In October 2012, 34-year-old Ethiopian-American writer Dinaw Mengestu was among the list of those awarded MacArthur Fellowships, also known as a “genius grants.” By telling stories about the African experience on the continent and here in America, Mengestu is carving out new space for African writers to share their unique perspectives with the world. BET.com talked to the author and asked him about the significance of the award and what it means to be Black and African in America.
BET.com: The MacArthur foundation says they award individuals who have shown "extraordinary originality," but what does the award mean to you?
Dinaw Mengestu: Many things … Some of it very pragmatic in that it allows me to make sure that I can continue writing the stories that I want to write without having to worry whether they have enough commercial market value. But I think that the psychological effects are just as equally important in that I spend a lot of time writing about people in communities that often are on the margins of social discourse, or that are viewed through very kind of narrow clichés and templates. And so this kind of affirms your work in trying to agitate for their complex resistance.
Both your novels, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears and How to Read the Air, feature young characters that portray their immigrant experience through the lens of their youth. At what age did you decide to be a writer and why?
By the time I was 16 or 17 I was already writing seriously. I was going to a predominantly all-white high school that was fairly racist. I didn't feel like I had a place or a home inside of that community, and so I think part of what ended up evolving out of that was a retreat into my own private life, into my own family's history, into my culture. And I think writing maybe began as a way of trying to distance myself and look at my life critically and figure out what my place was in this country.
What will your next book be about?
One half of it is set inside of a country in Africa just after independence with two young friends who end up becoming engaged in this sort of civil war conflict, and then the other half takes place at a kind of similar moment in America in the early 1970s, just after the end of the civil rights era in a small town in the Midwest with an African living in America and struggling to find his place in the States.
What similarities do you find with the end of colonialism and the end of the civil rights era?
After the end of colonialism, there was a great moment of optimism in Africa, when people thought there was going to be these sort of great independent countries and emergence into democracy, and instead it ended up being awful periods of violence and dictatorship. In a similar way between the birth and the end of the civil rights movement there seems to also be this great chance of optimism ... in America, and then, of course, we saw in 1968 a lot of awful things ended up happening as well in the country — and so I'm kind of going back and forth between looking at how those two stories echo each other.
As a first-generation African immigrant in America, what does it mean to be “Black?”
I think it's sort of interesting. I think a lot of immigrants like myself, we come into America as the sort of benefactors of the civil rights' legacy. And then at the same time, you definitely have this sort of day-to-day experience, this profoundly defining psychological experience of growing up Black in America and all the sort of complexities that it entails.
So that becomes this interesting, cultural bridge. Where you have this, in my case, Ethiopian family history and culture, and then also at the same time this very distinct experience of growing up Black in America — which is very different from my family's experience of growing up in Ethiopia... So at the same time that it creates a divide between the past, it also makes a bridge between where you are in the present moment ... You realize that it is just this extra layer of complexity to what it means to be Black in America.
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(Photo: David Levenson/Getty Images)