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Episode 332

Authors of the African Diaspora

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Posted by Mary Ann

Dinaw Mengestu has been living the immigrant experience since he was very young. He was born in Ethiopia, but his parents fled the upheaval and civil war there to America, and he was raised and educated as an American. He’s now a professor at Georgetown University, but he has returned to Africa numerous times, including work as a journalist working for Rolling Stone in Darfur, Sudan and Chad.

One of his ongoing themes is the loneliness of the immigrant experience, which certainly comes through in the character of Isaac in “All Our Names.”

Isaac is virtually identity-less, an immigrant with no past, a client of social services whose folder contains only “a single loose leaf of paper. . . . There was no month or date of birth, only a year. His place of birth was listed only as Africa, with no country or city. The only solid fact was his name, Isaac Mabira, but even that was no longer substantial: Any name could have filled that slot, and nothing would have changed.” Of course, we learn later that there are reasons for this, but the passage underscores how immigrants really have to rebuild their new identity almost from scratch.

“All Our Names” is set in the late 1970s in Uganda, when a young man from Ethiopia leaves his home and travels to Kampala, Uganda to seek a new life and finds a revolution that turns into violence, then dictatorship. Mengestu’s previous books harkened more directly back to his own family’s experiences, as he wrote about the lives of Ethiopians forced by violent political upheaval to relocate in the United States.

His 2007 novel “The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears” is set in Washington, D.C., and tells the story of an Ethiopian immigrant running a grocery store in a run-down but rapidly gentrifying D.C. neighborhood. The title comes from a passage from Dante’s Inferno, in which Dante is led out of Hell (in the same way an immigrant sometimes is) and offered a look at what is possible. “How to Read the Air” is about a young man’s determination, after his father dies, to revisit his father’s life, both here and in Ethiopia.

I started thinking about recent books by American immigrants with African heritage, and I realized that there’s a real flowering of literature going on here. Mengestu is one of several contemporary writers of African heritage who are doing some of the best work in fiction today. Here are some others:

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: this fabulously talented young woman just won the National Book Critics Circle Award for her 2013 novel “Americanah.” She’s of Nigerian heritage, and she still splits her time between America and Nigeria. “Americanah” is about a razor-sharp young Nigerian woman who settles on the East Coast of America. She loves a Nigerian man, but he eventually settles in Nigeria and becomes wealthy. Through her main character’s voice, observations and wit, Adichie takes a penetrating look at both American attitudes about race and the tendency of Nigerians who have immigrated to America to embrace nostalgic notions of their Nigerian home, even as they become all too willing to embrace their new country’s excesses. Like Mengestu, Adiche is a MacArthur Genius award winner.

Teju Cole: Cole, also a son of Nigerian parents, was born here but returned to live in Nigeria when he was 17. He now lives here (he’s Bard College’s writer-in-residence) and has written brilliantly about his adopted home and Nigeria in two novels, “Open City” and “Every Day is For the Thief.”

In “Open City,” his protagonist is a half-German, half-Nigerian psychiatrist whose therapy for his own problems is to walk all over New York City. He goes farther and farther afield, and acquires what one reviewer called an almost “metaphysical” awareness of New York City’s neighborhoods. This novel, which came out after 9/11, looks astutely at Americans’ terror and paranoia in the aftermath of that tragedy. As the doctor walks, he eventually returns in his memories, first to Europe, then Nigeria, trying to figure out what it means to be an African immigrant in this country.

In Cole’s most recent novel “Every Day is for the Thief,” a high-strung New York-based Nigerian doctor returns to Lagos, Nigeria and finds a chaotic, corrupt city; one reviewer called it a funny and unnerving meditation on the idea that you can’t go home again.” Reviews often comment on the vivid, “shimmering” quality of Cole’s prose – unsurprisingly, he is also a photographer.

Finally, I want to briefly mention the writer No Violet Bulawayo, of Zimbabwean heritage, whose 2013 novel “We Need New Names” is the story of a young girl, Darling. It tells her story, first as a young girl in Zimbabwe, then as a teenager in the American Midwest. This vivid novel unforgettably presents the chaos and violence of contemporary Zimabwe under the dictator Robert Mugabe through the eyes of a child, then America through the eyes of an all-too-experienced teenager.

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