. 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 so distinct or separate from our own political histories.”