She had a black mohawk, edged in green. Sometimes red. I believe there was a brief blue phase. She wore Doc Martens long before they were cool, and she only ever wore baggy, black clothing. I never once saw her smile. When she hung out with the other punks in the unofficial outdoor smoking section of our neighborhood, she inhaled her cigarettes slowly, gently. She wasn’t pretty or even conventionally attractive, but boys always surrounded her. Perhaps it was the heavy eyeliner, speaking of a life populated with interesting and equally enigmatic people and filled with rarefied events that neither I nor her admirers would ever experience, couldn’t even fathom. Part of her mystique, of course, was that she didn’t seem to engage with her entourage, but, eyes down, quietly murmur something once in a while that would galvanize everyone.
She lived just ten houses down from me, but in an older, separate subdivision. On my nightly walks with Maggie, our Rastafarian family dog, I’d hope for a glimpse inside her rundown house. Though lights often flickered through the drawn curtains, that entire winter I never saw a thing. Her home was as inscrutable as was she. Invariably Maggie would pull at the leash to go back home where it was warm and she could go to sleep and where my life, boring and uneventful, waited.
Many years later, I came across this photograph on Todd Hido’s Web site.
For a brief moment, I thought it was her house. Then I saw the dissimilarities; it wasn’t. But the effect on me was profound: my emotional response to the photo, the swoosh of nostalgia, became a portal. Suddenly I was once again in the midst of painful adolescence, projecting a narrative onto a girl I had never met. Read More
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.
I discovered My Literary Hero when I was fifteen years old, handed his first book by an English teacher who thought I’d like him. Like MLH? I loved MLH: immediately, completely, and obsessively. It wasn’t a romantic crush; it was a writer crush, and it endured. Over the next thirteen years, I read and reread everything he had written, toting all of his books—essays, novels, short stories, what couldn’t the man do?—from my childhood home to my college dorm to my first apartment to my second, third, and fourth apartments. I read him on road trips, on airplanes, in foreign countries. I scrawled his best lines (poetry!) in my journals. I insisted that friends, family, acquaintances, and random passersby read MLH’s work. I insisted they recognize its excellence. I was a one-girl, and then a one-woman, fan club. MLH was my idol.
I eventually started to write a book myself. One day, as I was struggling with a passage, I thought, “I bet MLH would know what to do. If only I could ask him.” And then I thought “But could I ask him?” Sure enough, his e-mail address was there for the taking—one just needed to be willing to pick through the Internet obsessively for three hours and voila! Access!
I wrote (and revised and rewrote) an e-mail to MLH. Shockingly, MLH wrote back the next day. He’d be glad to help. Our correspondence commenced. It was my condensed, digital version of Letters to a Young Poet. Only he wasn’t advising me on how to write lyrical German poetry; he was advising me on how to appropriately market a non-fiction book about a dog. It seemed similar enough.
If MLH and I got along famously over e-mail, I figured, we could potentially be best friends in real life. So when I took a cross-country trip several months after my first e-meeting with MLH, I wrote to tell him I’d be passing through his outpost and asked if I could buy him a drink. By “passing through” I meant “driving thirteen straight hours out of my way.”
Instead, MLH invited me over for dinner. He was significantly older than I and decidedly non-sleazy, but he lived in the bar-free boonies. That’s how I ended up at his kitchen table.
That’s also how I made MLH wish we’d never met.