Monday, March 24, 2014

“No, Where Are You Really From?”: Dinaw Mengestu’s Novel of Ethiopians in America

Dinaw Mengestu’s 2010 How to Read the Air tells two parallel stories: In alternating chapters, Jonas Woldemariam retells the story of his Ethiopian immigrant parents’ ill-fated road trip through the Midwest, and his own equally ill-starred career as a teacher and husband. But the book is more tangled than most parallel-lines-meet narratives. Jonas is not only retelling the road trip but retracing it; the chapters about his teaching include the many stories he tells his students about his parents’ past; and most of what he tells them, and us, about Yosef and Mariam Woldemariam is made up.
Educated guesses, wishful thinking, fabulation. Jonas lies constantly, instinctively, sometimes to forestall his inevitable and shameful exposure, sometimes to help others get ahead in America, and other times to fill in the huge blank spaces left by his parents’ silence about their pasts and their marriage. These silences seem to have corroded Jonas’s own identity. His wife, Angela, wants him to be honest and yet plays her own games: Her favorite trick is to cap some event or story by saying, “You know that’s how my father left us.”

At first the style of this novel was really hard for me to fight through. Mengestu examines every nuance of speech or gesture; tiny exchanges get pages of interpretation. Sometimes those interpretations are poignant, as in the description of Yosef’s intense reaction when his wife thanks him–the only person in his life who has thanked him in years. But other times, especially toward the beginning, before I was into the rhythm of the book, the willful overreading seemed like tweezering tiny cathedrals out of pipe cleaners: huge work for small insights.
I got used to the elaborate, ruminative style, though, and by the end I was deeply moved by the book. At the very end Jonas comes right out and says what I’d already suspected was a part of the book’s thematic structure: You can never really leave a country, or a marriage. He’s a refugee from his union with Angela and yet some part of him will always remain native to her. The fact that Jonas himself is saying this did give me pause–was this just another overreading, another bit of wishful cynicism? But I think at the end Jonas finally does talk himself into something true.
Throughout the book white people have asked Jonas where he’s from. “Peoria,” he’s truthfully replied. But in a nicely ironic twist, the inevitable alienating follow-up, “But where are you really from?”, turns out to get at one of the novel’s harsh, deep truths. Even if you’re skilled at lying and habituated to slithering away from your problems, very little in life is escapable.
There’s a lot in this book: Jonas’s work at a law firm specializing in asylum applications; his detached descriptions of the violence his father inflicted on his mother, and her retreat into herself; his seeming inability to communicate with Angela, or even to imagine that communicating with her might help. It’s a sad story, but not as sad as Jonas wanted it to be, since despite his own best efforts he can’t fully cut the tethering familial bonds.