An African refugee makes a home in
America, but can’t forget the one he left behindBy Chris Abani The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears: A Novel
Riverhead Books: 230 pp., $22.95Dinaw Mengestu belongs to that special group of American voices produced by global upheavals and intentional, if sometimes forced, migrations. These are the writer-immigrants coming here from Africa, East India,
Eastern Europe and elsewhere. Their struggles for identity mark a new turn within the ranks of American writers I like to call “the in-betweeners.” The most interesting work in American literature has often been done by such writers, their liminality and luminosity in American culture produced by changing national definitions (Twain, Kerouac, Ginsberg), by being the children of immigrants themselves (Bellow, Singer), by voluntary exile (Baldwin, Hemingway) and by trauma (Bambara, Morrison).The new writer-immigrants are more uniquely caught between loyalties — to a home they are still linked to and involved in and to the lives they are committed to making here. It is a difficult negotiation and yet an amazing resource for works of exquisite frustration: hopeful, lonely, joyful and something else that cannot be named. These are writers who are making
America their own but are also bringing the larger world into its streets, to borrow a phrase from Walter Mosley. This is the kind of writer Mengestu is, and “The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears” is the wrenching and important book he has made of this struggle.Set over eight months in Logan Circle, a gentrifying neighborhood in Washington, D.C., the novel shows us three characters bonding over their joint but different memories of another home, another sense of self, lost in the Africa they cannot return to. The engine of the book might be the relationships among these immigrants/refugees — Joseph from the Congo, Kenneth from Kenya and Sepha from
Ethiopia — but the book’s molten core belongs to Sepha and his witty though elegiac voice. Seldom has a character emerged in a recent novel who is so compellingly dark but honest, hopeful but dismal, and able to turn his chronicle into a truly American tapestry: racially fraught, culturally limited, haunted by a dream of itself that has driven writers like Twain and others to make and remake it.The book’s title, placing an emphasis on paradise (and thus redemption), is one of the many subtle indications of the book’s debt to Dante’s “Divine Comedy.” For the narrative structure is one of a variety of circles, of the hells and purgatories that characters endure, and that nest within each other like Russian dolls. Sepha opens a convenience store in
, named after the general whose statue graces its middle. What happens here, as Sepha watches families getting evicted to make way for gentrification and redevelopment, is symbolic of an American empire that is as disappointing as the empire that Haile Selassie created in Ethiopia and from which Sepha has fled. Sepha never contacts the family he left there, but he is unable to move forward until he can reconnect with them. In fact, in one attempt by Sepha to escape the monotony of his grief, we are led with him on a vision quest through the heart of D.C.
But “Beautiful Things” is no simple coming-to-America fable. Mengestu constantly parallels Ethiopia’s failed revolution with life in the U.S., and readers see in what happens in Logan Circle some proof that the alternative that America offers is failing and failing fast — what kind of paradise evicts its occupants on behalf of gentrification?
The author sustains parallels between Africa and the
U.S., between the immigrants’ experiences here and there, with devices such as the wonderful but tragic letters that Sepha’s uncle writes to President Carter. Judith, a white woman who moves into the predominantly black
, becomes Sepha’s Beatrice, and, as with Dante, she leads him from his exile to purgatory and, eventually, to redemption. They meet over the counter in Sepha’s store, which is where all the community eventually comes together — to buy, to hang out, to shoplift, to receive and pass along gossip. Sepha’s relationship with Judith is facilitated by the wonderful connection he has to Judith’s precocious daughter, Naomi. And like Dante and Beatrice, they have a love that remains fraught and unconsummated but powerful and transformative nonetheless. Part of the difficulty is that Judith represents the new wave of gentrification and Sepha’s decision to date her is seen as an act of betrayal by the other residents. Neighborhood tensions build because of Judith (since she symbolizes the oppressor), and her home is fire-bombed by local thugs. Sepha’s own redemption and the choice he makes in this matter are what shape his new self.
Naomi, Judith’s biracial daughter, is the angel who saves Sepha. He reads to her from “The Brothers Karamazov,” and their tender friendship is one of the book’ strongest delights. The child is a symbol of hope, partly because she represents all the factions in the book — here, the idea Mengestu seems to be suggesting is that we are all cultural mongrels, and the only chance we have is to accept that. There is of course no mistake in Naomi’s choosing Dostoevsky for Sepha to read to her: No other Russian writer seems better suited in a novel about the struggle between the possibilities an adopted land offers and the tortured agony that an investment in the past demands. In an Africa that often struggles with Marxist ideologies and power-hungry dictators, the effect of Russian literature and the emblematic opportunities it offers cannot be underestimated in the work of writers such as Kenyan Ngugi wa Thiong’o and South African Alex La Guma.
But Mengestu also has a sense of humor that is pitch perfect, falling between complete despair and pure sarcasm. Even the choice to name an immigrant from the
Congo after Conrad and a Kenyan almost after Kenyatta seems at first obvious but is so subtly pulled off that the reader notices it only afterward. This triumvirate of friends, led by Sepha and his endlessly deferred dream, often plays a game of trying to match coups with dictators by using only dates or vague locations as clues — it is a kind of charades gone wrong.
The most haunting moments in the novel occur when the narrative tries to balance small, quiet moments of shame with those of true tenderness. When Naomi, for instance, is helping Sepha in his shop, she tells an old homeless man who dotes on her, “Take a bath,” and her tone is full of delicious scorn and insult. After this harshness comes a scene in which Sepha, nearly broke, buys and wraps Christmas presents for Naomi and Judith, presents he never gets to give them.
Ethiopia has one of the oldest histories of literacy and written literature, going back to the Middle Ages, and it is no wonder that Sepha is the chronicler of this book — he is the one who can contain it all and process it into the possibilities for transformation.
With “The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears,” Mengestu has made, and made well, a novel that is a retelling of the immigrant experience, one in which immigrants must come to terms with the past and find a way to be loyal to two ideas of home: the one they left and the one they’ve made in
America. If there is a more American concern, I haven’t found it yet. This is a question that American writers like Walt Whitman, and even Ben Franklin, have wrestled with: how to make an America that is born of
Europe but free of it and at peace with it. With this book, Mengestu moves the conversation forward.
Chris Abani’s most recent novel is “The Virgin of Flames” by Penguin.