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Writer’s long road to ‘genius’ is a story of overcoming racism

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Updated: November 22, 2012 6:10AM



During his first day as a freshman at Fenwick High School in Oak Park, Dinaw Mengestu broke from the class tour and vomited in a nearby bathroom.

While his orientation nausea abated, there remained a gut-level discomfort that persisted for the next couple of years. Its primary cause: race.

“To some people I wasn’t considered African-American enough or black enough,” the 34-year-old Ethiopian-born author and recent MacArthur Fellowship recipient says of his days at Fenwick, from which he graduated in 1996.

“And then, of course, there were some white students who just saw me as a n-----.”

Not only that, they called him ‘n-----’ to his face.

“Most of my freshman year I had students sitting next to me calling me ‘n-----’ in class,” he remembers. “I had students walking down the hallway who yelled, ‘That n----- smells!’”

Teachers, he says, tended to turn a deaf ear.

Quiwana Bell, a classmate at the Dominican-run Catholic institution whose alums include Pulitzer Prize winners and an astronaut, knew Mengestu only casually, but she felt his pain acutely.

“It was isolating, it was lonely,” says Bell, who is black and was raised in an all-black Chicago neighborhood. “It must have been especially difficult for him, because he was black but he wasn’t black American.”

Not surprisingly, Mengestu’s fiction (“The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears,” “How to Read the Air”) owes a debt to those less-than-thrilling days of yesteryear. Race and economics are central concerns in all of his books, he notes, and born out of his time at Fenwick. So, too, is isolation and an acute awareness of “how easy, almost inevitable it is to absorb the bigotry of others; it leaves an indelible mark.”

Although Mengestu (whose first name is pronounced “dih-NOW”) had emigrated to America — Peoria, specifically, where his father worked for Caterpillar — when he was barely a toddler, his 14-year-old self suddenly began trying “to identify very strongly with Ethiopian culture” by wearing Ethiopian symbols on his clothing and immersing himself in Ethiopian history and politics.

“The one form of defense I had against the overt racism in the school,” he says, “was to try to identify myself outside of it.”

As he quickly came to realize, outside was a far more comfortable place to be. Outside and alone: with his thoughts, with the world and eventually with words.

***

Jerry Lordan, who taught Mengestu world history and western civilization at Fenwick, says he never witnessed Mengestu’s racial strife. What he did see was “a young man who was extremely introverted. Very shy, very private.”

And very angry.

“At that point the antagonism felt very, very severe,” Mengestu says of his struggles as an underclassman. “By the time I started high school, even before experiencing the overt racism that came with being there, [I remember] feeling quite angry and my mom saying to me, ‘You can’t be this angry all the time.’ ”

Occasionally, his anger manifested itself physically.

“He got into a fight one year with his locker partner,” Lordan says of Mengestu. “It started with a banana.”

Fists flew at other times as well. In one instance, Mengestu says, a brawl between him and another boy was broken up by police.

Having been torn from the “marvelously eclectic” group of pals — Mexican, Asian, Colombian — he’d grown up with in Forest Park, these occasional violent outbursts were at first the only overt way Mengestu knew of to vent his mounting frustration and despair.

At such a young age, he recalls, “you’re not even sure what that rage [is] or how profound it actually is. You’re just struggling to identify it.”

There was sadness, too.

“You are sort of distraught by things,” including the fact that his relationships with “people that you like and trust and have known for a really long time... had suddenly become radically different.”

***

Among Mengestu’s closest pals in a pool of few was a first-generation Muslim kid named Aamer Madhani. According to Madhani, their friendship was cemented during a trip to obtain fake I.D.’s at a flea market just over the Indiana border.

Like Mengestu, Madhani ran cross-country with a modicum of enthusiasm. Like Mengestu, he wasn’t Catholic. And like Mengestu, he felt the weight of other-ness upon his shoulders at a barely integrated and newly coed institution that was steeped in decades of tradition. Their shared experience was deeply felt but rarely discussed.

“They would have rallies for football. And the swim teams were really good back then,” says Madhani, White House correspondent for U.S.A. Today. “And almost inevitably, most of the black kids there were recruited to play one sport or another. And there was a whole group of them, through at least three of my four years, who [sat] in the front row during the rallies and wouldn’t stand up. That was sort of their silent protest [against] the way things were and the way you were treated by teachers for the most part.”

Mengestu recalls one teacher in particular who openly referred to students from a visiting high school as “porch monkeys.”

Fenwick president Rev. Richard Peddicord, a theology teacher there from 1986 to 1990, says the school now has a “diversity committee” on its board of trustees, an annual diversity-training program for faculty and staff as well as an annual assembly program for students “on issues particularly of racial sensitivity.” For the classes of 2014 through 2016, he adds, minority enrollment is up “significantly” to 22 percent, more than half of whom belong to “other traditions” than Catholicism.

During their respective tenures, both Madhani and Mengestu say, overt bigotry among teachers wasn’t a universal problem and Lordan in particular was an outstanding exception, going above and beyond to help them navigate often-choppy waters.

Ethnic humor, too, became increasingly common among Mengestu’s small circle of acquaintances, most of who cleaved together outside of class. But while jokes helped to temper anxieties, they did little to vanquish apprehensions. And in this new racial reality of theirs, Mengestu says, there were plenty.

“These girls I’d known growing up, suddenly their mothers were alarmed by the fact that they had black friends.”

As he remembers it, one of them told him she “would be OK if my daughter dated you, even though I’ve never been OK with her dating someone who was black.”

Rather than meeting insult with impudence, however, his upbringing kicked in.

“Being as polite as my parents taught me to be,” Mengestu says, already laughing, “I might have said ‘thank you.’”

Oddly, though, race liberated as much as it imprisoned in a place where rules — especially those of the dress code variety — ruled.

“I remember deliberately flouting them,” Mengestu says, “and watching the teachers not ever react to me.”

Not that he minded.

***

By his junior year, following an admittedly self-destructive stretch of faltering grades (including a shameful B-minus!) and parental head butting, what he once described in the quarterly magazine Granta as his “race-baiting rage” began to subside. Whereas he’d perfected the technique of being “physically present but entirely absent,” his focus now returned and his dress code protestations ceased.

Rewarding volunteerism with local organizations that aided abused and special needs children played a key role.

“He had been through a lot of trauma,” Lordan says, “and I think he was empathetic to people who were outside of the mainstream.”

Reading ramped up, too. Spurred by book suggestions from Madhani, Mengestu “developed a love of coffee shops” (local diners, mostly, as well as the java-brewing branch of Barbara’s Bookstore in Oak Park), cultivated a taste for Marlboro Lights and immersed himself in the beat-era works of J.D. Salinger, Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and poet Gregory Corso. Always alone.

“They were great Bohemians,” he says. “And there was something about their rejection of normative values that felt very similar and that made you want to echo the same sort of thing. Even though what they were rejecting was very different from what I was rejecting, that sense of carving out someplace different from what other people lived still felt quite right.”

He also wrote in journals when inspiration struck, which typically happened during class “when I wasn’t paying attention.” That is to say often.

“Little character sketches would pop into my mind and I would just sort of write them out,” he says.

Many of those sketches were set in the rural Midwest. All of them dealt with the twin themes of friendship and violence.

For the most part, though, no one knew about this sideline — not teachers, not family, not friends. Writing was simply something Mengestu did for himself, by himself, with only fleeting thoughts as to where it might lead.

“I knew I wanted to write to a certain degree,” he says, “but I never had the courage to say that I wanted to write books or stories.”

He’d begun perusing literary journals such as the Iowa Review and the Missouri Review, in whose pages he envisioned publishing prose, but there was no one around to offer guidance or encouragement. That would soon change.

***

Almost from the moment he arrived at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., Mengestu pegged it as a place for educational purposes and little else. More at ease than ever before with himself and his surroundings, he nonetheless continued to shun any sort of group culture. Anxiety over not fitting in at yet another mostly white and affluent bastion of tradition-steeped academia was surely a factor, he says.

Then again, Fenwick wounds had formed hard-to-penetrate scars.

“I think by that point I could be aware of other people’s antipathy toward me or racist sentiments, but [felt] like I’d also found a system of protection and a way of coping with that without letting it affect any essential part of myself,” Mengestu says. “I’d already gone through that. I’d felt the rage and I’d felt the hurt, but I think I’d arrived at a point that made me feel like, ‘I don’t actually care anymore.’ “

What he described in an e-mail as his “pervasive sense of anger and inferiority” was replaced by “a sort of compassionate detachment.”

“I spent more time in coffee shops by myself than I think most students do, which came with a great benefit,” says Mengestu. “That sense of solitude and quiet that comes with that was, I think, essential to getting my voice right as a writer.”

Longtime Georgetown professor Norma Tilden, Mengestu’s creative writing teacher during his junior year, describes her charge-turned-colleague as “extremely personable and warm,” “just a little older than everybody else in the room,” and thoroughly unflashy— personally and literarily. If not for his distinctive mop of jet-black hair, which sprouted at college, “I don’t think you would notice him in a crowd.”

Mengestu’s spare but elegant prose, she says, wowed her “from the very first page.” and not for any overwrought turns of phrase. The spare but eloquent style he adopted early on is one that Mengestu maintains to this day, largely as “a way of managing sorrow.”

Beyond matters of sentence structure, Tilden is taken by Mengestu’s “alertness to the sounds and rhythms of American English as we hear it spoken now” and his knack for wringing meaning from minor details that other writers might gloss over. She is equally impressed by his ability to “occupy other people’s lives,” be it those of Ethiopian grocery store owner Sepha Stephanos in “The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears” or struggling Ethiopian immigrants Mariam and Yosef in “How to Read the Air.”

Upon exiting Georgetown, Mengestu began graduate school at New York’s pricey Columbia University. Madhani, for one, implored him to reconsider his expensive gamble, but Mengestu plowed ahead anyway, convinced it was the right place at the right time. Several years of toil on his first novel came next as well as coverage of the genocide in Darfur for Rolling Stone magazine, his first trip to Ethiopia and a fiction fellowship back at Georgetown. He also moved home for a spell to work for his father’s messenger service in Chicago while the elder Mengestu recovered from cancer.

Pining for a renewed “sense of privacy,” Dinaw then relocated to France, began laboring in earnest on novel number two, married in a bucolic setting outside of Bordeaux and had kids. Together with his wife of three-and-a-half years and their two young sons, Mengestu recently returned yet again to Georgetown, where he serves as Lannan Foundation Chair of Poetics.

All of which is to say that two decades after his stomach-churning first day at Fenwick, Dinaw Mengestu is riding high. With a slew of critical plaudits for his fiction and some lauded magazine journalism (besides Rolling Stone, he’s penned pieces for Harper’s and Jane) to his credit — not to mention a big-deal nod from the New Yorker in its 2010 “20 under 40” fiction issue — Mengestu has what he never imagined or sought while sitting alone with his over-caffeinated thoughts in Oak Park: literary renown and a measure of financial security.

Courtesy of that so-called “genius” grant from the MacArthur folks, he’s got a half-million dollars en route — $100,000 annually for five years — that will go a long way toward paying down student debt, purchasing expensive plane tickets for overseas research jaunts and buying precious time to finish his in-progress third novel.

The feeling of genius-ness itself, he says, has been elusive.

Even so, and not coincidentally, he’s in higher demand than ever. His boss at Georgetown says “a longer stint” for Mengestu is “very much under negotiation,” and invitations to speak domestically and internationally have increased from an already healthy influx.

Perhaps most jarringly for this gregarious but (in the words of his wife) “profoundly private” man who continues to treasure his solitude, he no longer blends into crowds. More heads turn when he strolls on campus and around D.C., Mengestu admits. Even an Ethiopian barista that served him coffee offered her congratulations on his MacArthur honor.

Did she at least slip him a free latte?

“No, no. Not at all,” Mengestu says, chuckling. “Not even a donut.”



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