|Dinaw Mengestu is a journalist as well as a fiction writer.|
But as a novelist, Mr. Mengestu, 32, has made such doubts and confusion about identity and belonging his stock in trade. His work is populated by exiles, refugees, émigrés and children of the African diaspora, all struggling both to find a place in the American landscape and to make sense of their attenuated relationship to the world they left behind.
“It’s less about trying to figure out how you occupy these two cultural or racial boundaries and more about what it’s like when you are not particularly attached to either of these two communities,” he said recently in an interview in Manhattan at the offices of his publisher, Riverhead Books.
|Dinaw Mengestu with copies of “How to Read the Air.”|
Mr. Mengestu’s first novel, “The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears,” focuses on an Ethiopian shopkeeper, living in isolation in a gentrifying neighborhood in Washington, who develops a tentative bond with a professor of American history, a white woman, and her precocious biracial daughter. The New York Times Book Review named the novel, whose title derives from Dante’s “Inferno,” as one of the notable books of 2007, and Mr. Mengestu quickly became a literary name to watch.
“How to Read the Air,” published this week, addresses similar issues of self-image and estrangement from a different angle. With his marriage and job prospects crumbling, Jonas Woldemariam abandons New York and returns to his native Midwest, where, almost like a Kerouac character, he goes on the road to retrace a trip that his exile parents made before his birth and that poisoned their own marriage.
“Dinaw writes with a very lyrical grace, with a quality of freshness and observation in his sentences,” said Deborah Treisman, fiction editor at The New Yorker, which in June included Mr. Mengestu in its prestigious “20 under 40” list of outstanding young fiction writers.
“He obviously has a deep interest in studying the details of immigrant life and aspirations,” Ms. Treisman said, “but I would say he is 98 percent an American writer, who is getting more comfortable with his own voice.”
Born in Addis Ababa in 1978, Mr. Mengestu came to the United States two years later and grew up in Illinois, first in Peoria and then in Forest Park, a Chicago suburb. During the interview he summoned nostalgic memories of those early years: a white Baptist church’s warm embrace of his immigrant family, his father’s job at the headquarters of the Caterpillar tractor company and the hope of rising to middle-class comfort that that newcomer’s luck inspired.
Lurking in the background, though, was the trauma that had driven his parents from Ethiopia, namely the revolution that followed the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie and, he said, “split the family cleanly down the middle.”
Some relatives became high-ranking officials in the new Marxist military government, while others, because of their class background as landowners or their political activities, were arrested or jailed or who even perished, including an especially beloved older brother of his father’s.
“We had no memories in our house,” Mr. Mengestu said. “We were never allowed to, we never spent time talking about it, and yet you’re very aware that it haunts everything. It’s that absence that creates the concern for it. Nothing can be passed on.”
He added, speaking of his own reaction, “You know there is this history that precedes you, but you have no access to it whatsoever.”
At the elite Roman Catholic high school he attended in the Chicago area, his situation grew even more complicated. He was the target of racial epithets from white students, he recalls, but also had to confront “the question of my authenticity” in his dealings with other black students, since “it was always really clear that ‘you are the black kid who sounds white, the black kid who doesn’t seem like he’s black,’ and no one can figure out exactly why.”
Voracious reading provided some relief for the “anger and angst” that Mr. Mengestu said he felt then, and at Georgetown University, he gravitated to literature. Afterward he earned an M.F.A. in fiction at Columbia and held a variety of jobs while writing his first novel, which began when he spotted a solitary Ethiopian storeowner while on a walk one day through the Adams-Morgan neighborhood in Washington.
“Even then, he seemed very much above the fray,” said Norma Tilden, an English professor at Georgetown whom Mr. Mengestu named as a friend and mentor. “I was always very clear that Dinaw was holding back a lot, not in a reticent way, but just that there was a lot there, and he would get to it when he wanted.”
Much of “How to Read the Air” was written in Paris, providing yet another layer of distancing. Mr. Mengestu’s wife, Anne-Emanuelle, is French, and like American writers from Hemingway to James Baldwin, Mr. Mengestu felt, he said, a need to “get away and find a private space to work in,” one that would allow him to “see New York and Illinois more clearly.”
Mr. Mengestu also produces nonfiction, writing for magazines like Rolling Stone, Harper’s and Granta. He spent part of the summer in eastern Congo, reporting on the conflict there for Granta, and has also written from Uganda and Darfur, in Sudan.
In fact, when Mr. Mengestu went to Georgetown, it was originally with the idea of “possibly some day working with the State Department,” an ambition that was derailed when he took his first economics course and realized “this cannot possibly work.”
But even in Africa, issues of identity continued to pester him. In eastern Congo he ran into problems trying to interview Hutu rebels from Rwanda, who, like his high school classmates, didn’t know what to make of him.
“I could speak English as well as I wanted to them, but they could only see that my features are what they consider Tutsi, and that was definitely threatening to my life,” he said rather matter-of-factly. “They would look at me, and my translator would say, ‘No, he’s American.’ He was always very specific, telling me, ‘Don’t confuse them, don’t try to say you’re Ethiopian, just tell them you’re American, don’t complicate things with this extra layer, because nobody’s going to believe it.’ ”
Mr. Mengestu has begun work on a third novel, which, he said “seems to be the last component of this cycle” on the African diaspora and is likely to be followed by something that doesn’t have “that same sense of dislocation and displacement.” To those who know him well, that strategy makes perfect sense.
“The topics he writes about are very heartbreaking, really, but he is not somebody who is walking around the world with sad puppy-dog eyes,” said the critic Marcela Valdes, who has been a good friend since both were graduate students. “He’s a much more vibrant and charming personality than that. He has the ability to go deep and look at stuff that is hard, but he also has a joie de vivre.”