While he's best known for his fiction, Mengestu is also an avid journalist, particularly concerned with depicting the plight of refugees and casualties of war in the region dubbed the “Horn of Africa.” Mengestu strives to create more complex and nuanced visions of what is occurring in war-ravaged places like Darfur. In this way, his journalism (like his fiction) attempts to dismantle the patronizing views that depict “sentimental and infantilizing” versions of Africa.
Before the 2007 debut of The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, Mengestu visited the Chad-Sudan border to conduct interviews at a refugee camp in Farchana, Chad. Published in Rolling Stone, “Back to the Tragedy of Darfur” (2006) charted the ongoing crisis in Darfur and the stories of individuals affected by the genocide. In spring 2011, Granta published a similar piece, “They Always Come in the Night,” relaying the conflict in Eastern Uganda.
Mengestu's interest in the upheavals and dislocations in regions of Africa have ebbed into his fictional works. His second novel, How to Read the Air (2010), borrows from his own family's journey to the Midwest. A child of Ethiopian immigrants, protagonist 30-something Jonas Woldemariam travels from New York City to Peoria to follow the route his parents took 30 years earlier from the Midwest to the South on their honeymoon. As he narrates between past and present, Jonas recounts his parents' relationship, marred by trauma and hostility, and weighs it against his own failed marriage.
His third novel, All Our Names (2014), is perhaps the most obvious blend of the political and personal. This novel imagines what it meant to come of age in the late 1960s and 1970s, during the immediate aftermath of post-colonialism in recently independent African countries. The promises of a more egalitarian society give way to myriad dictatorships, geopolitical upheavals, and civil wars. Like his two other novels, which alternate from past to present, this third and perhaps most ambitious work features two narrators: Isaac and Helen. Isaac leaves Ethiopia to attend college in Uganda, and Helen is a white social worker in the Midwest. They meet and fall in love when Isaac moves to her small town.
His family's exile from Ethiopia, the trauma of war, and his uncle's death during the Red Terror haunt all Mengestu's writing in some way. Yet, his novels are also far from simple recreations of his family's experience. In fact, Mengestu says that “we had no memories in our house.... We were never allowed to, we never spent time talking about it...it's the absence that creates a concern for it.” Subtly linking the personal and the political in The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, Mengestu says that the novel is “definitely a blend of fact and fiction” that incorporates his uncle's story, though little is known about the details of his death. For Mengestu, this is where fiction comes in: “It allows you to create the details that can bring a story to life.” Mengestu loves fiction because it demands that the reader take extraordinary, sometimes surprising, leaps: “It asks for an emotional and intellectual commitment to a world that you know does not exist outside of the novel or short story in front of you.”