Identity, Loss and Reinvention
JACKSON, WYO – Acclaimed Novelist Dinaw Mengestu Reads in Jackson
When we first meet Helen, one of two protagonists in Dinaw Mengestu’s brilliant new novel, All Our Names, Helen describes herself first by invoking her mother.
“My mother was a whisperer. She spoke in soft tones, in case my father was upset or had entered one of his dark moods, a habit which she continued after he had left. We lived in a quiet, semi-rural Midwestern town, and decorum for her was everything.”
Character, and by extension identity, is a central investigation in Mengestu’s fiction. How much of who we are is informed by our surroundings? When we leave our hometown – or our homeland – do we cease in some way to be ourselves?
An award-winning author and current Eminent Writer in Residence at the University of Wyoming, Dinaw Mengestu will speak Saturday as part of Teton County Library’s “Writers at the Library” program. He will read from All Our Names and lead a discussion of the book’s themes.
Mengestu’s reading will be preceded during the day on Saturday by a writing workshop on creating a portrait. Led by Beth Loffreda, director of the UW MFA Program in Creative Writing, the workshop will teach participants how to capture the essence of a person in just a few sentences, working with personal photographs or from memory.
The focus on compelling portraits in literature offers Jackson residents an opportunity to delve into the importance of literary fiction in our lives. A recent study conducted by researchers at New School for Social research showed that reading literary fiction enhances the ability to detect and understand other people’s emotions, a crucial skill in navigating complex social relationships. In other words, reading good books increases empathy.
This is why Mengestu’s work is so important. An Ethiopian-American who moved to Peoria, Ill. as a boy when his family fled the Red Terror in Ethiopia, Mengestu has spent a lifetime negotiating a complex sense of identity. Dislocation and the immigrant experience are major themes in his fiction. When I spoke with him by phone, Mengestu reflected on the upside of dislocation.
“My characters try to understand the world, and they spend time looking at it,” he said. “Dislocation causes you to try to figure out what you are seeing.”
All Our Names is a love story about Isaac, a recent African immigrant to the small Midwestern town of Laurel, and Helen, the social worker assigned to his case. Though she’s on her home turf, Helen also carries a sense of dislocation. Reflecting on her mother’s quiet way of speaking, Helen observes that she is very unlike her mother:
“I could never have been a whisperer. I liked my voice too much. I rarely read a book in silence. I wanted to hear every story out loud, so I often read alone in our backyard, which was large enough that if I yelled the story at the top of my voice, no one in the house closest to us could hear me. … When I was older, and the grass was almost knee-high because no one bothered to tend to it anymore, I went back there with a book in my hand simply to scream.”
In this brief passage, we learn something essential about Helen and how she became who she is at the time the novel takes place. To create this portrait of Helen, Mengestu did not rely on predictable descriptions of hair color, height, favorite color or favorite food – all of which in the end can make a character seem more generic than specific. Instead, Mengestu lets us know in one paragraph that Helen is a person who has defined herself in opposition to her mother since childhood, and thus in opposition to the essential character of her Midwestern roots. We also know that two key aspects to her identity are being a reader and unabashedly using a loud voice.
Of course we learn much more about Helen and Isaac as the novel, and their romance, unfolds. Set in the 1970s, the novel is also about other kinds of love, between friends and for revolutionary causes. Isaac has fled a war in Africa, but has left behind his best friend and a chaotic past.
“The love story saves the characters,” Mengestu said. “Both Isaac and Helen are isolated and lonely when they meet. They have set themselves aside from conventional paths. Their relationship is what will ground them.”
Though race is one of the influences that shape his characters, Mengestu said the novel is not about race. Instead, he writes about the universal experience of having lost someone or something that was vital to you. He wants his novels to reach a wide audience.
“I don’t think of my readers in terms of race or gender,” he said. “I write for readers who want complex stories.”
Growing up in Illinois and feeling alienated from many of his peers, Mengestu was first inspired by stories of rebellion and adventure. Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye captured Mengestu’s imagination as a teenager. He began to think about being a writer himself. “It seemed heroic to want to be a writer,” he said.
Not surprisingly, Mengestu travels often in his adult life. He has lived in Washington D.C., Paris and New York. He travels to Africa at least once a year. He still has family in Ethiopia whom he visits.
“Travel is vital to my sense of myself as a writer,” he said.
As the current Eminent Writer in Residence at the University of Wyoming Master of Fine Arts Creative Writing Program, Mengestu leads workshops with MFA creative writing students. He will also visit with undergraduate students in the UW Multicultural Resource Center and the creative writing minor program.
While his time on the UW campus has been limited because of his current book tour schedule, he has enjoyed the experience so far.
“I’ve loved Wyoming,” he said. “I have an affinity for small town America. Laramie has stunning natural beauty plus an eclectic downtown.”
Like Wyomingites, place is central to identity for Mengestu’s characters. However, rather than being in harmony with nature, characters like Isaac and Helen are out of step with their environment. Though they are both from small towns originally, it is not their small-town sensibilities that define them, but rather their restlessness. Similarly, in The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, the main character, Sepha Stephanos, feels alienated from his Washington D.C. surroundings because it turned out not to be the land of freedom he had imagined.
As with his own family, some of Mengestu’s characters have been displaced by war. Sepha fled Ethiopia’s Red Terror. Isaac fled a war in Uganda. The politics of war and issues of migration and immigration will be part of the discussion when Mengestu reads on Saturday.
It’s notable that in the past few months Wyoming has seen a spotlight on issues facing African refugees and immigrants, due in large part to Mengestu’s public readings and Gillette resident Bertine Bahige’s campaign to establish a refugee resettlement program (“No Refuge in Wyoming,” March 18, 2014.) In a state where African-Americans comprise 1.5 percent of the population, this constitutes a major uptick in conversation about race and immigration. In the West, we are more accustomed to targeting our debates about immigration – legal or otherwise – on Mexicans seeking work. Mengestu’s work offers a broader perspective on the multitude of reasons people may leave their homeland.
Fiction provides the wide canvas Mengestu needs to convey his themes and ideas. Though he has written acclaimed nonfiction articles for Rolling Stone and other publications, it is his work in fiction that earned him a MacArthur “Genius” Award, as well as the Lannan Fiction Fellowship and the National Book Award “5 under 35” Award. In 2010 he was selected by The New Yorker as a “20 under 40” writer.
When asked by The New Yorker what makes a piece of fiction work, Mengestu replied: “As for most writers, language is vital for me:
a writer’s ability to render a fictional world – characters, landscape, emotions – into something original that alters or deepens my understanding of both literature and life. Then, there’s something that I think of as the space that a work of fiction provides the reader to feel emotionally and intellectually invested in the text.”
Ultimately, Mengestu’s fiction is about human connection. Whether describing the way Isaac befriended his close compatriot in Uganda (“[We] became friends the way two stray dogs find themselves linked by treading the same path every day in search of food and companionship”) or Isaac and Helen’s first kiss (“When we opened our eyes and separated, what we felt wasn’t surprise so much as relief that our first moment of intimacy felt so ordinary – almost habitual, as if it had been part of our routine for years to kiss while passing”), Mengestu writes with a striking poignancy and refreshing lack of sentimentality. Identity, his characters find, can be revealed and reinvented through love. However, ghosts of the past never fully disappear.
Dinaw Mengestu reads from All Our Names at Teton County Library Ordway Auditorium on Saturday at 7 p.m. The event is free, tickets not required. For more information, visit tclib.org and look for the Writers at the Library link.
Beth Loffreda leads a workshop on writing a portrait on Saturday, April 26, from 10 to 11:30 a.m. Admission is free and registration is required. Contact Leah Shlachter at firstname.lastname@example.org or 733-2164, ext. 229.