Dinaw Mengestu is one of a cosmopolitan new generation of novelists—Chimamanda Adichie and Chris Abani among them—whose work is mapping the African diaspora.
Mengestu’s celebrated first novel, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, published in 2007, traced the lives of African emigrants living marginal lives in Washington, D.C. The novel brought him international attention, winning first-book awards from The Guardian and the Los Angeles Times and a “5 under 35” award from the National Book Foundation.
In his elegiac second novel, How to Read the Air, excerpted in The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 issue, Mengestu explores the ways in which the bonds of marriage in an Ethiopian immigrant family are frayed by displacement and upheaval. In the novel, newlyweds Mariam and Yosef are separated when he is jailed in their native Ethiopia, then forced into political exile during the 1970s. Yosef has become a stranger by the time Mariam rejoins him in Peoria, Illinois, after three years. When Mariam is three months pregnant with Jonas and already bruised from her husband’s fists, they set off on a honeymoon driving trip from Peoria to Nashville. Three decades later, as an adult pondering his own failed marriage, their son Jonas retraces that journey, musing on what went wrong between them.
Mengestu’s background—born in Addis Ababa in 1978, he came to the U.S. at the age of 2 with his mother and sister to join his father, who had fled during the Red Terror—is similar to Jonas’. And like Jonas, Mengestu grew up in Peoria and lived in New York. So naturally the reader wonders how much of the story is autobiographical?
“Even before I knew which direction the novel was going in, I knew I wanted to write a novel that was undeniably grounded in America, even if told partly from the perspective of an Ethiopian immigrant,” he says. “Knowing that, it was almost inevitable that I would return to the Midwest, and Peoria in particular, where my family first settled after leaving Ethiopia. Peoria is such a seemingly quintessential American city, and I had always wanted to draw on that in either my fiction or in nonfiction. The Midwest is also a landscape that I have always been infatuated with, perhaps because it’s the first one I can truly remember. I had a lovely, and beautiful childhood there (one very different from Jonas, the narrator of How to Read the Air) and hopefully some of the affection for that landscape is evident in the novel.”
Mengestu went to Georgetown for a B.A., and then Columbia for an MFA. “The MFA program did one great thing for me: It taught me how to be a better reader and critic. Nothing I wrote during my time at Columbia remains—but learning how to really deconstruct a work of fiction, that of course is a permanent part of me now. Many of my closest friends where made at Columbia, and over the years they have been some of my best readers and critics and I remain in their debt.” Among them: Marcela Valdes, Wells Tower, Mark Binelli, and Julia Holmes.
After several years in New York, Mengestu has been living in Paris with his wife, Anne-Emmanuelle. Their youngest son, Louis-Selassie, was born in September. His older son Gabriel is 13 months old. “The two together make for a somewhat hectic life,” Mengestu says. “Our life in Paris has been generally boiled down a to a fairly simple, and lovely routine. We spend the first hours of the morning blurry eyed and exhausted, trying to remember who needs to be fed when, and then if all goes well, we manage to catch up on a little bit of extra sleep late in the morning, before heading out to the park where our oldest son, Gabriel, takes control over the sandpits.
As a journalist, Mengestu has reported from Africa for Harper’s, Rolling Stone, and other publications. His first novel was finished before he started writing nonfiction, he says. “The fact that I have always been deeply invested in politics, and African politics in particular, inevitably played a role in my first novel and of course in my decision to write about a handful of particular conflicts in Africa as a journalist,” he says. “In the case of my second novel, I definitely drew on images that I had taken with me from Darfur and Chad—the desert landscape full of abandoned villages, for example, was born directly out my experience in Darfur. Those images, and to some degree the politics behind them, were radically reconfigured in How to Read the Air, but still to my mind remain essentially true.“
His new novel depicts the hardship and hopelessness of Yosef’s journey from a jail in Ethiopia to stowing away on a cargo ship in Sudan, to Europe and finally the U.S. How typical is this?
“In thinking about Yosef’s migration out of Africa, I was less concerned about how true it may or may not have been to the Ethiopian experience (although I know for certain that such stories do exist in the Ethiopian diaspora) and more concerned about how accurately it reflected the general hardship and sacrifice that accompanies almost all the current migration out of Africa. Yosef’s migration out of Ethiopia in the 1970s is perhaps even more true today across Africa. Every year, thousands of African migrants try and cross into Europe on tiny, dangerous boats, often washing up on the shores of Italy and Spain half-dead.”
Jonas’ mother Mariam must learn a new language, new customs, and learn to know her husband again. Did the stress of all the changes influence how she responded to her husband’s violence? “I think it’s a common story for many people—immigrant or not. In Mariam’s case, her marriage to an angry, violent man slowly whittles away an important part of her identity. The same thing happens to anyone who is trapped in an abusive relationship, who struggles to make ends meet, whose dreams fail to materialize.”
The bitterness between Mariam and Yosef spills over, seeming to stunt their son Jonas’ marriage. “I wanted Jonas’ marriage to Angela to slowly dissolve, not because they no longer loved one another, but because they were unable to turn that love for each other into something that they could both build stable, functional lives out of,” he says. “Writing the end of their marriage began there for me, and as much as possible I tried to show how a marriage or a relationship can slowly fall apart in small, discrete moments that on their own are hardly that significant but that taken together reveal how much suffering and loss has actually taken place. Jonas’ marriage in that regard is very different from his father’s. Yosef comes to America with the scars and wounds created by this awful migration—and those have helped turn him into a deeply cynical, angry, and frightened man. His marriage to Mariam and by extension his only child are bound to feel the effects of that.”
The novel’s title draws in part on a passage from Rilke’s Duino Elegies (“Throw the emptiness in your arms out into the space we breathe; maybe birds will feel the air thinning as they fly deeper into themselves”). Is How to Read the Air an elegy?
“The Duino Elegies are notoriously cryptic, and part of the reason why I have always loved them is because they invite multiple readings over the course of a lifetime. When I began writing this novel, the first elegy was in my mind quite often, particularly the early passages in the elegy that have to deal with releasing the emptiness we feel out into the world where it can be absorbed and transformed into something else. The storytelling, the lying, the retracing of the past—all of these I think offer a release to Jonas, the narrator. I returned to that poem often while writing the novel and inevitably found myself using images from the poem throughout the story.”
Jane Ciabattari’s work has appeared in Bookforum,The Guardian online, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Columbia Journalism Review, among others. She is president of the National Book Critics Circle and author of the short-story collection Stealing the Fire. Recent short stories are online at KGB Bar Lit, Verbsap, Literary Mama and Lost Magazine.