Indelible Images of a Place Unseen

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."

Tilden, a Georgetown English professor, still remembers the first assignment Mengestu turned in for her creative nonfiction class. Go out and observe people having fun, she'd told her students. A couple of days later, she sat down with "this miserable group of pieces." Everyone was trying too hard -- except Mengestu. His story was a simple one: A man sitting at a bus stop watches two boys "run down the street and push each other back and forth."

Every sentence, Tilden recalls, was perfect and in its place.

Mengestu had come to Georgetown from the suburbs of Chicago, where his family had moved when he was 9 (his father had left a management job at Caterpillar Inc., in Peoria, to launch his own messenger service). But he had relatives in Washington, so he knew the city, and he never confined himself to the Georgetown campus.

"When I first moved to D.C., my girlfriend was living in Logan Circle," he says, "and it was still pretty battered. We'd spend a lot of time sitting on the stoops . . . because we were young and poor and didn't have anything else to do."

The rapidly changing landscape of Logan Circle in Northwest Washington is central to Mengestu's novel. His main character, known simply as Stephanos, runs a convenience store there and gets involved with a white woman and her mixed-race daughter who move into a restored house nearby. But the "very specific image" that sparked "The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears," he says, came from a late-night walk down 18th Street in Adams Morgan.

All it took was a glimpse of a lonely-looking Ethiopian shopkeeper "and I had a sentence in my head, which was: 'No one comes into the store anymore.' "

On the most obvious level, Stephanos's history is not Mengestu's. The character was 17 -- not 2 -- when he left Ethiopia and he has spent years beset by indelible images of the homeland that his creator cannot remember at all.

Unlike Mengestu in Peoria, where there was no Ethiopian community, Stephanos starts his American life in a Silver Spring apartment building crammed with his countrymen. His move to Logan Circle is a rejection of that Ethiopia-centric immigrant existence. He wants to move on, though he's not quite sure how.

The main elements of his new life become the store and his friendships with two other African immigrants. Both Joseph, from the Congo, and Kenneth, from Kenya, arrived in the United States ambitious to rise and thrive. Both have settled for less.

Now, with Stephanos, they drink too much and play a game replete with nostalgia and bitterness. They vie with each other to see who is the most knowledgeable about their beloved continent's destructive dictators and seemingly endless coups, which Mengestu threw himself into researching.

We all have favorites. Bukassa. Amin. Mobutu. . .

"Our memories," Joseph says more seriously, during a lull in the game, "are like a river cut off from the ocean. With time they will slowly dry out in the sun, and so we drink and drink and drink and we can never have our fill."

The arrival of Stephanos's new neighbors, Judith and her daughter, Naomi, offers Stephanos a more forward-looking connection. Naomi is a mesmerizing child, wise beyond her years, who persuades Stephanos to read "The Brothers Karamazov" to her and draws him out of his self-imposed emotional exile.

Where did she come from?

Mengestu doesn't know.

"She just came wholesale," he says. "I felt their relationship, for some reason, really distinctly."

But the hope that Naomi and Judith represent is undermined by complications of race and especially class. At one crisis point, Stephanos leaves his store and heads aimlessly west on P Street, one of his (and Mengestu's) favorite places to walk. Eventually he finds himself alone in an uncle's apartment, reading letters the older man wrote to President Jimmy Carter.

No one else in his life, it seemed, could bear hearing him talk about what he'd lost.

Dear President Carter . . . Those that died were all taken from their homes, in front of their wives and children. My brother-in-law, Shibrew Stephanos, was one of those men . . .

* * *

Here it comes, then, that long-shrouded "event."

In the novel, the man called Shibrew Stephanos is the shopkeeper's father. As a teenager, the younger man has to watch him brutalized in his own living room during the so-called Red Terror of the 1970s, then led away by government soldiers to his death.

In real life, Shibrew Stephanos was Mengestu's father's older brother. Mengestu was too young to have really known his uncle before he was killed.

Still, he haunted the writer's childhood.

"My father would speak about his brother every once in a while, just really quietly," he says. "He would whisper his name while he was driving. Sometimes he would just suddenly shake his head in sadness."

Meanwhile -- how did I end up here? -- Mengestu was trying to figure out who he was.

In high school, "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 you could "carve and create for yourself."

The answer was Ethiopia.

He started to read everything he could get his hands on, "doing just weird research into the country on my own." Latching onto Ethiopia was "sentimental," he says, yet there was also an attachment that felt real. The re-connection helped him. "And then it was a matter of building it up over the course of 10 years."

As a Georgetown senior, he began taping interviews with family members -- pressing his father to talk about, among other things, his uncle's death. His uncle was likely taken from his law office, not his home. He was held at a military barracks in Addis Ababa. A week or so later, Mengestu's father got a call to come get him.

"I think they said he had died of pneumonia in prison," Mengestu says. "When my father went to pick up the body, he said he remembers him being bruised and beaten, and his face was swollen."

His father and other relatives seemed "really moved" to talk about this, Mengestu says. "I think most of them hadn't spoken about it in years." As for Mengestu himself: He just wanted the story to be preserved.

He was thinking of writing a nonfiction version, maybe something splicing his interviews together with newspaper articles and historical artifacts into "this crazy postmodern narrative." Instead, he wrote "The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears." The title comes from Dante's "Inferno," at a point where the poet is about to leave Hell and -- like an emigrant, with the ordeal of purgatory still ahead of him -- catches a glimpse of the stars.

Mengestu is about to launch a nine-city book tour -- hardly the norm for an unknown first novelist. His editor, Megan Lynch, says interest among booksellers was high enough for Riverhead to go back to press a couple of times even before today's official publication date.

What's next? There will likely be some journalism, he says: Rolling Stone sent him to Darfur for a piece that ran in September, and he came home dreaming terrible dreams but "dying to go back." He also, finally, traveled to Ethiopia. There, he felt whole and "very happy," and he considered nonfiction, once again, as a way to tell that tale.

But who he is now is a novelist, it seems.

"It will definitely end up as fiction," Dinaw Mengestu says.

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