November 18, author Dinaw Mengestu spoke before a sizable crowd at Kleinhans music hall. Mengestu speaks as part of Just Buffalo’s Babel series. Mengustu’s first novel, 2007’s The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, was the subject of The Big Rea, a program that calls on a community to share in the reading of a book together in conjunction with film screenings, book discussions, writing workshops, and other events.
Based in Mengestu’s own life experiences, The Beautiful Things is the story of an Ethiopian refugee who finds himself running a grocery store in a poor section of African-American Washington D.C.
Just Buffalo Literary’s announcement of the event states “With Erie County receiving over one third of the total refugee flow into the state, the novel is an appropriate choice for Buffalo readers.”
The book addresses the struggles faced by the protagonist Sepha Stephanos, focusing on isolation and identity of an immigrant in a new and different setting.
Mengestu recounts the impetus of the novel. “I was walking along 18th street one evening…and i saw just out of the corner of my eye, an Ethiopian man, standing behind the counter of a grocery store and the store was almost entirely empty. There was a bright fluorescent light hanging of course somewhere over him. And I heard right away this voice.I went home that evening and began writing what would become my first novel.”
Mengestu describes how the failings of his first attempt at a book, which he refers to throughout his lecture as “the Flood Novel” were realized when he strayed away from vagaries of trying to write broadly and started to hone in on the specifics, filling his book with the names of places and family members who were close to him.
Mengestu closed his lecture imparting the following message about community:
“Why else are we here if not to acknowledge the hard fact that communities don’t exist by mere proximity. They are forged. They are built daily, hour by hour in opposition to the facts of our competing backgrounds, our beliefs. And why are we here if not that we believe that doing so involves more than listening to and tolerating each other. It means taking leaps of the imagination. The type of leap that happens every time we read a novel, or a poem and find that you are also there in Kampala, in Addis Ababa, in the Midwest, or maybe even here on the streets of Buffalo walking hand in hand with a man from Ethiopia who if you look at close enough and at long enough hopefully bears a striking resemblance to yourself.”