Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Only connect!

I’ve always loved immigrant fiction. As a patron once succinctly described it, these are the “books about people who came here from somewhere else” – in other words, books about roughly 99% of those living in the United States today. In particular, though, I like books from the recent immigrant experience, books from authors like Julia Alvarez, who described her work this way: "I am a Dominican, hyphen, American. As a fiction writer, I find that the most exciting things happen in the realm of that hyphen--the place where two worlds collide or blend together.”

A recent contribution written “from the hyphen” is Dinaw Mengestu’s The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, the story of a struggling Ethiopian shop-keeper in Washington D.C. Sepha Stephanos fled Ethiopia as a young man, after the murder of his father by government soldiers; now, seventeen years later, gentrification is nudging his dilapidated neighborhood, bringing its usual attendant hopes for and fears of change.

Mengestu has written a remarkably accomplished debut novel, one of complexity and power revealed through the commonplace decisions and everyday interactions of life. As always in immigrant fiction, the home (and story) left behind are ever-present. And, as always in immigrant fiction, the insights about our country, as seen through new eyes, are pertinent, humbling, and even, at times, heart-rending – a gentle comeuppance for those of us with fully-assimilated hyphens.

The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears won the Guardian First Book Award in the UK, was a New York Times Notable Book of 2007, and was chosen as one of the ten best novels of 2007 by Dinaw Mengestu is a writer to watch and you can check him out at your library!

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