Indelible Images of a Place Unseen

Tragic history informs Ethiopian-born Dinaw Mengestu's first novel, set in Washington.
Tragic history informs Ethiopian-born Dinaw Mengestu's first novel, set in Washington. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 1, 2007

How did I end up here?

It's a question most of us ask ourselves at one time or another. But to the Ethiopian-born Georgetown graduate Dinaw Mengestu -- who puts these words in the mind of the Ethiopian-born protagonist of his new novel, "The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears" -- it has always seemed an especially urgent one.

Where is the grand narrative of my life? The one I could spread out and read for signs and clues as to what to expect next?

Mengestu, who is 28, has been asking himself this question since he was old enough to sense his own dislocation. His father fled Ethiopia in fear of his life late in 1977, a short time before Mengestu was born. He, his mother and his sister followed in 1980.

Who was he, this boy from the Horn of Africa growing up amid the white Southern Baptists of Peoria, Ill.? How had he been shaped by the shattering event that carried him thousands of miles from home -- "the central event you never get close to," he says, explaining his childhood sense that part of his identity was missing, "because it's never going to be fully revealed to you by anyone"?

Who Mengestu is right now, on this particular Monday afternoon, is a part-time creative writing teacher at his alma mater. He sits on the edge of his chair in the third-floor conference room of Georgetown's New North Hall, jacket discarded, sleeves rolled up, leaning into a close reading of Marilynne Robinson's "Housekeeping" -- a book published the year he left Ethiopia for the United States.

"Your heart's not going to break for Ruth," he says, referring to the parentless narrator of Robinson's gorgeously written novel, which the 17 undergraduates gathered around the table appear to be finding emotionally opaque. It's not, he adds, as though Ruth is going to rush up to them and say, "Omigod, my mom died!"

Sometimes, Mengestu tells the students, a writer can create more emotion by holding back.

His own book, this day, is poised for publication. (He'll be reading from it tomorrow night at 7 at Olsson's in Penn Quarter.) Like Robinson's, it is a first novel that falls in the "literary fiction" category, but otherwise the two have little in common. Mengestu's characters hang out in a decayed but gentrifying Washington neighborhood rather than the small-town American West. They are vivid and emotionally accessible.

Yet if those Georgetown undergraduates could have an advance peek, they'd see that their youthful professor has followed his own advice. He holds back for more than half his novel before offering a fictionalized version of the "central event" that he has made it his business -- both as an identity-seeking immigrant and as an emerging fiction writer -- to explore.

* * *

"From the very beginning," Norma Tilden says, "it was just clear that he was really good."

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