How to Read the Air is the second novel by Dinaw Mengestu. It’s narrated by a young American Ethiopian named Jonas Woldemariam. Jonas’s disintegrating marriage to his wife, Angela, forces him to retrace the steps his parents, Yosef and Miriam, took when they first emigrated from Ethiopia to the United States. Their abusive and loveless marriage stands in stark contrast to the hopes of the American dream. But in distinguishing their past from his life, Jonas may be closer to understanding his own failures. I recently spoke to Mengestu in the Penguin offices before the start of his book tour.
Why did you set part of your novel in Peoria, Illinois, the same town where you grew up?
I always wanted to write about the Midwest. I’m also very aware of the idea of “immigrant literature” and how it is excluded from the traditional category of the American literary novel; there’s the American literary novel and then there’s the immigrant novel, which is seen as a derivation, and not a natural extension of what someone like Saul Bellow and other American immigrants traditionally have been doing. Beginning my novel in the Midwest was deliberate; I was staking its claim in America. I wanted Jonas, the narrator, not to be an immigrant but to be someone who was undeniably born in America.
What do you not like about the immigrant novel as its own category?
If it wasn’t a category, then it would be great. If it wasn’t already pigeonholed and marginalized, then it would be fine. I would have no problems. When I think of my work, I’m aware that I’m American and African at all points and times. And without a doubt, my experience and understanding of America was shaped by having immigrant parents. At the same time, people say, He’s an Ethiopian novelist or an American Ethiopian novelist. And I want to say, I became an Ethiopian novelist at what point? I’m not. I wrote my first book without being to Ethiopia since I was two years old. Why is this an Ethiopian novel and not an American novel? The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears is very much about America—it just happens to have African and Ethiopian characters, and in fact, it happens to have more characters who are not Ethiopian than who are. It’s more the way the conversation is framed and always debated. You’re being spun off because of your ethnicity.
But do you think your book is marketed in a certain way that promotes your ethnicity?
No, I don’t think so. Obviously, in marketing, the best tool is to show the autobiography in fiction. It’s inevitable how that happens, but it’s generic. Say I’ve written a story where my sister dies. “Well, did your sister die?” No, she did not. But people use those straws to grasp at the difference between reality and fiction. I think they mistrust fiction for some strange reason.
Speaking of mistrust, let’s talk about Jonas, your protagonist. He is both a storyteller and a liar, which gets him into trouble. What is the difference between telling a lie and telling a story?
There’s a difference for each motivation, but they serve a common purpose. Jonas lies as a way of protecting himself. He lies to avoid the difficult things in his life: his own issues, his own complicated history, his own failings. At the same time, he tells stories as a way of rebuilding himself. The process of inventing history still demands an emotional engagement. It allows him to re-create himself. They both come from the same root. You use stories to hide from your life, but you also use stories to reveal something integral about what you don’t actually know.
How did the idea for this novel happen?
There was a sentence that came into my head. After I first went to Ethiopia in 2005, one of the first things I did was drive to Peoria, where I hadn’t been in many years. I was trying to put these two places, which were very much opposed, visually together in my head to see how that experience would feel. As if I had never been to Peoria before and I was coming straight from Ethiopia—it is a very similar trip to the one I took when I was two years old and the one my father took before I was born. Part of the novel began there.
What were you trying to say with the dissolution of Jonas and Angela’s marriage?
Don’t get married. Get married and get a prenup. No, I think it was as much as anything about two people who have equal desires but are unable to communicate their needs to one another. In some ways they very much mirror what happens to Jonas’ parents: there is this gap in communication, a gap in language, and the inability to use words to say what is troubling for them. I wanted the marriage to dissolve in discreet moments, and not blow up. I wanted to show how two people can be attached to each another and still feel completely alienated.
I thought that you were, perhaps, also trying to show how abuse can last for many generations.
There is a physical abuse that happens to Jonas, and there is the isolated emotional abuse that happens to Angela. They’re two people who are recovering, but their equal levels of damage mean they are unable to form this identity that they wished they could. At the same time, they do make an effort, and even though it fails in the end, there is this hopeful sense that at least they have tried. That effort is one process of removing themselves from their past.
Your characters seem very isolated from the world. Why is that?
I think they’re all deliberately disengaged with the world. They’re not seeking tangible connections, like a great career or a great life. They’re very happy to be protecting themselves and living in their small isolated realities, because, in a certain way, there’s more comfort. Certain characters have great failings because of their inability to move outside of their own damaged terrain, and it’s only until they do that they become fuller, more meaningful people.
Do you believe in happy endings?
It is a happy ending. Nothing is resolved permanently, but I think it’s happy because there’s an understanding of mutual love at the end that reconciles the brutality and violence that have shaped the narrator and his marriage. It is integrated into who he is in a way that allows him to accept it coldly and with a certain amount of grace.
How did it feel to be named one of The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40”?
You know, unabashedly great. I was still in college when the first list came out. I was working in my university library, and I was reading a lot of contemporary literature. I read that list thoroughly when it came out, and had very quiet, squirreled-away dreams of my own. Like, Wow, wouldn’t that be fucking cool some day. I never actually thought they would even do the list again, let alone that I would be in line for it, so when it happened—obviously lists are complicated things, but fuck all that for me—it was a good feeling. Some children dream of being in a band, I had my dream of being on a list someday.