NEA 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€¦

The Life and Times of Dinaw Mengestu

  1. 1970s
    • 1973-74: Estimated 200,000 people die in Wollo province in northeast Ethiopia due to famine.
    • 1974: Led by major Haile Mariam Mengistu, the Derg (a group of army officers) gain power by military coup and depose Emperor Haile Selassie.
    • 1977-79: Mengistu's regime kills thousands of government “opponents” in Red Terror campaign. Dinaw Mengestu's uncle, a lawyer in Addis Ababa, is arrested and dies during this campaign.
    • 1978: Dinaw Mengestu born in Addis Ababa.
  2. 1980s
    • 1980: Flees Ethiopia with mother and sister to reunite with father who had already escaped, first seeking asylum in Italy, then moving to Peoria, Illinois, where his father works for Caterpillar, Inc.
    • 1984-85: Famines in Ethiopia continue. Many thousands forcibly relocated to neighboring Eritrea.
  3. 1990s
    • 1996: Graduates from Fenwick High School in Oak Park, Illinois.
    • 1998-99: Ethiopian and Eritrean conflict over border leads to war. Thousands displaced to bordering countries.
  4. 2000s
    • 2000: Graduates with BA from Georgetown University.
    • 2005: Completes MFA in fiction at Columbia University.
    • 2006: Returns to Ethiopia on assignment for Rolling Stone; visits a refugee camp on the Chad-Sudan border.
    • 2006: Haile Mariam Mengistu is convicted in absentia for role in Red Terror. Darfur peace agreement signed in Abuja, Nigeria.
    • 2007: The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears published to great acclaim.
  5. 2010s
    • 2010: Publishes his second novel How to Read the Air, which makes the New York Times “100 Notable Books of the Year.” The New Yorker names him as one of the “20 under 40” fiction writers to watch.
    • 2012: Receives MacArthur “genius” fellowship. Publishes “Not a Click Away: Joseph Kony in the Real World” regarding the dangers of expecting an easy solution in response to Kony Activism in Warscapes.
    • 2014: Publishes third novel, All Our Names, a love story between an African man and American woman.

African Immigrants to the U.S. and the Emigré Experience

Washington, DC, and the surrounding metropolitan area are home to the largest community of Ethiopians outside of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Since the 1960s, according to the Migration Policy Institute, most of the 460,000 Ethiopians who fled their country relocated to the United States, with approximately 350,000 emigrating to Washington, 96,000 to Los Angeles, and 10,000 to New York.

“...I did not come to America to find a better life. I came here running and screaming with the ghosts of an old one firmly attached to my back.”
—Sepha Stephanos in The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears

The term diaspora originates from the word “dispersion,” and has come to define groups of people who have been dispersed or scattered from their original geographic homeland. While historically associated with the Jewish population, the conditions of diaspora in the twentieth century have become common among many groups ranging from the Middle East, South Asia, Latin America, and Africa. The African diaspora in the twentieth century is one marked by a wave of decolonization and shifting regimes of power. In the 1950s, six African countries gained independence from colonial rule, while in the year 1960 alone, seventeen countries gained independence, with fifteen other countries following in the rest of the decade. Although this post-colonial era was a time of possibility and opportunity, it also ushered in dictatorships, civil wars, and genocides, which were rooted in the long history of European colonial rule. Many Africans across the continent became refugees, were forcibly displaced, or came to the West seeking better lives. In the mid-1960s in the United States, there were approximately 64,000 African immigrants. Today there are more than 1.5 million, and the populations of African immigrants, particularly from West and East Africa, continue to grow.

Listen to Dinaw Mengestu talk with the NEA's Josephine Reed about the distinction between immigrating and being in exile.

Ethiopian migration is largely a byproduct of the geopolitical upheavals that accompanied decolonization across the African continent in the latter half of the twentieth century. Ethiopians immigrated to the United States in phases, with the initial surge occurring during the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie and consisting mostly of the relatively privileged and elite. Overthrown in 1974, Selassie was replaced by Haile Mengistu whose “Red Terror” campaign killed thousands or even millions. After the fall of the Mengistu regime in 1991 and the civil war in 1999, many more Ethiopians fled due to persecution, violence, and repression.

These migration patterns are also due to the changes in United States immigration policies, particularly the Hart-Cellar Immigration Act of 1965 (which abolished the national origins quota system, replacing it with a preference system that prioritized immigrants' skills or family relationships), and the State Department's granting of asylum visas in the 1980s and 1990s.

“Within this building there is an entire world made up of old lives and relationships transported perfectly intact from Ethiopia. ... Living here is as close to living back home as one can get, which is precisely why I moved out after two years and precisely why my uncle has never left. Hardly a word of English is spoken inside of these doors.”
—Sepha Stephanos in The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears

As they relocated to places like DC, many of these immigrants and refugees attempted to recreate fragments of their old lives in their new home, enacting what Salman Rushdie describes as the rich fabric of many diasporic populations: “immigrant homelands.” In “Little Ethiopia” in DC, U Street is lined with shops, grocery stores, and restaurants displaying signs with Amharic lettering. The community is so large it even has its own 1,000-page telephone book. But as they've settled in traditionally African-American areas like the Shaw neighborhood—the home of historically black college Howard University—Ethiopian immigrants have had to wrestle with their role in the gentrification process that evicts longtime African-American residents. While both are racially black, the histories of African-American communities and African immigrants are vastly different and complex in their own right. Part of the challenges and possibilities present in these neighborhoods is how these communities can at once maintain their own cultural identities while respecting the structures of those that already exist.

Listen to Urban Institute researcher Peter Tatian discuss changing demographics in Washington.
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