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 side…

The discussion activities and writing exercises in this guide provide you with possible essay topics, as do the Discussion Questions in the NEA Big Read Reader Resources. Advanced students can come up with their own essay topics, as long as they are specific and compelling. Other ideas for essays are provided here.

  1. A recurring theme in immigrant literature is how people attempt to recreate home in their new spaces, often blending old and new cultures. What are different examples of immigrants literally and symbolically recreating a feeling of home (Uncle Berhane's apartment, the Ethiopian apartment complex, and the African dictators game)? What are the symbolic and literal characteristics of these spaces?
  2. Mengestu's narrative alternates between the past and the present. As readers, we learn about Stephanos's past in Ethiopia and the ghosts he left behind. Examine how Stephanos encounters his past in specific moments (in particular, recounting moments with his father walking through parks, his kidnapping, and conducting an imaginary funeral for him). How do these examples demonstrate that, "The past is never dead. It's not even past."?
  3. Naomi and Stephanos forge an intimate bond around the power of storytelling. They invent characters together (such as Henry the Chauffeur) and read Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov aloud. Why is storytelling so important to both of them? How does it help them connect? What do we learn about their relationship as they delve into these narratives?
  4. In what ways does this novel examine love? What are the different forms of love (romantic, fraternal, familial, national, etc.) that Mengestu presents? What do you think Mengestu intends to represent about these different relationships?
  5. Describe the significance of Uncle Berhane's letters to U.S. presidents. What is the tone of the letters? What does it reveal about Berhane's desires? What is significant for Stephanos as he reads and re-reads them? How do they help him understand his own story as an Ethiopian immigrant?
  6. Mengestu ends the novel without a clear resolution. In a moving reflection, Stephanos recalls his father’s saying: "A bird stuck between two branches gets bitten on both wings." But, he says, "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." What examples is Stephanos referring to? Describe the tone of this ending and what it contributes to the overall reading of the novel.
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