Kojo and Tom Sherwood chat with Corey Stewart, the chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, and Nancy Floreen, the current president of the Montgomery County Council.
As a young Ethiopian immigrant to Peoria, Ill., Dinaw Mengestu immersed himself in life as an American in the heartland. But as he grew up, doubts and confusion about his identity drew Mengestu back to the culture and turbulent history his parents left behind. Now an acclaimed writer and 2012 recipient of the MacArthur “genius” grant, Mengestu has found his voice capturing the conflicting experiences of the African diaspora in America. He joins Kojo to discuss his work and writing.
- Dinaw Mengestu Writer, journalist and 2012 MacArthur Grant recipient; Author of "The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears" and "How to Read the Air"
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Most aspiring writers have one big goal, to get published. But a more important mark of success is knowing that you've touched readers in a personal and powerful way. At age 34, Dinaw Mengestu has done both. His novels and his nonfiction writing have shed light on the little explored world of the African Diaspora in America. He's given voice, thought and feeling to the Ethiopian shopkeeper you know but really don't, or the young black student at school with the foreign name but quizzically flat Midwestern accent.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIMengestu stories echo his own story. He came to the U.S. from Ethiopia at the age of two and settled in Peoria, Ill. But growing up in the heartland he played the complex role of being neither from here nor there, a story familiar to millions across this area and the country. His writing has garnered international accolades and just this month he won the MacArthur genius grant. We're pleased to welcome Dinaw Mengestu in the studio. Dinaw Mengestu, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. DINAW MENGESTUThank you, Kojo. It's a pleasure to be here.
NNAMDIHe, as I mentioned, is a writer and journalist. His award-winning books include "The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bares" and "How to Read the Air." He was just named a 2012 MacArthur Fellow. And now first, congratulations on the...
NNAMDI...MacArthur grants. Since getting the MacArthur genius award is usually a surprise to most recipients, got to ask how did you find out that you had received the grant?
MENGESTUI was in Nairobi at a literary festival and I was getting ready to go into a press conference where we were supposed to talk about how we were going to promote literacy in Africa and how we were going to get people reading and writing across the continent. And just before walking in my phone rang and I saw a cell phone number from Chicago. And being in Africa and having a phone number from France seeing a number from Chicago felt a little bit too bizarre not to pick up the phone.
NNAMDIYou picked up the phone, we're told. What was your initial response?
MENGESTUYou know, I think I was -- my initial response was just terror. There was a shocking level of fear that coursed through my veins as the person who's announcing the fellowship to me...
NNAMDIWhy? Because you felt this was a great, like, responsibility, obligation
MENGESTUThat sense of responsibility stayed with me for weeks, and still does now actually. At the time it was not knowing exactly how to respond, feeling remarkably sort of grateful and obviously completely shocked that that was happening to me. And then at the same time immediately afterwards a real sense of responsibility that I think still stays with me definitely right now.
NNAMDISee, only a writer can think that way. Anybody else who gets that would immediately say, oh wonderful. I have more money to spend. But a writer who has to meet deadlines, who's constantly worrying about whether or not you're going to meet the deadline, whether or not your book will be liked, etcetera, you find a way to worry about this.
MENGESTUWell, because I think as a writer you're always -- there's a constant state of anxiety that you'd like to keep yourself in. And that's probably to our benefit. I think if we ever want to be too complacent our writing's going to suffer for it. So that state of anxiety makes the work necessary. Because if it's not necessary you don't feel enough pressure on yourself and no one's going to care if you don't write that book, if you don't finish that article. It has to really come from you and so that responsibility I think is very much born internally. Otherwise, you know, you're worried that no one's going to care so you make sure that you care maybe a bit too much.
NNAMDIIf you'd like to join this conversation with Dinaw Mengestu, you can call us at 800-433-8850. Send email to email@example.com. Send us a Tweet at kojoshow or simply go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there. As an Ethiopian immigrant growing up in Illinois, from the age of two you quickly became a Midwesterner, but you never quite felt like you fit in to what it meant to be black in America. Can you tell us a little bit about your story and what brought your family to the United States?
MENGESTUWe left -- my father left just before I was born in 1978 during the Communist Revolution in Ethiopia. And my mother and sister and I joined him two years later, which is about how long it took for us to get the visas and to sneak our way out of the country. And we arrived in this very small Midwestern town. And I think initially as a child my first sense was that I was completely American. You know, I don't have any memories of being Ethiopian. I don't have any memories of Ethiopia or my family's life there. What I remember of course is going outside of my house and playing, you know, kickball and baseball with my friends.
MENGESTUSo as a young man, as a young child I definitely felt completely American. We went to a Southern Baptist Church, we had an all American childhood, my dad worked at Caterpillar. But really quickly as we grew older we began to understand that these identities were much more complicated, that it wasn't just about being American, that there was a racial identity that was attached about being black and in America. And then growing old and realizing there's also history in a culture, about being -- if you have been trying to figure out how all those identities were being shaped and formed by myself and by the people who saw me I think was, you know, a long ongoing process.
NNAMDIBack up for a second and tell me, was your family fleeing the Communist Revolution or was it fleeing the regime that preceded the Communist Revolution, the regime of Emperor Haile Selassie?
MENGESTUWe were fleeing the communist regime and a lot of my family members. My father's brother was a lawyer and was arrested and killed and a lot of other young men including my uncles ended up in prison during that regime change. And so we were fleeing them.
NNAMDIWhat was it like to grow up African, not African American, in the heartland with a name that was so distinctly foreign both to blacks and whites?
MENGESTUYou know, we grew up -- my parents, I think, as much as possible tried to insulate us from that. They tried to insist on an Ethiopian identity. And I remember as a child my parents telling us that constantly that first and foremost we were Ethiopian. And then of course, as we always joked, we'd then go outside and we'd eat a hotdog and watch baseball. And so you can insist on this Ethiopian identity, but it didn't really mean a whole lot until I think I tried to begin to discover what that meant for myself.
MENGESTUWhat I understood definitely was that kind of weird place of not having anyone who looked -- had the same name as I did. Of course, there's the stories of the famine that happened in Ethiopia. So definitely growing up with a lot of stereotypes and misperceptions about what Ethiopia was and what it meant to be Ethiopian. And people assuming that because we were Ethiopian immigrants that we arrived because of the famine, that we were fleeing poverty. And so those are the kind of negative stereotypes that always surrounded that identity.
NNAMDISo in Peoria, Ill. you were growing up with a kind of triple consciousness, the consciousness of living in Peoria, Ill., the consciousness of being of Ethiopian parentage and therefore having to fight off all of the misconceptions about exactly what may have brought you there and the identity of being black in Peoria, Ill. but not being African American. Did that lead to any confusion on your part at all?
MENGESTUI would say that was an ongoing confusion that in many ways has probably never seized, and for both good and for bad. I think that complexity of identity as a young man was quite disorientating. It was quite bizarre to, at times, want to be seen as being African American and other times feeling like I couldn't actually play that role. I couldn't actually be accepted into that role because I wasn't really the same history -- the same cultural history that I'd grown up with. You know, the same time having a very complicated relationship with being American knowing that I was by and large completely culturally American but at the same time still feeling excluded from that because of the color of my skin.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. Were your parents immigrants? Did you feel a sense of displacement growing up in this country or well, not? 800-433-8850. The Ethiopian Diaspora is a complex and powerful group and many say that the longer they're in this country the more divorced they become from the reality on the ground in Ethiopia. Meanwhile, political leaders back in Ethiopia become dismissive of people who have left, even thought the Diaspora does play and can play a critical role at financing politics there. How have you seen this dynamic playing out as you have chronicled the story of some Ethiopians in this country?
MENGESTUI think -- I always think of us as being a sort of African version of the Cuban immigrants. You know, we sort of left during Communism. A lot of the older generation, my parents generation, have become sort of deeply entrenched in American life. Many Ethiopians didn't go back to Ethiopia until -- you know, for 20, 30 years. And some still have never gone back but are still very, very politically engaged with their country. And I think there's a fair criticism to wonder about this sort of Diaspora who's become, not Americanized, but it has definitely become suddenly divorced from what's happening on the ground. And yet at the same time you can't deny people there their rights to engage with their countries, even if they can't step foot back inside of them.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call. If you happen to be an Ethiopian immigrant do you feel that sense of separation, on the one hand feeling deeply engaged in your country? On the other hand feeling that the longer you stay the less you really know about what's going on? 800-433-8850. When I read "The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bares," your first novel, it was clear that you had done a lot of research about Washington, D.C. in addition to having lived here yourself.
NNAMDIBut the other thing that became clear to me, which is why I asked you the reason why your family left, is because I was here during the regime of Emperor Haile Selassie. And the streets used to be crowded with Ethiopians demonstrating against the regime of Haile Selassie. And now we have seen it evolve where there are demonstrations -- there were demonstrations against the communist regime and now there are demonstrations against the regime there.
MENGESTUYeah, we haven't stopped demonstrating I think. It's something that I think we're quite fond of doing. I think because our attachments to our country run so deep and are so profound, and in writing that first novel set in D.C., a lot of that -- a lot of my initial memories even before moving here as a college student came from coming to D.C. as a young child because this is where the heart of the Ethiopian Diaspora began and we would come here. And almost as soon as walking outside of the street on 18th Street I always felt like my father would run into a long lost friend, a cousin he hadn't seen.
MENGESTUSo the city always had a massive impact on my imagination, even before having to write a novel or trying to do research about it. The sense that the city was profoundly linked to my own cultural history was always there.
NNAMDILet's go to the telephones. Here is Samson in Falls Church, Va. Samson, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SAMSONThank you very much, Kojo. It's a great show. I just wanted to say that I share a lot of the similarities as your guest. I'm Ethiopian. I left Ethiopia at the age of six and, you know, lived in Italy, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, etcetera. And I just wanted to -- of course first of all, I wanted to say that, Dinaw, we're very proud of you.
SAMSONAnd the one thing I wanted to say that's kind of unique to Ethiopians -- and I'm not saying it's good or bad, but we retain this extreme -- not extreme in a bad sense but a nationalism that I don't see -- having gone to international schools all my life, that I don't see as strong as in other immigrants in the sense that we're all Ethiopian first. My daughter was born in the United States, she's a U.S. citizen, but in school she always presents herself as being Ethiopian. And there's this tremendous nationalistic fervor that doesn't seem to disappear with time and other countries. And I'll hang up and...
NNAMDIIt's a debate that now I've been having with myself for years, as Samson says, he can't say whether it's a good thing or a bad thing. I go back and forth on the issue of nationalism myself, whether the kind of nationalism that he's talking about, the fervent nationalism is a good thing or a bad thing.
MENGESTUYeah, as do I. I remember as a young man actually choosing for a long time to not take on U.S. citizenship and deciding that my Ethiopian identity was more central to that than my American identity. And now I would sort of argue that I don't actually need to choose between either one, that I've come to believe that part of being American means that I can say that American identity -- that the possibility of being American is inclusive enough to make sure that I can completely feel Ethiopian at the same time.
MENGESTUAnd at the same time I also have to be honest and say that, you know, when I'm back in Ethiopia the first thing everyone says to me is that I'm an American child and everyone calls me the American boy coming back home. And so you have top also respect the right of -- the differences that come with migration and the fact that having grown up in America it doesn't take away my Ethiopian heritage, my culture. But it does complicate that sense of one identity.
NNAMDIIndeed you've said -- and, Samson, thanks for your call -- you've been quoted as saying that when you are in Ethiopia, you feel Ethiopian until you open your mouth.
NNAMDIThis idea of displacement seems to be a central theme in your work. Your first novel that I mentioned earlier, "The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bares" is about an Ethiopian store owner living in Logan Circle. He's fled the violence in his own country only to be confronted by economic and social upheaval in his D.C. neighborhood. What kinds of parallels to you see between immigration and gentrification?
MENGESTUI was more aware of that as I was writing the novel then I think I was when I began it. But watching Logan Circle when I first came to D.C. and watching, you know, the sort of intense poverty, prostitution and drugs happening. And watching how radical and quickly that can change and wondering of course what happened to these people? How does a neighborhood change so rapidly without having an enormous effect on the population that was living there?
MENGESTUAnd as I began writing the novel, I definitely began to think of it as a mirroring of each other, this sort of, you know, migration that happens out of Africa for political reasons. And the migration that happens internally would (unintelligible) and displaced from their communities because of identification that there's -- both things can happen at the same time. And we tend to think of the economic migrants or immigrants out of Africa. And we can often tend to forget the internal displacement that happens inside of our country.
NNAMDIAnd I'll tell you the great thing about reading a really good novelist such as yourself is that when I first started reading "The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bares" I said, okay 1150 P Street Northwest, I know that address where that store is supposed to be. And then as I was reading I felt like I knew the owner of the store. And then all of a sudden I didn't. I realized that I really didn't know him at all.
NNAMDIAnd I think that's a lot of what happens in real life when you think you know people and then here comes the novelist's art, the novelist's mind to bare and he takes the character in a direction that you didn't think that the people that you know who are like that would ever go. But that's where this character went. Anyway, that's enough of me. Here's Innis in Garret Park, Md. Innis, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
INNISHi. I just wanted to make sort of an -- give you a sense of what I went through which is just exactly the inverse because I have both American parents. And when I was two years old I was taken by my parents to Taiwan, the Republic of China. And I spent 20 years there growing up and initially I didn't have any sense of being an American. I went to a Chinese school and so everything was sort of like our guest's experience but it was backwards, or whatever -- however you want to say it.
NNAMDICare to comment on that, Dinaw?
MENGESTUYeah, I think that sense of sort of hybrid identity and this sort of fact that your identity -- or your cultural political identity's not just something that you're born into but something to some degree that you have to kind of create and construct as yourself. Maybe you were born in Taiwan and you had an American passport but the process of becoming an American or feeling like you were American and coming back to live here is still something that you have to do. It doesn't just happen because of the piece of paper or the certificate that comes with birth. So I think definitely that's true.
NNAMDIInnis, thank you very much for your call. If you happen to be a child of parents born in another country or if you came to this country as a child, we'd be interested in hearing from you about how you made the adjustment, or whether you experienced any feelings of displacement at all. 800-433-8850. You can also send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Do you think that the traumatic history that lurked in your own family's background somehow drove you to want to express it through writing?
MENGESTUI would tend to believe that they're sort of deeply intertwined and profoundly related. I think part of what a novelist does is you want to sort of create stories and you want to create different forms of history in order to fill different gaps in your life. And one of the biggest gaps growing up definitely was the gap that comes with displacement and migration. Being told that we were Ethiopian but never having access to Ethiopia, being told that we were a part of this cultural history, being told of relatives who had died during the Communist Revolution, but never knowing who they were or what happened to them.
MENGESTUAnd so you grow up with a lot of holes and you grow up with a lot of missing narratives in your live. And for me part of what I think I've always wanted to do now as a novelist is see if I can reconstruct those stories. It's not a matter of drawing directly on my life and trying to create a new form of autobiography. It's a matter of how closely I can reinvent history and come up with something that to me mirrors the truth. And the truth being in this case I think, not the pragmatic details that might've happened in Ethiopia or happened in Africa, but the truth of what it means to lose a home, to lose a country, that sense of loss that comes with migration. And that comes, I think, with feeling very isolated and alone.
NNAMDII'm glad you said what I've always wanted to do now as a novelist because you didn't always want to be a novelist. Well, you went to school at Georgetown with the intention of becoming a diplomat. And by your senior year you were a poetry fellow in the English Department. What was up with that?
MENGESTUWell, I think my first day at Georgetown -- and I tell my students this now that I'm teaching there, is I tried to actually get out of the school foreign service so I could become an English major. You know, growing up you always wanted to make your parents happy. And as immigrant communities often tend to do they want their children to have the most pragmatic path to success. And for us that was to say we were going to be a doctor, and I couldn't be a doctor.
NNAMDIIt sounds like my parents.
MENGESTUYeah. So eventually I settled on a diplomat because I do like politics and I'm still pretty deeply invested in politics. And realizing really quickly that's not how I wanted to engage with the world. I still have those political concerns but that my way of trying to understand and make sense of all these different political histories was to write about them. And by the time I graduated Georgetown I was beginning to figure out that there were other ways of keeping that complexity of politics of culture alive through writing fiction.
NNAMDIHave you always written?
MENGESTUI've always needed to write, I'd say since I was about 15, I think. That's probably exactly at that time when there was a kind of crisis of all those different parts of your identity coming into play about being black, being a young black male in an all white school in Chicago. Wanting to be Ethiopian but not feeling like I could be. I found my solution or my sort of path out of those problems by writing at that age. And since then I think I've always felt that I needed to write.
NNAMDIYou turned to poetry first. How does your experience with poetry influence your writing, whether it's a novel or a piece you're writing for Rolling Stone?
MENGESTUI think -- you know, the title of the first novel is taken from a line in "Dante's Inferno." And the -- my second novel "How to Read the Air" borrows from a passage in (unintelligible) . And so poetry gave me, first and foremost, a kind of love of language and appreciation of how you can say something in a subtle way that really strikes at the heart of what it means to be human. And poetry gave me that desire. I realized really quickly I was a very, very bad poet, like miserably bad and no one actually could ever find anything I've ever written as poems except perhaps say maybe an ex-girlfriend out there somewhere.
NNAMDIBut poetry was your entryway...
NNAMDI...into the kind of writing you're doing now.
MENGESTUYeah, I used -- it was the love of language that poetry made me experience. And then learning how to take that same poetic appreciation for language and spin that out into stories and spin that out into characters and have characters who want to be poets I think on many cases but can't find a way to do so.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. Our guest is Dinaw Mengestu. He's a writer and journalist who's award-winning books include "The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bares" and "How to Read the Air." He was just named a 2012 MacArthur Fellow. If you have called for Dinaw, stay on the line. We'll get to your call. We're going to take a short break to continue with our Fall Membership Campaign. This is the sixth day of it. But after that we will return to this conversation. So if you've called and you can still call, 800-433-8850, stay on the line. You can send email to email@example.com. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is Dinaw Mengestu. He's a writer and journalist. His award-winning books include "The Beautiful Things That Heavens Bares" and "How to Read the Air." He was just named a 2012 MacArthur Fellow. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Readers may think your second novel "How to Read the Air" is autobiographical considering that the protagonist Jonas is an Ethiopian English teacher who returns to Peoria, Ill. to confront his parents' turbulent past. Did you, in fact, weave strands of your life and your parents' lives into this story? He asks this no-brainer question.
MENGESTUWell, it's -- because I always resist the idea that it's an autobiographical novel because it's not.
MENGESTUMy parents left Ethiopia then came to Peoria, Ill. and the narrator in the novel does go back to Peoria. And the trip that I made after going to Ethiopia for the first time and as soon as I returned back to the States and seeing my parents and telling them about Ethiopia, the first thing I did was drove back to Peoria, Ill. so I could see how this landscape looked -- or might've looked to two people coming to this country for the very first time. And the novel was born out of there. The rest became fiction for me right away. My parents are fortunately still very much alive and very much happily together.
MENGESTUAnd so the sort of turbulent relationship that comes into the novel is for me a translation of the kind of political violence that people experience in Africa, translating that onto a domestic level showing how we experience these things on a national scale of course. But also at the same time we experience them in our homes. We experience them with our parents. We experience them much more intimately than sometimes we often understand. And so the violence that happens in the second novel is very much that violence, just on a much smaller scale.
NNAMDII'm glad you didn't turn out to be autobiographical, so my question was not a no-brainer question after all. You mentioned your parents are very much alive, very much together. What has been their reaction, and along with the rest of your family, to your writing, your novels, your success?
MENGESTUI think patience is the word that often comes to mind.
NNAMDIYes, he didn't become a doctor or a lawyer. Got to be patient.
MENGESTUA lot of -- you know, for a long time my father used to still look at me and say, well you can always go into computers. And it's only recently that I think he's allowed me to just be a novelist and accept that quite happily. And so they've been remarkably supportive always over the years. And I think now they give me a lot of support still in allowing me to travel as much as I do. And, you know, we have two little kids and they're great about letting us -- you know, helping us as much as possible with that.
MR.You've been traveling a lot. You've lived in Paris for a few years. You're back here now, living in New York. Where do you feel most at home?
MENGESTUI think I gave up on the idea of home a long time ago, or at least any permanent sense of home. I lived in D.C., and D.C. still feels like home now that I'm back here, and I lived in New York, and New York still feels like home, and Paris is still very much home in many ways as well. And so what I've come to accept is that, you know, sometimes you feel more like a turtle than anything else. You have a little shell on your back and you can carry that with you wherever you go, and as long as you have the people and the memories that are the most important to you, then you can, you know, rebuild your home as you need to from place to place.
MR.You've just finished your third novel, "All Our Names." Tell us a little bit about that story and how it evolved?
MENGESTUI think of the next novels as kind of the perhaps conclusion to what happens inside of "The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears," and the second novel. It's not that all three books are slightly different, but all three books are concerned with this conversation of Africa inside of America and how these places are deeply intertwined. And this next novel, parts of it take place in Africa shortly after independence when there is a great moment of hope and optimism when people really the countries were going to be liberated, and instead we found that a lot of our liberators ended up becoming tyrants.
MENGESTUAnd the second half of the novel takes place inside of America shortly after the end of the 1960s when, again, I think there was a great moment of hope and optimism that we saw slightly crushed by the violence that followed and the rights in the 1960s. And so I wanted as much as possible to pair these two different times and places together and see how much similarities we could find in them.
MR.Put on your headphones, we're going back to the phones to talk with Tammy in Burke, Va. Tammy, your turn.
TAMMYHi. I'm Korean-American, and so I find this really interesting, this topic that you're talking about. And I've actually been living in Korea for the past four years, and so I understand this feeling of identity and trying to integrate into both countries or not integrate. But my question is, well, my parents have lived here for 40 years in America, and whenever they go back to Korea, they feel this sense of this connection. I mean, they still very much are Korean in the sense of food and news and keeping up with what's going on.
TAMMYBut when they go back to Korea, they feel almost as if they're American -- too American now. And so my question is (unintelligible) his parents, what is their relationship now when they go back to Ethiopia?
MENGESTUI think like your parents, my parents here in America feel very, very Ethiopian. You know, now that we're not living with them, often times I think they mainly Amharic when they're with each other and we're often times watching Ethiopian TV broadcasts in our house in the suburbs of Virginia, and we eat a lot of Ethiopian food, of course. But mostly my parents have never been back to Ethiopia since we left, and it's now coming up on 34 years for my father, and 32 years for my mother.
MENGESTUAnd so I'm very curious as to what they'll think when they do finally go back. I imagine because countries actually don't -- they're not static places by any means, countries evolve rather quickly. Ethiopia after the revolution has changed enormously even in the two visits I've made over the past few years. And so I think part of it is accepting that the country you left is not the same one you're going back to. It doesn't mean it's not your country, it just means it's not the same.
MR.Tammy, thank you for your call. Onto Louise in Washington D.C. Louise, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LOUISEKojo, your voice is quite very alluring. It's alluring enough.
MR.Thank you. That sounds like something somebody said in a debate. But go ahead, please.
LOUISEI wanted to tell you that I've lived in this area since I was four years old, and I was born in Canada, and I never lived there. I moved to this country when I was a year old. My parents were Canadian, and -- but I grew up in Virginia. And the first time -- you don't have to go very far to get these culture shocks. I went to Canada when I was a teenager, and my cousins said, oh, she's a southern belle.
MR.Yes. You're a southern belle is what they said?
LOUISEYeah. Because of the way I didn't speak the way they spoke. And they apparently heard some -- nobody else hears any Virginia in my speech, but they did. But I live near Logan's Circle now, and I have lived here for the past over 30 years, and boy have a I seen a lot of changes, and I know what the author is talking about, and I'm very much looking forward to reading it, and I'm just thrilled that he got the award. I'm thrilled to hear this program.
MR.Dinaw Mengestu is a 2012 MacArthur Fellow. Care to say anything at all to Louise?
MENGESTUYeah. One, thank you. Thank you very much. And two, what I'm always reminded of, of course, is that oftentimes, you know, we tend to think of the sort of immigrant narrative or immigrant experience as being exclusive to certain population demographics, but for me by and large, I always think of that as being such a profoundly universal sentiment, that idea that you feel like you are displaced or alienated or somehow don't necessarily inside of a particular time or culture or even neighborhood.
MENGESTUI think when we talk about -- that immigrant and loneliness I think we're talking about are much more universal and profound loneliness that afflicts all of us whether we're born and raised in the same small our whole lives, or are showing up for the first time.
MR.Louise, thank you very much for your call. Disillusionment that follows political upheaval is a particularly timely theme given what's now going in countries like Egypt, going on in places like Libya right now. You've done a lot of freelance reporting and writing from parts of sub-Saharan Africa like Uganda, Eastern Congo, Somalia. Would you like to write about the changes going on in Northern Africa right now?
MENGESTUI would love to. At the same time, I think, you know, part of the reason why I always write about sub-Saharan Africa and the conflicts there are because I've spent years trying to understand them. Trying to understand not only what's been happening recently with the most recently conflicts, but also how those countries got to those states, and that's been a very long process that I think has taken me, you know, the past 10, 15 years of real research and real sense of obligation to write about those places because they do feel quite close to home in many ways.
MENGESTUAnd I think one of the frustrations that often comes with reading reports about Africa is feeling like somebody's shown up in the past few weeks and has decided that they know the entire totality of the narrative and they can then write about it because they are a good writer or because they have the label of a journalist. I think I'm must more interested in trying to write about places that I can actually come at with some unique perspective and places that I feel like I know intimately enough to offer something different and to offer something new. If I could know those places as well as I would like to, then I would love to.
MR.So you feel that you would be essentially parachuting into those countries north of the Sahara if you were simply to go to cover them in a period of days or weeks and couldn't really understand what you were covering.
MENGESTUIf I was allowed to spend the amount of time that I, you know, when I'm doing the type of journalism that I do, oftentimes I can spend between two, three weeks, or a month longer just being on the ground trying to write one small story. If I have those same opportunities, then, of course, that would be ideal. The problem is, of course, is getting access and the time to be able to do those types of narratives.
MR.How have your reporting trips informed your longer form writing?
MENGESTUThey are in constant dialogue. The first novel I wrote after -- when I was writing the first novel, part of what happens in the book are the characters play a game around dictators and coups in Africa, and that began because I was doing just research on the side about dictators and coups in Africa and realizing that there was just, you know, more than a 180. This is what I was able to come up with, and finding that that needed to come into the novel, and then now working as a journalist because of having written a novel, I feel like a lot of the experiences that I have when I'm on the ground in Africa, and especially in the conflict zone is, there's no place for that in the story that I'm writing, and so those places, those stories, become a part of my imagination.
MENGESTUAnd I find that years later, when I was writing the second novel, experience that I had inside of Sudan became a part of my second novel, images, landscapes, stories that I had heard on the ground suddenly seep their way into my fiction.
MR.Does the -- will the MacArthur Fellowship help you to prolong that ongoing dialogue between your reporting and your long-form writing?
MENGESTUWithout a doubt. It also can, you know, I think one of the greatest things about it is that it confirms that that dialogue is necessary and that that dialogue has a place in our literary tradition and in our culture and political awareness. So knowing that and feeling kind of affirmed by that belief by the foundation and by the people who respond to it, you know, urges you on to keep doing what you're doing, and it also gives you the time to keep writing those stories because they are quite expensive to report and they do take a lot of time.
MR.Talk a little about process. Do you mentally switch gears, so to speak, or even your approach to writing when you tackle a journalism piece versus when you're writing a novel?
MENGESTUWhen I'm doing a journalistic piece, it's oftentimes coming on the heels of having finished a novel, and it's my way of kind of going back and being directly engaged in a way that fiction doesn't always allow me to do. You're quite isolated when you're writing a novel. I spent years sitting in my little office writing a book. What happens when I'm done writing journalism, or after especially I'm done reporting, is I feel oftentimes quite emotionally shattered, and the process of writing a piece is a way of kind of reassembling myself and trying to make a coherent narrative out of these experiences.
TAMMYAnd oftentimes I find the thing I want to do most after a journalistic story is to go back to writing fiction. Fiction kind of -- it's not cathartic, but it does help me to place things back into perspective. It offers me a kind of grace that oftentimes makes the journalism possible.
MR.Back to the telephones. Here is Amanda in Kensington, Md. Amanda, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
AMANDAThanks. I was wondering what do you think -- or first of all, I'm really enjoying the book. I'm really enjoying "The Beautiful Things." And I was wondering what do you think -- or why do you think there aren't as many like D.C. focused novels, and to you what would kind of would define a D.C. book, like aside from kind of the political thrillers and stuff?
MENGESTUWhy there aren't, you know, it's -- I think there probably aren't enough D.C. narratives, and I think, you know, there's a tired, slightly cliche about D.C.'s transients, and I think that may have some marginal truth to that, but I do also think that there are great D.C. novels and novelists. One of the best novelists in America right now is from D.C., Edward P. Jones, and I don't think you can get a better D.C. novel or collection of short stories than reading his work, and I don't think you can get a better novel, period, in literature than what he does, and that's something that comes directly out of D.C.
MR.Born and raised in D.C., and if you're into crime novels, you can read George Pelecanos...
MR....who also writes a great deal about the neighborhoods in D.C. and not just about the center of D.C. But Amanda, thank you very much for your call. We move on now to Barbara in Gaithersburg, Md. Barbara, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BARBARAI have a slightly different take on this. I'm listening to these -- your beautiful voice, I'm listening to your Ethiopian guest. I'm listening to all the people who have come to this country from other places. I am Mayflower. I am wasp. I -- my family has been here forever, and how narrow our lives would be without this huge array of people who have fought and come here and added language and richness and strength and customs, and of course, my favorite, and I think yours, food.
MR.Yes. We do talk about a lot of food here.
BARBARAHow much poorer would be? I mean, isn't it wonderful? I just hope that people like your guest keep gathering up their families and coming and bringing their richness with us -- to us.
MR.Well, thank you very much for your call. People like Dinaw Mengestu and I really have lived that experience from the first moment we arrived in this country, and are more than happy to share it with others. But Dinaw, we're running out of time. What kinds of themes are you looking to tackle next in your work?
MENGESTUI think I rarely ever think of my work as themes. I think like anything else -- like most other writers, you're sort of engaged with the sort of very basic principle that, you know, life is incredibly complex and at times difficult, and oftentimes very beautiful, and you try to find ways of seeing how you can meld those narratives together. I think my work always is going to be profoundly affected by both America and Africa at the same time, and so those themes are always going to be central to my writing, but they are the sort of outer casing for that kind of basic human instinct and need for narrative that I always write out of.
MR.Thank you so much for joining us today.
MENGESTUThank you very much for having me.
MR.Dinaw Mengestu is a writer and journalist. His award-winning books include "The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears," and "How to Read the Air." He was just named a 2012 MacArthur Fellow. And thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
Most Recent Shows
It's your turn to set the agenda and chat with Kojo about the local news affecting your life.
In the Washington metropolitan region, the General Services Administration is in charge of more than 100 million square feet of federal workspace.
If it's not quite Southern, what is it?