Dinaw Mengestu

2007 Lannan Literary Fellowship for Fiction

photo of Dinaw Mengestu

Dinaw Mengestu was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in 1978. In 1980 he immigrated to the United States with his mother and sister, joining his father, who had fled the communist revolution in Ethiopia two years before.  A graduate of Georgetown University and of Columbia University’s MFA program in fiction, Mengestu has written for many publications. He recently reported stories for Harper’s, The Wall Street Journal, and Jane magazine, where he profiled a young woman who was kidnapped and forced to become a soldier in the brutal war in Uganda, and for Rolling Stone on the tragedy in Darfur.

As a writer, it’s a great narrative tool to have that character who is slightly detached but at the same time observant of his reality, because I think that’s pretty much what being a writer is being there, watching and internalizing.
— Dinaw Mengestu

His first novel, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears (titled Children of the Revolution in Britain), won The Guardian First Book Award in the U.K. and the Prix Femina Étranger in France, and earned him a place as one of the U.S. National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” for 2007. The novel has been translated into numerous other languages. He is also the recipient of a 2006 fellowship in fiction from the New York Foundation for the Arts and a Lannan Fiction Fellowship in 2007. Mengestu’s second novel, How to Read the Air, was released in October 2010 and earlier that year Mengestu was selected as one of The New Yorker’s “20 under 40” writers of 2010.  In 2012 he was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship.

He lives with his wife and two young children in Paris.

The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears (is) “a great African novel, a great Washington novel, and a great American novel.”  — New York Times Book Review

From How to Read the Air:

If Angela were driving with me, she would say that this is exactly where I belong, somewhere here in the middle of the country, a man unsuitable or ill-made for coastlines, more at home in flat, even terrain that bears no hint of ending and that strives at all times to be as evenhanded and uncomplicated as possible.  I’ve never lost my affection for this place; many times over the intervening years I’ve thought that it would be wonderful to stand alone in the middle of any of the fields on the other side of the car windows.  Shortly after my mother left my father, I thought of coming back here to commemorate the event. This was the only context in which I knew her, and I understood even then that once she was gone from here we would grow increasingly distant from each other, until eventually someday we were completely estranged.  It was a fair price to pay for her tarried freedom.

Her departure in the end wasn’t the dramatic event that it had promised to be during the nineteen years my mother and father lived together.  There was no furious packing or preceding arguments.  They were, if anything, at a relatively tranquil moment in their lives—their fights and arguments having all but ceased to the point where they hardly spoke at all to each other.  It was peace through a policy of détente, with occasional violent skirmishes that flared up from time to time on the side. Two weeks after I had left home for college, she did the same, packing her clothes in the middle of the afternoon while he was at work, calling a cab to take her to the bus station, and then taking a bus to Chicago, and from Chicago a flight out east to Washington, D.C., where a few old friends from the private school she had attended in Ethiopia had recently resettled.  She called me shortly after I arrived at my dorm room in New York.

“I’m in D.C.,” she said

“What are you doing there?”

“I’m staying for a while with my friend Aster. You don’t know her.”  Nor would I ever.

I understood even with those few words that she would never return to my father again.


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