|Acclaimed author Dinaw Mengestu reveals the secret power of the narrative|
With his first two novels, Dinaw Mengestu has already amassed an impressive list of accomplishments, including a Los Angeles Times Book Prize, a Lannan Fiction Fellowship, a Guardian First Book Award, inclusion on The New Yorker's “20 Under 40” list and many others. His most recent work, How to Read the Air, won the 2011 Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence, sponsored by the Baton Rouge Area Foundation for an outstanding work of fiction by an African American writer.
By its definition, fiction tells a story, but in Mengestu's work, the creative act of storytelling is also how his characters make sense of their lives.
“We need narrative,” the Ethiopia native and Georgetown alum told 225 on his recent trip to Baton Rouge. “We need imagination. We need to be able to construct stories out of our past. We have to invent. That's the only way we can manage our history. If we can't do that, we can't be fully alive. We can't move on with our lives. We're obligated to tell those narratives.”
In his first novel, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, a cadre of exiles from various countries in Africa meet each week and play a rather macabre game of “match the country to the coup.” This brutal accounting of public terror serves to obscure the private terrors that each of the men has endured in their home countries and their adopted one. Their game has lasted well more than a decade. One character remarks, “When we stop having coups, we can stop playing.” Their compulsive story-making keeps them connected to their loss and survival.
In How to Read the Air, the protagonist, Jonas, discovers he has a particular talent for creating embellished narratives for the clients seeking asylum in the U.S. at his job in a refugee center. Later, when he discovers that his estranged father has died, Jonas abandons his lesson plans at the elite private school where he teaches to tell his students the story of his parents' life before he was born, inventing a vibrant history in the gaps of his knowledge. Even as his storytelling threatens to destroy the life he has created for himself, Jonas cannot stop his inspired reinvention.
“We never know what happened before, so we're always inventing a story,” Mengestu says. “But the part that I love the most is the part that actually is the imagination. The part that says I don't know exactly what happened, but I can invent it. I can think about it, and I can argue for my belief and necessity of imagination to help me get through life. Without that you're just kind of stuck in this very small, limited present world. You write to fill in empty spaces in history.” The very best modern literature continues to do exactly this—fill in empty spaces in history in ways we could never imagine.
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