Dinaw Mengestu

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Dinaw Mengestu
Dinaw Mengestu (c) Blair Fethers

Article

Crossing Borders

Some of the world’s fastest athletes come from Ethiopia. While not a runner, Dinaw Mengestu also happens to be a native of this East African country. And with his debut novel, ‘The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears,’ the 31-year-old author is off to a lightning start. And that’s not all. Mengestu talks so rapidly that he can safely be called an athlete of the spoken word. When he landed on the shortlist of the International Literature Award of the Haus der Kulturen der Welt and the Stiftung Elementarteilchen, he was beside himself with joy, as this honour for his literary progeny coincided with the literal birth of his own child. The news of the nomination reached him in the maternity ward. ‘It was really an exciting moment to have great news for the prize and to have a brand new baby,’ he says. ‘It was a whole world of emotions going on at the same time.’
He relates the exhilaration of the moment with agility and intensity – the very qualities with which he tells ‘The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears,’ despite taking on a host of weighty issues that would seem to resist such lively narrative. Navigating these themes, he moves between epochs and continents but never loses sight of his subject’s up-to-the-minute relevance. Mengestu’s narrator, Sepha Stephanos, an Ethiopian émigré living in the United States, experiences the raw social climate of the country during the economic downturn. Sepha finds a friend in his neighbour Judith, as well as in Joseph and Kenneth, who, like him, have come to America from Africa. The author repeatedly plunges his characters into discussion – about African politics, about African dictators, about rebel leaders. In short, about all that has gone wrong in the continent’s postcolonial era and who is actually to blame. Mengestu explains that he wove these episodes into the story because he wanted to speak about African politics in a more responsible way than is commonly heard. ‘There is a way in which Africa gets discussed,’ he says. ‘Its politics become reduced to very simple terms like “horrific” and “awful”.’

Mengestu’s own life is in fact intimately connected with the fate of his continent. His father fled Ethiopia in 1978, four years after the overthrow of Haile Selassie and three years after the Communist coup. Members of his family disappeared, never to resurface. The book, he says, was his way of imagining this past, which he does with enormous respect for the people who lived through this period in Ethiopia. Politics was perhaps not his first concern, but is there really anything that lies outside of politics? Indeed, people are made by politics. As Mengestu says: ‘I didn’t write with a political agenda in mind, but I guess politics are still kind of important to me. They are part of what we are as people, they define our characters, they define our nations. So it was impossible not to have politics become a part of the novel, because it becomes part of the characters, you know – the characters are political exiles, the characters are victims of politics in America and victims of politics in Africa as well. So that becomes part of who they are.’

And this, perhaps, is precisely what ‘The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears’ shows us: that politics is inseparably interwoven in our lives. Not only in our nation, but also our history and even our character. Politics makes us who we are. Its great narratives penetrate our lives. The local and the global are inseparable. Migration, multiculturalism, changing identities – all this happens all over the world, in every tiny village in Europe or anywhere else. Mengestu speaks of the ‘global dimensions of the local.’ He says, ‘If you live in a small town in France or if you live in Germany, you are going to be affected by these issues anyway, so they become part of the national conversation.’

This debate, which takes place not only locally or nationally, but also globally, relies on translation. What is not translated, Mengestu points out, becomes lost. Without the ability to imagine another country, another life, to read a book in translation, he says, it is difficult for us to understand each other. Translation, he explains just as rapidly as he began, becomes a political event: ‘Sometimes you need to step outside of your own limited reality and see something from a different perspective in order to understand what is happening inside of your own country. And inside of yourself as well. So translation becomes a way of crossing those borders that we imagine are impossible to overcome, but in fact with translation you can see that there is something like a shared humanity that has nothing to do with nations and has little to do with states.’

Author: Heike Gatzmaga

Bio

Dinaw Mengestu was born in Ethiopia in 1978. At the age of two he came to the United States with his family, who were forced to flee Ethiopia for political reasons. He studied literature and in 2006 received a writer’s grant from the New York Foundation for the Arts. Mengestu’s short stories have been published in journals. His first novel, ‘The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears,’ has met with success in the USA, Britain and France. Honours: Guardian First Book Award, Los Angeles Times Bestseller, New York Times Notable Book 2007, Prix du Meilleur Premier Roman Etranger.

Works

The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears

Published Written,
2007
Riverhead Books (UK edition: ´The Children of the Revolution,´ Random House)

Merits

The New Yorker "20 Under 40", 2010
Los Angeles Times Book Prize, 2008
New York Public Library Young Lions Award Finalist, 2008
Dylan Thomas Prize, Finalist, 2008
Prix du Premier Meilleur Roman Etranger, 2007
Grand Prix de Lectrices de Elle, Finalist, 2007
Prix Femina Etranger, Finalist, 2007
Guardian First Book Award, 2007
National Book Award Foundation, 5 Under 35 Award, 2007
Lannan Fiction Fellowship, 2007
New York Times Notable Book, 2007

Projects

This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the culturebase.net partner institutions.

International Literature Award -

Haus der Kulturen der Welt

(01 January 09 - 30 September 09)

Www

Article in The Guardian

Ethiopian-American wins Guardian First Book Award. By Sarah Crown (05.12.2007)