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.

Guests

  • Dinaw Mengestu Writer, journalist and 2012 MacArthur Grant recipient; Author of "The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears" and "How to Read the Air"

Transcript

  • 12:06:45

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. This hour, we're talking with two local authors who use fiction to tell their own uniquely global stories. Later in the broadcast, we'll talk with author Vaddey Ratner, whose debut novel, "In the Shadow of the Banyan" mirrors her own family's harrowing experience leaving war-torn Cambodia. But first, we're joined by Ethiopian American author Dinaw Mengestu.

  • 12:07:20

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIMost 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, 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 that Ethiopian shopkeeper you think you know but really don't, or the young black student with the foreign name but quizzically flat Midwestern accent.

  • 12:07:52

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIMengestu's stories echo his own story. He came to the U.S. from Ethiopia at the age of two and settled in the American heartland, never really feeling that he fit in here or there, a story familiar to millions across this area and the country. His writing has garnered international accolades, including most recently a MacArthur Genius grant. Dinaw Mengestu, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:08:17

    MR. DINAW MENGESTUThank you, Kojo. It's a pleasure to be here.

  • 12:08:19

    NNAMDIAs 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?

  • 12:08:37

    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.

  • 12:09:03

    MENGESTUWhat I remember, of course, is going outside of my house and playing, you know, kickball and baseball with my friends. So 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, I think, 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.

  • 12:09:28

    MENGESTUAnd then growing old and realizing there's also a history and a culture about being Ethiopian and 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.

  • 12:09:43

    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?

  • 12:09:54

    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.

  • 12:10:08

    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?

  • 12:10:17

    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 I always joke, 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.

  • 12:10:43

    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 were the kind of negative stereotypes that always surrounded that identity.

  • 12:11:10

    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?

  • 12:11:37

    MENGESTUI would say that was an ongoing confusion that in many ways has probably never ceased, 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.

  • 12:11:57

    MENGESTUI couldn't actually be accepted into that role because it wasn't really the same history -- the same cultural history that I'd grown up with, and at 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.

  • 12:12:15

    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.

  • 12:12:35

    NNAMDIMeanwhile, political leaders back in Ethiopia become dismissive of people who have left, even though 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?

  • 12:12:54

    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.

  • 12:13:14

    MENGESTUAnd 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.

  • 12:13:30

    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 Bears," 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.

  • 12:13:57

    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.

  • 12:14:10

    MENGESTUYeah.

  • 12:14:13

    NNAMDIAnd 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.

  • 12:14:21

    MENGESTUYeah, we haven't stopped demonstrating, I think.

  • 12:14:23

    MENGESTUIt'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.

  • 12:14:45

    MENGESTUAnd 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. So 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.

  • 12:15:07

    NNAMDILet's go to the telephones. Here is Samson in Falls Church, Va. Samson, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:15:14

    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, et cetera. And I just wanted to -- of course, first of all, I wanted to say that, Dinaw, we're very proud of you.

  • 12:15:38

    MENGESTUThank you.

  • 12:15:39

    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 always 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...

  • 12:16:26

    NNAMDIIt's a debate, Dinaw, that 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.

  • 12:16:41

    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.

  • 12:17:08

    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 to also respect the rights of -- the differences that come with migration and the fact that, having grown up in America, it doesn't take away my Ethiopian heritage or my culture. But it does complicate that sense of one identity.

  • 12:17:31

    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.

  • 12:17:38

    MENGESTUYes.

  • 12:17:40

    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 Bears," 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 do you see between immigration and gentrification?

  • 12:18:03

    MENGESTUI was more aware of that as I was writing the novel than, 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 could 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?

  • 12:18:29

    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 be (unintelligible) and displaced from their communities because of gentrification, 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 oftentimes forget the internal displacement that happens inside of our country.

  • 12:18:54

    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 Bears," 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.

  • 12:19:13

    MENGESTUYeah.

  • 12:19:14

    NNAMDII realized that I really didn't know him at all. And I think that's a lot of what happens in real life when you think you know people and then here comes the novelist art, the novelist 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.

  • 12:19:38

    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.

  • 12:20:16

    NNAMDICare to comment on that, Dinaw?

  • 12:20:19

    MENGESTUYeah. I think that sense of sort of hybrid identities and the 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.

  • 12:20:50

    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 kojo@wamu.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?

  • 12:21:20

    MENGESTUI would tend to believe that the two are 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.

  • 12:21:39

    MENGESTUBeing 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 -- and 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.

  • 12:22:01

    MENGESTUIt'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.

  • 12:22:28

    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?

  • 12:22:46

    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. I can...

  • 12:23:08

    NNAMDISounds like my parents.

  • 12:23:09

    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.

  • 12:23:40

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, more of our conversation with author Dinaw Mengestu. I am Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:24:50

    NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is Dinaw Mengestu. He's 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. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850.

  • 12:25:06

    NNAMDIReaders 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.

  • 12:25:28

    MENGESTUWell, it's -- because I always resist the idea that it's an autobiographical novel because it's not.

  • 12:25:32

    NNAMDIGood. Thank you.

  • 12:25:34

    MENGESTUMy parents left Ethiopia then came to Peoria, Ill., and the narrator in the novel does go back to Peoria. And it's a trip that I made after going to Ethiopia for the first time, and 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 have looked to two people coming to this country for the very first time.

  • 12:25:58

    MENGESTUAnd 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. And 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.

  • 12:26:20

    MENGESTUBut 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.

  • 12:26:35

    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?

  • 12:26:50

    MENGESTUI think patience is the word that often comes to mind.

  • 12:26:55

    NNAMDIYes. He didn't become a doctor or a lawyer. Got to be patient.

  • 12:26:57

    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.

  • 12:27:25

    NNAMDIYou'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?

  • 12:27:33

    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.

  • 12:27:52

    MENGESTUYou 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.

  • 12:28:03

    NNAMDIYou've just finished your third novel, "All Our Names." Tell us a little bit about that story and how it evolved.

  • 12:28:09

    MENGESTUI think of the next novel 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 in 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 thought their countries were going to be liberated.

  • 12:28:38

    MENGESTUAnd instead we found that a lot of our liberators ended up becoming tyrants. And 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 riots in the 1960s. And so I wanted to, as much as possible, to pair these two different times and places together and see how much similarities we could find in them.

  • 12:29:03

    NNAMDIPut on your headphones. We're going back to the phones to talk with Tammy in Burke, Va. Tammy, your turn.

  • 12:29:10

    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 disconnection.

  • 12:29:38

    TAMMYI mean, they still very much are Korean in the sense of food and news and keeping up with what's going on. But when they go back to Korea, they feel almost like if they're American -- too American now. And so my question is to Mengestu, his parents, what is their relationship now when they go back to Ethiopia?

  • 12:29:59

    MENGESTUI think, like your parents, my parents here in America feel very, very Ethiopian. You know, now that we're not living with them, oftentimes I think they mainly speak 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.

  • 12:30:27

    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.

  • 12:30:53

    NNAMDITammy, thank you for your call. On to Louise in Washington D.C. Louise, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:30:59

    LOUISEKojo, your voice is quite -- very alluring. It's alluring enough.

  • 12:31:04

    NNAMDIThank you. That sounds like something somebody said in a debate. But go ahead, please.

  • 12:31:08

    LOUISEI want 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 I -- 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.

  • 12:31:44

    NNAMDIYes. You were a southern belle is what they said?

  • 12:31:45

    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.

  • 12:32:18

    NNAMDIDinaw Mengestu is a 2012 MacArthur Fellow. Care to say anything at all to Louise?

  • 12:32:23

    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 belong inside of a particular time or culture or even neighborhood.

  • 12:32:52

    MENGESTUI think when we talk about that immigrant 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 town our whole lives or are showing up for the first time.

  • 12:33:05

    NNAMDILouise, thank you very much for your call. Disillusionment that follows political upheaval is a particularly timely theme given what's now going on 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?

  • 12:33:27

    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.

  • 12:33:44

    MENGESTUAnd 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. And 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.

  • 12:34:12

    MENGESTUI think I'm much 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.

  • 12:34:29

    NNAMDISo 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?

  • 12:34:41

    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.

  • 12:35:03

    NNAMDIHow have your reporting trips informed your longer form writing?

  • 12:35:08

    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 180.

  • 12:35:28

    MENGESTUSo 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.

  • 12:35:44

    MENGESTUAnd so those places, those stories, become a part of my imagination. And 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 seeped their way into my fiction.

  • 12:35:59

    NNAMDIDinaw, we're running out of time. What kinds of themes are you looking to tackle next in your work?

  • 12:36:04

    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.

  • 12:36:23

    MENGESTUI 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.

  • 12:36:41

    NNAMDIThank you so much for joining us today.

  • 12:36:43

    MENGESTUThank you very much for having me.

  • 12:36:44

    NNAMDIDinaw 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. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll meet local author Vaddey Ratner whose debut novel, "In the Shadow of the Banyan" mirrors her own family's story, fleeing the killing fields of Cambodia. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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