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'Heaven Bears' Author Finds Beauty In 'The Air'

'How To Read The Air'

It's easy to label a novel as a familiar "immigrant story," says novelist Dinaw Mengestu.

"To actually understand the particulars of those stories seems like a burden sometimes," he says. "People would rather have a kind of general, flat story that they're already familiar with."

But readers looking for a generic retelling of the immigrant experience won't find it in Mengestu's work -- his novels The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears and How to Read the Air both grapple with the complexities of cultural identity and inheritance among Ethiopian refugees living in the United States.

Mengestu was born in Addis Ababa in 1978 and immigrated to the U.S. with his mother and sister in 1980. The move reunited Mengestu with his father, who, two years prior, had fled the "Ethiopian Red Terror" -- a violent political campaign in the late 1970s.

How to Read the Air takes place in part in Peoria, Ill. -- a setting that Mengestu knows well. "It was the first landscape that I really have distinct memories of," he tells NPR's Scott Simon. "So when I began writing this novel it seemed almost inevitable if not natural that I would once return to that place and return to that time period."

But the parallels mostly end there; Mengestu says he used his familiarity with his childhood home as a jumping-off point for characters and plotlines that were a departure from his own background.

"The particularities of growing up in Peoria were the things that needed to actually ground and root the novel in my own head," Mengestu explains. "Once I had that setting and that place in my mind really fixed, then I was able to create characters who are distinctly and dramatically different from my own personal experiences."

The characters in Mengestu's latest novel have lived extremely difficult lives. Yosef flees to the U.S. from Ethiopia, and his wife, Mariam, follows him to the States three years later. But by the time she arrives in Peoria, it's as though she barely knows her husband. He has escaped terrible experiences, and he takes out his anger and frustration on her -- bruise by bruise.  The novel is narrated a generation later by their son, Jonas, who retraces the journey of his parents' lives as his own marriage unravels in New York.

The two parallel narratives -- of Yosef and Mariam, and Jonas and his American wife, Angela -- weren't easy to keep straight. "I'm generally terrible about plotting out my work as I'm writing," Mengestu admits. "It wasn't really until I understood [Yosef and Mariam's] marriage and all the things that could possibly have gone wrong in their relationship that I was able to get a sense of the narrator's voice and understand who their son was."

Jonas becomes a schoolteacher, and when students inquire about his background, he makes up stories about his family. Mengestu says Jonas' narratives merge the father that he had, and the father that he wished he'd had.

"It's very much, I think, a melding of fact and fiction and hope at the same time," Mengestu says. "[Jonas] needs to understand how his father became this angry, violent man."

The themes of identity and personal narrative carry throughout the novel.  Angela -- Jonas' estranged wife -- says she is not afraid of death or suffering, but is afraid of disappearing: "I'm afraid to find someday there's no one who knows me anymore," she says. "I could disappear and who would care?"

"It's so easy to find yourself feeling weightless ... and to find yourself almost dispensable," Mengestu says. "I think it's very easy to feel like you're being whittled away bit by bit in the world, and that what pieces of you are left could easily be scattered if there's nothing to hold on to -- or no one to hold on to you."

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