Dinaw Mengestu was 2 years old when he moved, along with his mother and sister, from war-torn Ethiopia to join his father in America. That was nearly three decades ago. Mengestu has since graduated from Georgetown University, earned his MFA in fiction from Columbia University, and published his debut — and semi-autobiographical — novel, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears (2007). That book was followed by another novel, How To Read the Air, which was excerpted in The New Yorker (the same magazine that named Mengestu to its "20 Under 40" writers of 2010). And earlier this year saw the publication of a third novel, All Our Names. All three novels examine issues of identity and displacement and questions of the individual in relation to country and culture, politics and race. But those issues, in this author's hands, apply not only to immigrants to the U.S. As Mengestu shows in All Our Names, the same issues operate in the lives of the native-born and all-American.
In 2012, Mengestu, who today teaches at Georgetown, was awarded the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence. That same year, he was named a MacArthur Foundation fellow. And on Tuesday, November 4th,
Memphians have a chance to meet him as guest of the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library and Christian Brothers University. In a way, many Memphians have met him already.
That's because The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears is the inaugural title for "Memphis Reads," which was launched on October 1st. The program is a citywide initiative of the Memphis Public Library and Information Center, and its aim is a straightforward one: promoting literacy. It's an aim that's had Mayor Wharton's enthusiastic support. It's a program affiliated with "Fresh Reads" at CBU, which has partnered with the Memphis Public Library for "Memphis Reads."
"Fresh Reads" is part of CBU's First Year Experience. All incoming freshmen read one title (this year, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears), then they discuss it, then they write about it in the context of their own lives. The Central Library has published the top 10 student essays on its "Memphis Reads" blog.
According to Karen B. Golightly, associate professor of English at CBU and director of "Fresh Reads," it was the Memphis Public Library's adult services coordinator, Wang-Ying Glasgow, who suggested Mengestu's book — and for good reason.
"In partnering with the library to form 'Memphis Reads,'" Golightly says, "we wanted to choose a book that people would not only want to read but a book that would engage them on more than just the plot level. We hoped to introduce a book — and a common reading experience — that might break down some of the walls that separate us. If the people who read The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears can see each other as individuals, as humans, rather than as teachers, government workers, administrators, homeless people, immigrants, black, white, Asian, Democrats, Republicans, etc., then the spaces between us could be bridged.
"I know, it's a lofty idea. But it's one that we hope to achieve," Golightly adds. "One book, one person at a time."