Dinaw Mengestu

Big Read Author
Dinaw Mengestu

Photo by Michael Lionstar

Music Credits:

Excerpts from "Some Are More Equal," an improvisation performed by Paul Rucker and Hans Teuber from the cd, Oil.

 And music from the LEAF Festival, courtesy of the LEAF Festival


Dinaw Mengestu: The experiences that shaped me as a writer are, you know, there's always the mix of, you know, the experiences you have in literature which are probably first and foremost as a writer. You begin to love to write because you grew up loving to read and as a young man, especially growing up in the Midwest with this sort of, very complicated identity of being both black and African, and not knowing exactly where I fit in, I found that books were often times the most comfortable place for me. And so, by the time I was in high school, I spent most of my weekends and evenings devouring books and that's where I often felt the most at home.

Jo Reed: That was author Dinaw Mengestu and this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced by the National Endowment for the Arts. I'm Josephine Reed.

What happens when you're forced to upend your life, flee the land of your birth and travel to a country across the world?

Dinaw Mengestu's novel, and new Big Read Selection, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears,  explores that question with an elegant and profound simplicity. The narrator is Sepha Stephanos. He lives in exile in the Logan Circle neighborhood of Washington DC. It's been 17 years since his violent expulsion from Addis Ababa, but he can't put the Ethiopian capital and it's memories behind him. "How am I supposed to live in America," he asks, "when I never really left Ethiopia?" How indeed? The displacement Sepha has experienced is mirrored and refracted in his rapidly gentrifying DC neighborhood where moneyed white newcomers are not welcome by the older African-American residents. How this plays out for Sepha and his haunted dreams of home is at the heart of The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears. The book is Dinaw Mengestu's first novel and it illustrates what great fiction can do; take us on an unexpected journey, where we learn to see with another's eyes.

I spoke with Dinaw Mengestu and asked him about his title.

Dinaw Mengestu: The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears comes from Robert Pinsky's translation of Dante's Inferno and at the very end of the inferno, after traveling through hell, Dante is allowed to have one brief glimpse into heaven, and the final lines are "Through a round aperture I saw appear some of the beautiful things that heaven bears," and that particular line resonates I think throughout the novel on-- in many ways. You know, the novel is also the story of these multiples circles of Washington, D.C., the same way that there are multiple circles of hell inside of Dante's inferno, and perhaps more importantly there is this sort of constant search for beauty throughout the novel. Joseph at one point in the novel says, "Only an African can understand those lines of poetry because that's exactly what we live through. We've traveled through hell and we're still waiting for the beauty that's going to come after that" and I think that's sort of true for all the characters. They've all journeyed through very difficult lives and now they're waiting for something beautiful to happen. They're waiting to see beauty in their lives, they're searching for beauty within themselves. And so, it's not a finished journey by any measure; it's very much a sort of ongoing process and that's one of the reasons why I love those lines. It's Dante's anticipation of heaven just before he can actually get there.

Jo Reed: Can you just give me a synopsis of the plot of The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears?

Dinaw Mengestu: The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears is the story of Sepha Stephanos, an Ethiopian immigrant who's been living in Washington, D.C. for 17 years and Sepha owns a small, little grocery store in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of Washington, D.C., and there he has two friends, Joseph from the Congo and Kenneth from Kenya. And the three of them together form a little surrogate family of expatriates, refugees, immigrants who gather together in the store weekly to tell stories about home, the countries that they lost, the families that they miss. And at the same time next door to Sepha is a new resident, a white woman named Judith, and her biracial daughter, Naomi, who move into the neighborhood. And Sepha forms a very close attachment first with Naomi and then eventually with Judith and the three of them begin to form what could also possibly be another family. But then all of these possible relationships begin to dissolve and crumble as the neighborhood goes through a series of semi-violent upheavals due to the rapid gentrification happening across the neighborhood.

Jo Reed:  What inspired this book?

Dinaw Mengestu:  This book was inspired by a series of different narratives in my own life. I often say that many writers grow up saying that they heard a lot of stories in their family and those stories inspired them to write, and I think for me it might be almost the exact opposite. There was almost an absence of stories in our house. We didn't actually speak that much about what happened to my family in Ethiopia before we came to America, and yet at the same time there was always this sort of looming sense of tragedy and some of the violent things that had happened to my family that I grew up with and was very sort of cognizant of from a very young age. And so I think inevitably when I became a writer, when I began trying to write my first real novel, these stories became essential to that story; they became the first things that my mind was drawn to. And so in many ways the story of Sepha Stephanos became the story of my family, became the character through which I could talk about the death of my uncle. He was the character through which I could talk about the migrant experience in America and then also, at the same time there is a lot of my own history inside of Washington, D.C. I went to D.C. for college and I saw some of these neighborhoods rapidly gentrifying during my time at Georgetown and a lot of times you don't know exactly what to do with those narratives and so they become a part of your imagination and then years later you find them working themselves into the novels that you start to write.

Jo Reed: At the heart of the book for me are two things that seem to be almost opposed to one another. One is a dislocation and then the other are these relationships that take place within this.

Dinaw Mengestu:  Yes, I would definitely agree that there are sort of two seemingly opposing ideas that underlie the novel. There is the sort of rupture that happens when someone leaves their home, when someone loses a community, when someone loses a family, and then at the same time, after that rupture there's a sort of necessity and need to create a new family, to create a new life. And so Sepha Stephanos loses his home, he loses his father, and he loses his country, and he's been in America for 17 years and during those 17 years he's never really found a way to make America home. And yet at the same time he's incredibly isolated and knows that there's a need for him to be able to say that he's no longer living in the past but has actually established real relationships, a real life. And then in order to do so there involves a sort of tricky balancing act between how much of the past can you hold onto and how much of it do you need to let go in order to move on with your lives. And so the sort of struggle to create a home is very much at the heart of the novel as is the sort of anguish and loss that comes with losing anything important in your life.

Jo Reed:  Yeah. There really is the presence of loss I think that informs this novel.

Dinaw Mengestu:  Yes, definitely. I think loss is as central to the novel as is the possibility of finding a home. You know, the two ideas are I think the sort of optimistic sides of the novel. The-- there's a lot of love I think between the characters and those are there hopefully to try to temper some of that loss to say that within that loss there is always the sort of possibility of regeneration.

Jo Reed:  You have Sepha go back and forth between remembering Ethiopia and being quite present in his life in Washington and then fantasizing about what another life in Washington could be like. Let's talk about Sepha's memories. What happened in Ethiopia? What caused him to come to the United States?

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, D.C., 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 D.C. 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 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.

Jo Reed:  He says at one point, and I'm paraphrasing, he didn't think God killed his father and spared him so he could carry bags for the rest of his life.

Dinaw Mengestu:  One of Sepha's first jobs in Washington, D.C., is to work at a hotel, which is oftentimes a role many immigrants end up playing in this country, and it's not that he finds the work beneath him or demeaning or belittling by any measure, it's that he doesn't see the necessity of that work. He doesn't see the value of that work when in fact his greatest emotional concern, his greatest sort of need, is to stay loyal to the memory of his father and that memory I think kind of haunts him over everything that he does, even small gestures including running his store, including the friendships that he makes. They're all sort of circumscribed by this relationship he has to this character of his father.

Jo Reed:  His friendships with Kenneth and Joseph both of whom have come from Africa, they met while they were all working at the hotel, those friendships were very compelling and I found very moving. We talked about how they provided a family for each other but they also provided a place of understanding.

Dinaw Mengestu:  Yeah, definitely. The sort of dynamics between Sepha, Joseph and Kenneth they're born out of a strange empty space to some degree. You know, all three characters have lost their homes, are sort of isolated, lonely men in Washington, D.C., and yet together the three of them manage to again create the sort of surrogate little family around Sepha's store. And it's probably the only community that any of them have. And yet at the same time you can get a sense within that community that not only are they supporting each other but they're also constantly performing for each other. There's a way in which Sepha, Joseph and Kenneth are at their best with one another and perhaps at the same time constantly deceiving themselves in relationship to one another more so than any other time in their lives. So for me it was a very loving dynamic and yet at the same time one that's fraught with a lot of problems as well because they rarely show themselves to be as vulnerable as they really are except for certain moments in the novel.

Jo Reed:  Sepha's background in Ethiopia-- he certainly came from an upper-class family or a pretty prosperous family and coming to America he's carrying bags in a hotel or he's the owner of a, you know, small, dusty corner store and that transition not only from country to country but it's also transversing class.

Dinaw Mengestu:  Yeah, very much so. I think sometimes one of the hardest things to recognize that happens with losing a home and a culture and a language is losing your sense of place in the world and that's both an issue of class and very much an issue of race in the context of America particularly. And so Sepha, Joseph and Kenneth all three of them, you know, they are all actually in different socioeconomic classes in the United States, but at the same time all of them are again slightly deformed by this anxiety over whether or not they're really there. You know, there is a doubt about how other people actually see them and all three of them are forced to confront not only issues of quiet racism but also feelings of insecurity, feelings of not exactly worthlessness but of being held in a lower esteem than they would like to be, and that definitely complicates their identities not only towards each other but really in terms of how they see themselves.

Jo Reed:  Well, into this neighborhood of Logan Circle moves Judith and her daughter, Naomi, and they move into a house next to Sepha's store and it's a big, grand house, and for people who don't know Logan Circle, describe what it's like and what it was like then.

Dinaw Mengestu:  I first saw Logan Circle it was, I believe, in 1996 when I first moved to Washington, D.C. D.C. is comprised of many traffic circles and some of them are quite beautiful and quite lovely and they're all adorned with statues, many of them military figures, and Logan Circle was at that time one of the more beautiful circles in Washington, D.C., and yet at the same time it was also one of the most destroyed. It was-- a lot of the houses that surrounded the circle had been abandoned and burned out. There also used to be a large number of prostitutes that would come to the circle late at night, and so my first experience of Logan Circle was when it was in that state. And even at that time you could sit in the circle and stand in the circle and you could have a very strong sense of the historical grandeur that surrounded that place. And so when Judith moves into Logan Circle she buys one of these beautiful, old houses that has fallen into ruin and she begins to restore it to some of its previous grandeur, and there is that inevitable tension between what the neighborhood currently is and what it perhaps is trying to become and what that means for the community that still remains inside of it. And so Judith represents a lot of those problems that come with class and race.

Jo Reed:  And in a way Sepha straddles this because he is certainly not part of Judith's cohort but he's also a bit of an outsider in the neighborhood itself.

Dinaw Mengestu:  Yes. Sepha occupies a very strange place in the community. You know, he is to some degree a part of it in that he's been a resident for a very long time and owns a small grocery store, and yet at the same time he's also not a part of it. He's an African migrant, not an African American who's been a part of this community for generations like many of the other residents. And so he remains slightly outside of the community and at the same time when Judith comes in, Sepha's able to play this sort of middle ground where he is both attracted and attached to Judith and her daughter, Naomi, and at the same time does have a loyalty to the community but where his loyalty lies is kind of impossible to say because he's neither really here nor there in some degree.

Jo Reed:  Yeah. I think the term I was thinking of was "in it but not of it."

Dinaw Mengestu:  Yeah, very much so.

Jo reed: Naomi who's Judith's daughter is an odd little girl. She's very, very independent. Why don't you describe her?

Dinaw Mengestu:  <laughs> Naomi's a very precocious child. She walks into Sepha's store one day and by doing so kind of automatically claims him as hers and their relationship really unfolds from there. She's a child and yet she's also the one I think who dictates how their relationship is performed. And for Sepha to some degree I think there's a great relief in that because finally here is someone that he can fully be himself with. Their relationship unfolds over these evenings and afternoons spent reading stories and sharing stories, and it's really through Naomi that Sepha begins to come alive. And Naomi symbolically to some degree, not to talk about your characters as symbols, but she does represent the sort of duality of the novel. She's biracial, she has an African father and an American mother, and to some degree I think Sepha's able to attach himself to her partly because a lot of the anxieties of race are diminished in someone like her.

Jo Reed: The time that they spend together in the store, the stories that he would tell which really reflected the kind of stories that his father would tell, his father being a great storyteller, and it seemed to me a way in which he was able to reclaim his father in a very positive way in the present through his relationship with Naomi.

Dinaw Mengestu:  Definitely. The act of storytelling between Sepha and Naomi is very much a re-creation of the storytelling that Sepha's father performed for him. And so as a young child Sepha's father told him stories about monkeys and Sepha begins to do the same thing with Naomi and there's a ritual that's encapsulated in that gesture where it's one way of saying, "This is who I am and this is where I come from." And at the same time Naomi implores him to read "The Brothers Karamazov" and that's a novel that Sepha loves to read because Sepha is also a rather literary man and that allows him to perform another side of himself that I don't think anyone else is witness to except Naomi.

Jo Reed:  Yes, what does he say? He would read the book the way his father read the book; he would make it an event.

Dinaw Mengestu:  Yeah, because storytelling is not just the act of recounting a narrative or recounting a history. It's very much an act of sharing a part of yourself, and so how you tell the story becomes a part of who you are as much as it is about the story itself.

Jo Reed:  What experiences shaped you as a writer?

Dinaw Mengestu:  The experiences that shaped me are-- as a writer are, you know, there's always the mix of the experiences that you have in literature, which are probably first and foremost as a writer. You begin to love to write because you grew up loving to read, and as a young man I think especially growing up in the Midwest with the sort of very complicated identity of being both black and African and not knowing exactly where I fit in I found that books were oftentimes the most comfortable place for me. And so by the time I was in high school I spent most of my weekends and evenings devouring books and that's where I often felt the most at home, and so that was probably the central event to my wanting to become a novelist. And then as you grow older you begin to understand that you can incorporate all these various threads of your own experiences and the experiences of your family. So, I would say perhaps even more so than the things that happened to me are the things that happened to my father and to my mother and to my uncles. I would say the death of my father's brother, which happened before I was even born, was a central moment in my family's life and therefore a central moment in my career as a writer—

Jo Reed:  He was murdered. Correct?

Dinaw Mengestu:  He was killed during the revolution in Ethiopia in a manner that's slightly similar to the death of Sepha's father in the novel. We don't actually know what happened to my uncle, only that he was arrested and then died while in prison, and so in some ways the death of Sepha's father is my attempt to imagine the death of my uncle. And so those experiences I think set the course for my writing.

Jo Reed: You grew up in Peoria, and really please forgive my ignorance but I just don't think of it as having a large Ethiopian or African presence.

Dinaw Mengestu: Yeah,  I don't think it does either. When we came to America, and my father came to America in 1978 just before I was born and we joined him two years later, you know, at that point there weren't many African migrants coming to America still. You know, the African migration to America began fairly recently and really the Ethiopian migration to American began after the revolution in 1974 and really picked up throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s. And so when we arrived in America our story was quite particular and quite strange and the only image or news that people ever had of Ethiopia was of course of the famine, and so when we arrived there was a sort of narrative disconnect between the lives my family lived in Ethiopia and the dominant narrative of what Ethiopia meant in America. And so growing up the stories that we always heard, or the stories that we always heard on the news about Ethiopia were of course of famine and to some degree the civil war that was happening at that time, but by and large Ethiopia was a sort of place of immense poverty and desperation, almost hell on earth-type narrative versus the story that my father and my mother had of a country and a home that they loved, of family members that they grew up with, of this beautiful countryside that my father had been born and raised in. And so, our experiences in America were quite strange to say the least at the very beginning.

Jo Reed:  This is at a true risk of over-generalizing, but you went to Columbia and got an MFA and typically children of immigrants are not encouraged to do that. It's much more law school, medical school, a position that's much more secure and to make one much more secure in America. How did you end up at Columbia getting an MFA and how did your family respond?

Dinaw Mengestu:  You know, I had to ease my family into the idea that I was going to be a writer someday. When I began at Georgetown I think it was, I began the School of Foreign Service and it was slightly predicated on the idea that I would go to law school or become a diplomat to some degree. I was never really quite sure exactly which story I was supposed to try to tell them, but really quickly I knew that I wanted to be a novelist, and so even after I became an English major I told my parents that law school was still an option or perhaps I would get a Ph.D. someday. And when I told them that I was going to Columbia to get an MFA, you know, by that point I was already very confident that writing was really where my heart and future were going to be. And so I think I stopped being so concerned with what and how they would react to that, and even then, even after I was in graduate school and almost finished with graduate school my father would still say to me that it was never too late to go back to school to get another degree in computers. And they were always very, very supportive even as they were very, very anxious, and so I think I've been very fortunate with that. My parents have never tried to discourage me and they've never stopped worrying over me at the same time.

Jo Reed:  You're also known for your nonfiction writing. You've written journalistic pieces for Harper's, Rolling Stone, The Wall Street Journal mostly about Africa. How did that door open up for you?

Dinaw Mengestu:  I'd say all of my-- all the journalism that I've done or at least the sort of serious reporting began very much in the wake of The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears. In the novel Joseph, Kenneth and Sepha spend part of their evenings playing a game around the dictators and coups throughout Africa's history, and part of the reason why they play that game is because I used to spend a lot of time in college researching the different histories of African coups and African dictatorships. And while doing so, you know, I became incredibly frustrated with not only the number of coups that had happened in Africa since the end of the colonial era but about our perception and understanding of them. You know, we tend not to realize that these events are really the products of individual men who have chosen to make politics into something else, who have chosen a path of violence rather than democracy. And so after the novel was finished I had it in my head that it would be very important to me to be able to try to actually experience some of these narratives myself, to actually talk to rebel leaders, actually go into a place of conflict, and so I was speaking with an editor at Rolling Stone about the situation in Sudan and Darfur at that time and, you know, expressing my general frustration that this very complicated political story has basically been cast in the Western media as the story of hell, that Darfur was a hellish place and people were sort of fighting this ethnic conflict and battle, and I thought the story was much more complicated than that. And fortunately the editor agreed with me and was kind enough to send me to Sudan to report on that story, and from there my work has kind of continued along the same lines. I'm always interested in trying to find who the characters are behind these conflicts as a way of exposing not just the men responsible for them but as a way of saying, "We can understand these narratives, right? They're not as-- so distinct or separate from our own political histories."

Jo Reed:  How is it moving between fiction and nonfiction?

Dinaw Mengestu:  You know, writing fiction is so much easier for me than writing nonfiction and that's why I don't do it that often. Oftentimes, I like to do a long assignment like that after I'm finished with a book. So, the last story I did was on the eastern Congo and I did that shortly after I finished my second novel, How to Read the Air. And I find that when a novel is finished oftentimes I need a little bit of space before I can begin really devoting myself to the next work, and so the nonfiction becomes a way for me to continue to write and to continue to engage the world in a way that's much more practical than the work of a novelist. At the same time, after you do a story like that you come back home and you have your notes and you have your research and it's often very difficult for me to, both to relive those experiences but then too, to find a way to transform those into a story that I feel like is both compelling and accurate at the same time. So fiction you're free from those concerns; fiction you can spend months rewriting a page in order to get the right dialog, in order to get the right descriptions. If you're writing about a conflict, you're very much confined to the stories that you've been able to accumulate and you're also very much obliged to making sure those stories are presented with the dignity that they deserve.

Jo Reed:  Twenty twelve was a very good year for you.

Dinaw Mengestu:  Yes, 2012 was a very good year.

Jo Reed:  You were given a MacArthur Award. What was that like?

Dinaw Mengestu:  <laughs> When I received the phone call about the MacArthur, I was actually in Nairobi for a literary festival, and I remember seeing an area code on my cell phone from Chicago, which sort of alarmed me because it had been years since I had lived in Chicago and no one knew my cell phone number that I could think of in Chicago or would call me in Nairobi to tell me anything. And so when I did receive the phone call, you know, of course you're incredibly elated but also very scared to some degree. You know, there's a remarkable amount of "Why me?" and I still don't have an answer to that question, and then fortunately you're left with a long time to keep that news private so for months the only person who knew was my wife. And that allows you time to sort of think about what that fellowship will do for you and your work, and you know, again it's still an ongoing process for me. It's been incredibly important in helping me write my newest novel and I imagine it will be incredibly important to writing the next few books I hope I have.

Jo Reed: Also, we like to think, there's no monetary support, but having the book chosen as a Big Read Selection is also a validation of sort that we see the book as something that can really speak to people and does speak to people really powerfully.

Dinaw Mengestu:  Definitely. I mean when you look at the novels on the Big Read's list they are some of the greatest classics in American literature and they present this incredible canvas of narratives that have shaped and defined this country's history for such a long time that to be a part of that is an incredible honor.

Jo Reed: Thank you. I really appreciate it. It was such a pleasure talking to you.

Dinaw Mengestu:  A pleasure talking to you as well, Jo.

Jo Reed: That was author Dinaw Mengestu. We were talking about his novel, The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears, which is a new selection for The Big Read. To find out more about this and other Big Read titles, go to neabigread.org.

You've been listening to Art Works produced by National Endowment for the Arts. 

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Next week, we journey to Black Mountain, North Carolina where Jennifer Pickering tells us all about the LEAF Festival.  That's music from the festival you're listening to.

To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

The author discusses the NEA Big Read selection, The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears, his novel about an Ethiopian exile in a gentrifying Washington, DC neighborhood.