Author Dinaw Mengestu Stresses Common Experiences in Literature

Walt Whitman Writers’ Series Presents Ethiopian Immigrant Writer

Dinaw Mengestu being interviewed by St. Francis College student Noel Jones '12.

BROOKLYN HEIGHTS — He was born in Ethiopia and immigrated to the United States when he was 2 years old, but Walt Whitman Writer Series speaker Dinaw Mengestu says that despite obvious physical, ethnic and geographic differences, it is what all people have in common that makes literature such an effective way to communicate and educate.

“I don’t write because I want to give you the idea of the Ethiopian American experience or the immigrant experience, I write because I believe we all know what it is to be lonely. We all know what it is to want love in our lives. We all know that at some point in time we are forced to create a sense of home and identity,” said Mengestu during a reading of his latest novel, How to Read the Air, on Oct. 17 in the St. Francis College Maroney Forum for Arts, Culture & Education.

“These are struggles that are not particular to any ethnicity or identity. They are greater than those issues.”

Mengestu, who lived only a few blocks from St. Francis in Brooklyn Heights before moving to Paris, said that the literary tradition in America is unlike any other in the world.

“Part of the joy for me being back in Brooklyn is you can see this diversity and this range happening, this constant state of flux, some of which is not always the way you would like it to happen but never the less it still happens. The fact that we make room for each other constantly, especially in this borough, in this city, seems more and more miraculous the farther away I get from here.”

The portion of How to Read the Air that Mengestu read was about a young man who worked for immigration lawyers and was given the responsibility of editing the stories of asylum seekers to make their cases stronger. He commented on the parallels between the recent incident with Dominique Strauss-Kahn in which defense lawyers tried to discredit his sexual assault accuser by claiming her asylum papers were littered with lies about her past.

“Whether or not she lied was sort of irrelevant to the fact that we acted as if this was unheard of. I’d say most of the stories that pass through immigration officers have been doctored in order to get through those processes. It’s an unfair system, an imperfect system,” said Mengestu. “We’re not looking for truth, we’re looking for a reflection of our own political necessity in those moments.”

Mengestu is the sixth speaker in the Walt Whitman Writers Series that brings top contemporary authors to St. Francis to share their work and writing experiences with students, faculty and the entire Brooklyn community. Previous authors include Kate Christensen, Julie Orringer, Jonathan Lethem, Darcey Steinke and Rick Moody.

The next Walt Whitman speaker will be Ben Marcus on March 8, 2012. Marcus’s new novel, The Flame Alphabet (Knopf), will be published in January 2012.

Dinaw Mengestu was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in 1978. In 1980 he immigrated to the United States with his mother and sister, joining his father, who had fled the communist revolution in Ethiopia two years before. He is a graduate of Georgetown University, where he also returned as a visiting writer, and of Columbia University’s MFA program in fiction.

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Filed under Brooklyn Authors, Brooklyn Heights

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