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€¦

Teachers may consider the ways in which these activities may be linked to other Big Read community events. Most of these projects could be shared at a local library, a student assembly, or a bookstore.

  1. Community/Local History: Have students research the history of the changes that have taken place in their community. Ask students to interview longtime local residents, newer residents, and neighbors in addition to visiting the local library, speaking with a local historian, or visiting a local museum. Ask students to consider these issues as they conduct their research: What changes have taken place in the neighborhood in the last several decades? What sorts of economic, cultural, and racial impacts have these changes had on the community? Encourage students to also use primary sources such as photographs, newspaper articles, and interviews with politicians or group leaders.
  2. Textual References: Three books in particular are important in framing Mengestu's The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears: Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, Alex de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, and of course, Dante's Inferno (from which the book's title is taken). Ask students to select one of these works and investigate its significance. If possible, invite an appropriate literary scholar to discuss these works with students. Address the following questions: which passages in particular from these works are helpful in understanding The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears? Why do you think Mengestu chose to include this work? Why are other literary references important to understanding novels?
  3. Write a Letter: In the fashion of Uncle Berhane's letters to U.S. politicians, Naomi's letters to Stephanos, and Stephanos's un-sent letters to Naomi, have students compose a series of letters to someone—real or imagined—in which they express personal, emotional, political, and/or social interests. Ask students to think about tone, narrative voice, and their imagined audience. Who is their reader? What are his or her attributes? What do they hope to accomplish in their letter?
  4. Ethnography: Ask students to conduct an interview with someone who has left their native home—this can be someone who has migrated from one continent to another, from the U.S. south to the north, or from one neighborhood to another. In the interview, students should ask: How do you define home? What are your memories of your first home? How have you tried (or not) to recreate these characteristics literally and symbolically in your subsequent homes? Once individual students complete their ethnographies, ask them to present their interviews, and if possible, invite the interviewee to talk to the class.
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