Seventeen years ago, Sepha Stephanos fled the Ethiopian Revolution for a new start in the United States. Now he finds himself running a failing grocery store in a poor African-American section of Washington, D.C., his only companions two fellow African immigrants who share his bitter nostalgia and longing for his home continent. Years ago and worlds away Sepha could never have imagined a life of such isolation. As his environment begins to change, hope comes in the form of a friendship with new neighbors Judith and Naomi, a white woman and her biracial daughter. But when a series of racial incidents disturbs the community, Sepha may lose everything all over again.
Watch a QuickTime interview with Dinaw Mengestu about this book.
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Dinaw Mengestu was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in 1978. He is the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, a fellowship in fiction from the New York Foundation for the Arts and a Lannan Literary Fellowship, and was named a “20 under 40” writer to watch by The New Yorker. Mengestu’s writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, Harper’s, Granta, and other publications. He lives with his family in Washington, D.C.Review:
Ethiopian escapes genocide, makes new life in Washington
For anyone who's caught the gaze of a foreign-born waiter or cabdriver and wished for a deeper understanding of his half-glimpsed life, reading fiction is one way to crack open the dusty window that often separates us. It's all the more intriguing when the writer is as observant as 29-year-old Dinaw Mengestu, who immigrated to America in 1980, after his family fled Ethiopia's genocidal Red Terror. His haunting and powerful first novel, "The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears," is one of the first to give voice to that experience.
His story centers on 36-year-old Sepha Stephanos, who left his mother and brother in Ethiopia 17 years earlier, after his father was brutalized and escorted to his death by soldiers backing Mengistu Haile Mariam, the Communist dictator who overthrew the senile Haile Selassie.
For the past decade, Stephanos has been quietly reading Dostoyevsky, Dante and Naipaul behind the counter of his convenience store in a run-down Washington, D.C., neighborhood. His evenings are punctuated by visits from Kenneth from Kenya and Joe from Congo that glitter with dark wit. The three, who met years before, when they were valets at a local hotel, now drink shots beneath a 20-year-old map of Africa and play a game that begins when one of them names a dictator; the challenge to the others is to guess the year and country of each coup.
Into this world of suppressed dreams and frustrated memories walks Naomi, an angular 11-year-old know-it-all who, like Stephanos, misses her African father. She starts visiting Stephanos regularly and reads the newspaper with him, stealing his heart as she gravely shakes her head over the failure of American policy in the Middle East and the lack of resources devoted to the global AIDS crisis.
The spark between this spirited girl and cautious man shines through in their dialogue, which is among the sharpest in the book. It also draws Stephanos closer to Naomi's mother, Judith, a single, white professor who stands out because she's renovating one of the grand old houses in this predominantly black neighborhood, and also because her daughter's skin is "lighter than black but darker than white." Soon, Judith and Stephanos begin a hesitant romance, pushing him to consider for the first time what it might feel like to be part of a family again. (The book's title comes from "The Inferno," when Dante emerges from hell and once again lays his eyes on the stars.)
But the same wave of gentrification that brought Judith and Naomi into Stephanos' neighborhood ushers in economic and social pressures threatening his livelihood. Judith's shining four-story mansion also becomes a powerful symbol of the tipping social scale, as longtime black residents are evicted from the area.
We know from the outset that Stephanos' relationship with Judith is doomed, and his resulting downward spiral doesn't always propel the reader along at a fast clip. But what keep the pages turning are Mengestu's tangy and perceptive characterizations and well-crafted set pieces that are alive with personal experience.
Mengestu wrings bravado and pathos out of an episode where Kenneth puts on a suit and rents a car, to make the right impression when he and Stephanos try to buy a used car. After pulling into the dealership "cautiously, as if every minor gesture of ours were being judged," Kenneth decides against going into the main office, instead donning sunglasses and waiting for a salesman to come to him, as he and Stephanos lean coolly against the hood of his car. But the two African immigrants never get more than a "one-eyed glance" from the salesmen and leave 20 minutes later, empty-handed.
Among the most arresting scenes are those involving Stephanos' uncle Berhane Selassie, who is 20 years older than he and once lived on a well-appointed ranch outside Addis Ababa. At least among those in his close-knit apartment building, Selassie has retained the aura of respect that his name commanded in the old regime. Though now working as a cabdriver during the day and parking attendant at night, Selassie sometimes reveals "remnants of the humorous, snobbish young man he had once been." For example, when he comes home grinning inexplicably after his long day's work and Stephanos asks him why, Selassie responds enthusiastically, "Gas is so cheap!," though clearly that's the last reason he came to this country.
When Stephanos gets his own eviction notice and his confidence in his business falters, he returns to the apartment he used to share with his uncle and opens a lockbox in Selassie's closet. Inside are the letters his uncle wrote to U.S. Presidents Carter and Reagan during the Red Terror.
The first letter to Carter -- before his uncle shed his innocence and began writing in the spare, detailed style he found in the Washington Post -- still tugs at Stephanos: "Dear President Carter ... I am one of those people for whom nothing is left of their home country. Everything I have has been taken away from me. For many ages, the United States and Ethiopia have been close allies. There is a deep friendship between our two countries. Therefore, it is imperative that the United States, along with Ethiopia's friends in Europe, come to her aid at this critical juncture in her history." That "friendship" between the United States and Ethiopia, which was solidified when Ethiopia became a founding member of the League of Nations and later the United Nations, has long since been betrayed by the Cold War and oil politics abroad. Yet, as Mengestu closely observes the human face of that betrayal, as it plays out amid the racism and class politics of Washington, D.C., he gives us another chance to understand the Ethiopian American experience, in a deeply felt novel that deserves to be read. -- San Francisco Chronicle, March 11, 2007
Mengestu has told a rich and lyrical story of displacement and loneliness. I was profoundly moved by this tale of Ethiopian immigrant's search for acceptance, peace, and identity. -- Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns
These characters are artfully crafted, original and complex in their humanity. Mengestu wants us to know them, to hear their story, and he succeeds in giving us a novel that is fresh and new. -- Miami Herald
This a great African novel, a great Washington novel, and a great American novel. -- The New York Times Book Review
This first novel, by an Ethiopian-American, sings of the immigrant experience, an old American story that people renew every generation, but it sings in an existential key...His straightforward language and his low-key voice combine to make a compelling narrative, one that loops back in time yet seems to move forward with an even pace. -- Alan Cheuse, Dallas Morning News
This is not a story for only an immigrant audience. The author, Dinaw Mengestu, writes in a way that makes this a universal story. In doing so, he does what the best writers accomplish. -- The Oregonian
[A] tender, enthralling debut novel about the hidden lives of immigrants who are caught between the brutal Africa they have fled and an America that will not full admit them...Mengestu brilliantly illuminates both the trauma of exile and the ways in which so many of us are still looking for home in America. -- Richard McCann, O, The Oprah Magazine
[E]loquent...The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears is not a conventional immigrant novel, and Stephanos is not a garden-variety emigre...deeply moving. -- Chicago Tribune
[W]onderfully written and moving. -- Esquire
[W]renching and important...Seldom has a character emerged in a recent novel who is so compellingly dark but honest, hopeful but dismal, and able to turn his chronicle into a truly American tapestry...Mengestu has made, and made well, a novel that is a retelling of the immigrant experience. -- Chris Abani, Los Angeles Times
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