Born in Addis Ababa in 1978, Dinaw Mengestu moved with his mother two years later to Peoria, Ill., to join his father, who had escaped Ethiopia's Communist regime just before his son was born. Mengestu calls his childhood "quintessentially American. Riding my bike, going to Sunday school. Ronald Reagan and solid American values."
Mengetsu's first book, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears (Riverhead, 2007) won him prizes and acclaim. The New York Times lauded his tale of an Ethiopian immigrant who runs an insignificant corner store in a dying D.C. neighborhood as "a great African novel, a great Washington novel, and a great American novel."
Today Mengestu lives in Paris, a city he fell in love with on a brief visit after a bruising trip to Darfur. He arrived in France knowing no one and not speaking the language. Mengestu spent mornings writing and afternoons wandering aimlessly along city streets, his loneliness spawning a new novel, How to Read the Air, coming from Riverhead.
Jonas Woldemariam, the narrator, echoes a brief but significant journey that his Ethiopian immigrant parents took 30 years before. Retracing their American road trip allows Jonas to distort the truth in ever more complicated ways; according to Mengestu, Jonas "doesn't want to deal with life's hardships and lies his way out of it." But it's the lies that Jonas tells at work, first as a writer for a humanitarian organization dealing with African refugees, and then as an English teacher, that let Mengestu infuse the novel with a specific type of fabrication: the "African narrative."
Four years ago, when Mengestu voiced frustration at the Western media's handling of Darfur, Rolling Stone sent him to investigate. "The narrative had been spun to not show any politics... but just the overwhelming humanitarian tragedy. There are political elements to it, and the only solution is going to be political. If you can't talk about that, then you're only talking about your own desire to help poor Africans," he says.
Mengestu has just returned from a trip to the Congo to profile a militia involved in the Rwandan genocide. This militia, he argues, has been able to regroup in eastern Congo because of the West's utter ignorance of what was actually happening there.
The truth is important to Mengestu. His need to embrace its complexities and his continued exploration of the uncomfortable areas where the African narrative and the American narrative collide infuse his books with a melancholy specific to the immigrant's experience.
In How to Read the Air, the lies that Jonas tells, both professionally and personally, eventually isolate him from almost all human contact. His crisis comes to a head one week when, deviating drastically from the syllabus, he captivates his students with an "African narrative" of his own: the story of his father's escape from Ethiopia. Most of it is made up, invented out of a mix of desires: to feel closer to his father; to open his students' eyes to real suffering; to give the audience what it wants. As Jonas weaves his narrative, moving his father from Addis Ababa to a dangerous port in Sudan, then a small shipping crate on a boat bound for England, this remarkable invention becomes the dark, complicated soul of the novel.
Mengestu is worried about how people will take a book built, more or less, on lies, and says he never felt that it was finished, "even when the galleys were in my hand." But then the New Yorker chose him as one of their "20 Under 40," writers who "dazzlingly represent the multiple strands of inventiveness and vitality that characterize the best fiction being written in this country today."
"It helped me feel settled," Mengestu says. His wife enters the room with their 10-month-old son, speaking French, making Paris feel like home. For now.