A pervading sense of low-level despair, so long
present that it has become his accepted state, pervades the
voice of Sepha Stephanos, the narrator of Mengestu's first
novel. For most of the 17-years Sepha has been in the USA he has
run a convenience store in the Logan Circle area of Washington
DC, at first with enthusiasm that this would be his first step
towards achieving the immigrant dream, but in recent years with
an increasing sense of despondency and hopelessness.
In the early 90s a degree of hope enters his life when the run-down building next to his rented rooms is bought by a white woman who quickly renovates it to its former glory, in the process rubbing salt in the wounds of the long time residents of the neighborhood who bitterly resent the gentrification process that is causing many to be forcibly evicted from their homes. Judith, a history professor, and her precocious, demanding but generally likable bi-racial 11-year-old daughter, Naomi, quickly befriend Sepha who, for the first time in years, feels a ray of connectedness and even harbors romantic aspirations. Aspirations that his only two friends, Joseph from the Congo and Kenneth from Kenya gently mock, having themselves long-grown cynical of American ways.
Books about immigration, whether fiction or nonfiction, tend to fall into two camps - rags to riches or riches to rags. However, there is one constant - the immigrant's new life is different, often substantially so, to the path that would have been followed in his or her own country, and therefore expectations have to be remapped and dreams adjusted, for better or worse. The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears draws strongly on the discrepancy between the immigrant's dreams of his new country and what is often the harsh reality. We see this through the eyes of Sepha and his two friends who, despite being from three different African countries, share a common bond - the feeling of perpetually not belonging. Their anchor is their weekly meeting in the back room of Sepha's rundown convenience store where they chew relentlessly over events in Africa, past and present. Another viewpoint on the immigrant experience is offered by Sepha's uncle, a former big-wig in the Ethiopian government, who lives in a small apartment in an Ethiopian dominated tenement and drives a cab and, during the years of the Ethiopian "Red Terror", carried out a one-sided and increasingly disillusioned correspondence with the sitting US-Presidents of the time.
We are awash (and happily so) in 'immigrant' novels by Asian writers, in particular from India, but there has been relatively little written about the experience of immigrating to the "western world" by contemporary African writers. Although the specific experiences of Mengestu's nuanced characters are unique to them, the feeling of living between two worlds is something that many of us can relate to.
Published as Children of The Revolution in the UK, The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears was the well-deserved winner of the 2007 Guardian First Book Award.
Dinaw Mengestu (pronounced dih-now men-guess-too) was
born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in 1978. In 1980 he immigrated to
the United States with his mother and sister, joining his
father, who had fled the communist revolution in Ethiopia two
years before. He is a graduate of Georgetown University and of
Columbia University's MFA program in fiction, and is the
recipient of a 2006 fellowship in fiction from the New York
Foundation for the Arts. The Beautiful Things that Heaven
Bears is his first novel. He has also reported
stories for Harper's and Jane magazine, profiling a young woman
who was kidnapped and forced to become a soldier in the brutal
war in Uganda; and for Rolling Stone on the tragedy in Darfur.
In high school, Mengestu started trying to figure out who he was. "I wanted an identity so badly," he says. "I was never going to be black enough. I was in an all-white Catholic school." There had to be something, he thought, that he could "carve and create" for himself. The answer was Ethiopia, so he started reading everything he could about the country - what started as a "sentimental" attachment built, over the course of 10 years, into a real connection (although it was only recently that he returned to Ethiopia for the first time). While at Georgetown he started taping interviews with family members, pressing his father to talk about events such as his uncle's death. He currently lives in Paris where he's writing a second novel set in a small town in the American Midwest.
This review was originally published in March 2007, and has been updated for the February 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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