22. ilb 07. - 17.09.2022

Dinaw Mengestu

Portrait Dinaw Mengestu
© Hartwig Klappert

Dinaw Mengestu was born in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa in 1978. This was not long after his father had fled to the United States from the Red Terror of the new Socialist régime. His family followed in 1980. At first they took up residence in Peoria, Illinois, and later in Chicago. Mengestu studied at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. and graduated from Columbia University’s MFA programme in Creative Writing. His work has appeared in »Rolling Stone«, »Harpers«, »The New Statesman« and many other publications.

His first novel, »The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears«, was published in 2007. It tells the story of an Ethiopian immigrant who suffers the pain of being a social outsider. He cannot get used to his new life as a shop owner in Washington and after seventeen years is still mourning his murdered father. He regularly meets up with two other immigrants, who think back to life in their homeland with nostalgia as well as bitterness, and whose high expectations of America have also remained unfulfilled. When a white woman makes a surprising move into the neighbourhood with her young, mixed-race daughter, for a while the impossible seems possible. Yet before the relationship gets onto a firm footing, it comes to an abrupt end. Through lucid sentences, understated style and gentle humour, Mengestu portrays the suffering that people cause each other, without offering a superior perspective on the conflict or any solution. In an interview, he elaborated: »I don’t know if novels are supposed to say anything. I think they exist to complicate and expand upon our understanding of the world and it is up to the reader to create their own personal meaning out of the narrative.«

In the year his novel came out Mengestu was working as a reporter from Darfur for »Rolling Stone«. Through considerate descriptions, which, despite bleak themes, also reveal grounds for hope, he clarifies the complex background of the violence-ridden escalation, highlighting the rise of the rebel leader, who first confronted the government’s terror troops, then tolerated divisions within his own movement and now stands as advisor to his one-time enemies.

Mengestu has received grants from the New York Foundation for the Arts and the Lannan Foundation. His novel was listed as a New York Times Notable Book, and was awarded the Guardian First Book Award in England, a Los Angeles Times Book Prize, a 5 under 35 award from the National Book Foundation, and in France, the Prix du Meilleur Premier Roman Etranger. He lives in Paris.

© international literature festival berlin