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.