Dinaw Mengestu on Sepha Stephanos

Dinaw Mengestu: The main reason why Sepha left Ethiopia was because of the death of his father. In 1974, there was a Communist revolution in Ethiopia and Sepha was about 15 years old when that took place and like a lot of young men at that time in Ethiopia he was semi-politically engaged, and that engagement led to the death and arrest of his father. And it's really at that moment that Sepha was forced to sort of break from Ethiopia, both physically and emotionally.

And so he ends up in Washington, DC, and even though he's been in the country for 17 years, he's constantly sort of engaged with recycling the past. So even as he's living in DC and walking through his life day-to-day, his thoughts are constantly returning back home. And yet, at the same time, even as they're returning back home, you can sense that there's a reluctance to admit where that rupture really came from. He's really almost frightened to return back to the moment of his father's death. And so the novel is a slow journey back through time, and perhaps more specifically, it's a slow journey back to the moment that Sepha's life really turned over — back to the moment that Sepha's father was taken away and then killed. And Sepha needs that journey to happen over the course of a long period because he's quite reluctant to admit that. And then as the novel progresses, you can see Sepha learning to come to come to terms with that, learning to accept that his father is gone, and that this country may have very well vanished with him. And as a result of that, he's forced to recognize that he can't continue to live in the past, he has to accept who he is and what he's become.

Dinaw Mengestu talks about the character Sepha Stephanos in his novel The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears.