Thursday, October 8, 2015

Three Books by Dinaw Mengestu to Explore the Immigration Experience with Students

As educators, one of the great joys is introducing students to fiction that allows students to see themselves in characters they thought were nothing like them and which they shared little in common. It is one of the most effective ways to teach empathy, broaden understanding, and disprove stereotypes. It is the stuff of “a-ha” moments, meaningful connections that transcend the classroom, and Dinaw Mengestu’s novels are ripe with these potential moments for high school students. His character-driven narratives highlight the universal tensions between home and displacement, loss and renewal, as explored in the migration experience.

The award-winning novelist and Mac Arthur Fellow has published three novels The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears (Penguin 2007), How to Read Air (Penguin 2010), and All Our Names (Knopf 2014).  An Ethiopian-American, his family left Addis Ababa when he was two-years-old during a violent period in Ethiopia known as “Red Terror.” He was raised in Peoria, Illinois, the setting used in his second novel.

Multi-Dimensional Character-Driven Narratives

Of his characters Mengestu said, in an interview with National Public Radio (NPR), they are “driven for a sort of home…what I think is a pretty universal and pretty common feeling.” Never does a character seem to fully understand his or her place, what they have lost in leaving and what they hope to find in a new home.

Mengestu’s debut novel, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, explores the isolation and frustration of immigrant life through the eyes of the Ethiopian immigrant storekeeper Sepha Stephanos in a rapidly-gentrifying Washington D.C. How can Stephanos ever make a home in America that he feels a part of if he has never truly left Ethiopia?

In How to Read Air, we encounter the narrator Jonas Woldemariam, a second-generation Ethiopian-American struggling with his failed marriage as he takes a road trip to understand the complicated relationship of his parents, Yusef and Mariam, who emigrated from eastern Africa. The result is four skillfully-woven narratives, Yusef, Mariam, Jonas, and his estranged wife, Angela, each telling a similar but particular story of home and loss and the struggle to belong.

The most recent novel All Our Names is set after the Ugandan independence and alternates point of view between Helen, a social worker in the Midwest, and her lover who calls himself “Isaac.” Through flashbacks, we learn of Isaac’s troubled past – an Ethiopian who travelled to Uganda via Kenya who becomes, along with a boyhood friend, drawn into military activity. While a love story, it is also a war story exploring how violent leaders rise to power and how names and identity can change with perspective and time.

Universal Themes

While the themes in Mengestu’s novels explore the immigrant experience through unforgettable characters, they also convey universal themes. Mengestu said in an interview with German media, Deutsche Welle, “We often think that the immigrant story is unique to people who have left their homes. But for me it has increasingly become a story of people who have lost something essential to who they are and have to reinvent themselves and decide who they are in the wake of that loss.”  What student (or person) hasn’t questioned who they are or lost someone or something dear to them? 

These novels give students the opportunity to explore the immigrant experience through the fresh eyes of complex characters dealing with familiar struggles. In an effort to get students to think beyond media headlines, more than anything these novels portray the human experience of immigration.

Additional Resources

·       The National Education Teachers Association (NEA) has a free downloadable lesson plan to use with high school students along with capstone ideas and essay topics.

·       Our free lesson plan on Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s Ted TalkThe Danger of a Single Story” pairs well with Mengestu’s novels and lends itself to a discussion on the benefits of diversity.

Stay Connected!

The American Immigration Council offers free lesson plans, resources, book/film reviews, and grants to teach immigration. We also welcome teacher and student book reviews and contributions to our blog. Email us at and follow us on twitter @ThnkImmigration.

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