6 July 2008
Dinaw Mengestu - Children of the Revolution
Dinaw Mengestu is a 30 year old Ethiopian who immigrated to the United States at the age of two, following his father who was forced to flee the Red Terror of Mengistu Haile Mariam. His first novel is about an Ethiopian immigrant living in Washington DC, Sepha Stephanos, who came to the US at the age of nineteen, and after 17 years runs a small, unsuccessful general store. The novel is therefore a mixture of personal experience, of growing up as an immigrant, and a translation of observed and secondhand experiences of the Ethiopian diaspora.
Sepha has managed to extricate from the huddle of Ethiopians who have taken over a whole apartment block, and who have, to the best of their ability, replicated the village and family units they knew back in Addis. After a few menial jobs, he was encouraged to open a general store using a government business grant. But he doesn't have any entrepreneurial talent, nor any business ambition, and he struggles to break even. His closest friends are also African - Joseph, a Congolese waiter, and Kenneth, a Kenyan businessman - and their meetings are full of spurious nostalgia for Africa. Kenneth and Joseph encourage Sepha through his business troubles, and vicariously enjoy his romantic liaisons, fleeting as they are, but Joseph and Stephanos both regret the studies not pursued and the frustrations of lives not meeting expectations.
The liaison in the book is with his neighbour, Judith, a white academic single mother, whose daughter is the child of a Mauritanian academic, from whom Judith is separated. It emerges that she is looking for a father for her precocious daughter, but Sepha, in his well-meaning inexperience, eludes her obvious attempts at seduction and misses the chance he knows is there.
This is the most successful part of the book, Mengestu handles the relationship with sympathy and dexterity, such that the motivations of each character are clear and credible. He has a talent for emotional narrative, and this novel is engaging throughout. The main theme is of the illusion of the land of opportunity, but there are also currents of upheaval, integration and the volatile underclass of America. Mengestu's talent with this debut novel has already been recognised - it won the 2007 Guardian First Book Award.