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BABEL: Dinaw Mengestu Categories: Official JB Events Timelines: 2: BABEL Archive, Just Buffalo History (2010s)

Dinaw Mengestu - BABEL - Just Buffalo Literary Center
Kleinhans Symphony Hall
3 Symphony Circle
Buffalo, NY 14201
Date: November 18, 2015
Time: 8:00 p.m.
Patron VIP Reception: 7:00 p.m.

Photos by Bruce Jackson from Dinaw Mengestu at Kleinhans Music Hall (November 18, 2015)

About the Author

DINAW MENGESTU is the award-winning author of How to Read the Air and All Our Names. His debut novel, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, garnered critical acclaim for its haunting depiction of the immigrant experience in America, earning him comparisons to Fitzgerald and BABEL alum V.S. Naipaul. The recipient of the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” Award, The New Yorker “20 under 40” award, The Guardian First Book Award and a MacArthur “genius” grant, Mengestu was born in Ethiopia and immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 2. A graduate of Georgetown University and Columbia University’s MFA program in Fiction, Mengestu is also a talented journalist whose articles have appeared in Harper’s, Rolling Stone, and The New Yorker.

About the Book

Seventeen years ago, Sepha Stephanos fled the Ethiopian Revolution for a new start in the United States. Now he finds himself running a failing grocery store in a poor African-American section of Washington, D.C., his only companions two fellow African immigrants who share his bitter nostalgia and longing for his home continent. Years ago and worlds away Sepha could never have imagined a life of such isolation. As his environment begins to change, hope comes in the form of a friendship with new neighbors Judith and Naomi, a white woman and her biracial daughter. But when a series of racial incidents disturbs the community, Sepha may lose everything all over again.

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Discussion Questions
  1. How does Stephanos characterize his store? Does the store represent the American dream to Stephanos? Does he believe the American dream is attainable for him?
  2. Mengestu has said that Stephanos, Joseph, and Kenneth “love and mourn” their countries and the African continent as a whole. How did they employ the African dictators game to this end? How does the game and their discussions become a way to reconcile their bitterness and longing?
  3. Discuss the significance of Uncle Berhane’s letters to U.S. presidents regarding the conflict in Ethiopia. What do they reveal about his character and how he locates himself as an immigrant in the U.S.?
  4. Examine the role of beauty and beautiful things in this novel. How does Mengestu cast our eye, or ask us to reexamine what we consider “beautiful?”
  5. Stephanos’s trauma—watching his father captured and taken by a group of boy soldiers—is one of the most haunting moments in the novel. How does Stephanos remember his father? What do you make of Stephanos’s final words to his father at the end of the novel?
  6. How do different immigrants in this story navigate the American dream? For example, Uncle Berhane, Joseph, and Stephanos have seemingly different orientations to their new home. How would you characterize each man’s attitude about making a new life in the United States?
  7. The prose in this novel is unsentimental and sparse. How does the language contribute to the overall tone in the narrative? How does it provide insight into the characters’ consciousness and internal experiences?

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