“I grew up in the shadows of a half-dozen names,” said Dinaw Mengestu, speaking of the family members he never met. Mengestu — the author of this year’s Big Read at UCF book, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears — moved to the U.S. from Ethiopia when he was two.
UCF is celebrating The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, the debut novel of MacArthur Foundation Fellow Dinaw Mengestu, as part of the NEA Big Read.
“What inspired me most was the absence of stories. The absence of the lives of family members,” he continued, while speaking in the UCF Art Gallery on Thursday about what inspired his novel.
The book tells the story of Sepha Stephanos, an immigrant, living in Washington, D.C. Sepha fled Ethiopia as a teenager after his father was murdered, arrived in the U.S., and eventually opened his own convenience store in the poor, primarily black neighborhood of Logan Circle. It is there he spends many evenings with his two close friends — both immigrants from other African nations — and develops a relationship with Judith, a white American politics professor, and her 11-year-old daughter, Naomi.
After his discussion, I interviewed Mengestu about the power of community reading programs, the problem with immigration novels, and the books that influenced his novel.
Laura J. Cole: In the novel, Sepha bonds with Naomi over storytelling, which isn’t uncommon. But soon they beginning reading books such as Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Why did you choose the act of reading to bond them?
Dinaw Mengestu: That’s a great question. I definitely thought of them as bonding over narratives and stories. For the first time, he’s actually able to speak to her more freely than he has with basically anybody else. And I think some of that happens because of the various structure of narrative and the intimacy that comes with reading. There’s something very tender and sort of delicate about that process, and the fact that she’s the one choosing books knowing that of course the books are larger than what she’s actually able to understand.
But there’s the idea that this sort of book and the size and the story that it contains, by offering it up to him, it’s a way of saying, ‘I want to hear as much as you possibly can say. I’m invested in this and in the process of actually occupying and sharing this space with you.’ The physical object matters in ways that I think is hard to actually name specifically. You walk into a library and there’s something about actually being surrounded by the books themselves — by the actual objects — that brings a sense of comfort. I think the child knows that bringing this object to him places a certain weight and demands a certain engagement from him. If she just said ‘tell me a story,’ that’s one thing. If you bring this large, heavy novel by Dostoevsky and you say ‘read this,’ the emphasis is louder. It’s more declarative. It’s saying you’re accountable to me.
LJC: What then do you think is the impact for a community when they’re reading the same book, such as for the Big Read or something as small as a book club?
DM: I love the way a Big Read and community reads or even a book club gets you around the actual object. It gets you around the story. The book, the text, becomes one way to actually get people into the same room. And there’s something great about that. There’s something great about a Big Read which brings people into the same room who may normally not actually be in the same space, or if they are in the same space might not actually interact and discuss and listen to each other in the same way. They can sit in movie theater, they can sit in a public space, but it doesn’t mean you actually are exchanging ideas, that you’re actually hearing narratives.
With this particular book and with Big Read in particular, it gives immigrant communities and immigrant individuals a place where they can feel like their stories are being recognized as being significant, a place to tell their stories to people who may not have heard them or people who know them only from distance. And suddenly, those gaps and those divides and those divisions across class, race, gender, whatever the case may be, they begin to break down a little bit. That doesn’t mean that they magically disappear, but there is a way in which I think for a certain amount of space, for a certain amount of time, they begin to dissolve and that matters.
LJC: You’ve mentioned that you don’t necessarily believe in the idea of an immigration novel, but by and large this book is about immigration. It’s not your typical immigration narrative. Sepha is not looking for the American Dream, for example. He’s not driven by wealth. Instead, it seems he’s looking for a sense of place, a home — the feeling of comfort he once had back in Ethiopia. What intrigued you to tell this particular immigration story?
DM: I think some of it was to get away from the sort of standard narrative of what a migrant story looks like, which is, especially in America, where you come and you do X and you get the job — that’s the measure of achieving something. I think that can be true to some degree, but I think there’s a lot more at stake. I think it’s exactly what you said. The thing that we’re really trying to pursue and that’s much actually harder to obtain, but absolutely necessary to make life meaningful, is that sense of home, and figuring out how do you actually go about recreating it now. What are the things that you need to both give up and the things you need to be able to forge and create, to actually make that transition possible?
It’s not that my characters or that I’m resistant to the idea of an immigrant or even that name. I think it’s really important, especially now, since that category’s under attack, that that term’s meaningful. And I consider myself a part of that. My family definitely. But it’s when that totalizes somebody’s identity, where their experience is understood to only be within that framework, then suddenly the complexities of that get quickly lost. Suddenly, we have the immigrant narrative, but the immigrant narrative is so radically different. Somebody who came as a refugee during World War II versus somebody who’s come from Canada versus a migrant who’s left home at 14 from Central America — they all share one thing in common, which is the loss of a home to a certain degree. But there’s a radical difference and divide in those experiences, and it’s important to try and figure out how to parcel those stories out to make sure that we see them as distinct, that we see them as individual lives.
LJC: There was a video circulating this week of a family having to say goodbye to their husband, their father, who was being forced to return to Mexico after 30 years of living in the U.S. If you were to write this story in 2018 or even set it in 2018, how do you think it would be different?
DM: I think what I’m writing now probably …
I can feel the change because it does, it feels darker. It feels like there’s a threat, and that threat doesn’t feel like it’s just for one community, for migrants. I feel that there’s something under assault: our principles, our values. There’s fundamentally something about how America was able to exist as a country that’s full of people from all different places and countries and cultures, historically. That’s the only thing that’s held this country together has been this idea that when you get here, you can become a part of it, that the country expands and grows with every generation. When we start closing that off, something really dramatic is being lost and needs to be fought against.
In addition to both being wary and afraid of that, I think there’s also something necessarily important to being really loud about arguing why it can’t be taken away. I think the response demands complexity and nuance, which is the opposite of what we have.
LJC: The theme of coups and revolutions runs throughout the novel. Sepha and his friends constantly quiz each other on African dictators, and one person in the book says that there have only been three revolutions in the history of the world, none of which were in Africa. There’s also a theme of gentrification, especially with Judith renovating one of the houses in Logan Circle, where Sepha lives. Was it a conscious decision to have these themes parallel each other? Can you talk a little about that?
DM: Yes, yeah, very much. The loss of home happens in many different ways. There’s the very radical, violent, political ways in which it happens in foreign countries, and we think of that in terms of refugees and migrants being displaced by conflict in Africa or in other parts of the world. But when I was writing the novel, and had been living in DC at the time and then later on in New York, I saw what felt like a radical form of displacement. It felt like lots of people were losing their homes. The poorer you were, the more radical that displacement was.
There’s something violent about watching a community transform simply overnight and watching homes be razed. I mean, they weren’t burned down, but they were leveled. They were leveled really quickly. It’s as if the people didn’t exist anymore, as if this community didn’t exist, and that felt like a betrayal. It felt like a betrayal of a politics, or an ethos, of a culture. I did want those two to be in conversation — that what’s happening inside this African-American community is the same in many ways. It’s people being forced out of their homes and not knowing where to go next.
And among these three men, too, the game that they play with the coups and the dictators, it’s also a way of using that tragedy to affirm the fact that they care. The reason why you know the names is because you care about them. If you don’t care about them it’s just a bunch of numbers. It’s 180 coups. It’s a place full of dictators. You know the names because you’re saying we can understand this. They’re not different from our own political landscape. Displacement in America can be very similar to displacement in Africa. All we have to do is name it properly.
LJC: You’ve been both a journalist and novelist. When it comes to discussing bigger issues, what do you think the difference is for readers and also as a writer in trying to convey what’s happening? How do you approach them differently?
DM: I guess when I’m a journalist, because it’s very particular, I know to some degree what’s wrong. I want to make sure that I can present it in the most complicated way, but I’m there because there’s an obvious crisis. There’s an obvious problem, and I know to some degree what I’m also working against, which in the journalism I do in Africa is very much against the kind of deductive, generic description of Africa as a place of hell, as conflicts being reduced to ethnic tribal-related things that take away the complexity of them. So I know what I’m working against.
When I’m writing as a novelist, there’s lot less certainty. I know the politics of my stories to a certain degree, which is you want something complicated and beautiful and rich. But I don’t have the same kind of need to argue against or for something because novels aren’t there for that.
LJC: Is there a particular author or book that influenced The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears?
DM: I reread lots of books while writing this one, but Herzog by Saul Bellow had a really huge influence on it. Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. La Commedia by Dante. Those were texts that I went back to over and over while writing it.
Robinson for the fact that a narrative can be built on very little happening. You can just move slowly through the world and just write something that’s actually worth reading and is beautiful and very revealing, too. It’s not just an indulgence or an exercise in rich language. Robinson gives you that. She reminds you of that space. Bellow because there’s a kind of manic energy in Herzog and it’s full of literary texts and ideas and them being squeezed into the character’s head. Oh, and also V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River because the novel is very much conscious of its literary structure. It’s in conversation with these other texts. And Bellow is very much something very similar.
And La Commedia, partly because of the circles, definitely the structure of that. I had a wonderful professor at Georgetown who taught me that. I’m thinking about D.C. as a place that was very broken, and spending lot of time walking around in circles was impossible not to do. Also that line, ‘Through a round aperture I saw appear, / some of the beautiful things that Heaven bears.’ As the characters note, it becomes for them a really apt way of describing their relationship to the world they’re in. They’re sort of in this suspended state where they believe in something better happening. They’ve already suffered and have gone through something very terrible. And they’re in this sort of liminal state looking for something better. It doesn’t mean that they’ve gotten there yet, but they’re hopeful for it.
LJC: You mentioned in your discussion tonight that the original title of the book was Children of the Revolution, which is still the title in many other countries where it’s published, but your publisher said it needed to change for an American audience. How did you finally decide on that line from Dante?
DM: It came really quickly. Once I agreed to change the title, the only options were either Beautiful Things or The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears. The word ‘beauty’ comes up a lot in the text. The characters are looking constantly for beauty. They’re looking for beauty themselves, or they’re looking for beauty in the world. They say the word ‘beauty’ a lot. It’s like it was waiting there in the wings, and it felt like a very natural title, the same way the first title actually did as well, so I didn’t feel like anything got lost and definitely something got gained in some sense. I like though that in any countries, especially in eastern Europe, that’ve actually had a lot of political upheaval, they’ve all kept Children of the Revolution. The French have The Beautiful Things. The Italians, of course, kept the Italian version. Everywhere else had Children of the Revolution.