Literary Fiction by People of Color discussion

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book discussions > Discussion: The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears

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message 1: by Qiana (last edited Jan 31, 2011 06:20PM) (new)

Qiana | 189 comments "And following its path, we took no care
To rest, but climbed: he first, then I-- so far,
Through a round aperture I saw appear
Some of the beautiful things that Heaven bears,
Where we came forth, and once more saw the stars."
- Dante's Inferno


Greetings all,

I'm delighted to lead this month's discussion on Dinaw Mengestu's first novel, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears. It has been three years since I've read the book, but I'm very eager to hear what others think about this story, its characters, and implications. The novel focuses on an Ethiopian shopkeeper, living in isolation in a gentrifying neighborhood in Washington, who develops a tentative bond with a professor of American history, a white woman, and her precocious biracial daughter. (The title is taken from the last lines of Dante's Inferno as the main character returns from his journey through Hell.)

Mengestu was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in 1978. In 1980, he immigrated to the United States with his mother and sister, joining his father, who had fled Ethiopia during the Red Terror. He is a graduate of Georgetown University and Columbia University’s MFA program in fiction. He has written for Rolling Stone and Harper's, among other publications. He lives in New York City.

In a recent article, Mengestu said: “It’s less about trying to figure out how you occupy these two cultural or racial boundaries and more about what it’s like when you are not particularly attached to either of these two communities... As a writer, it’s a great narrative tool to have that character who is slightly detached but at the same time observant of his reality.”

Most of my questions will be drawn from the publisher's discussion guide, but it would be interesting to get your thoughts on Mengestu's above remarks about the sense of detachment he instills in characters like Sepha and also values as a writer.


message 2: by ColumbusReads (new)

ColumbusReads (coltrane01) | 3863 comments Mod
Just to be clear and for those familiar and/or living in the DC area. Is Logan Circle an actual neighborhood or is it fictitious?


message 3: by Dusky Literati (new)

Dusky Literati (duskyliterati) | 9 comments It is an actual area and so is Silver Spring, MD where he visits his uncle. It brought back tons of memories of the area (I lived in Northern VA and MD for over 30 years).


message 4: by Dusky Literati (new)

Dusky Literati (duskyliterati) | 9 comments I read the book late last year and did post a review. I didn't really feel a connection to Sepha until the author made a connection with Sepha's reason for leaving Ethiopia and what happened there. Up until that point, I really wanted to shake him.


message 5: by Mistinguette (new)

Mistinguette Smith | 191 comments I am on my way to the library to get my copy now. Given that I will be snowed in tomorrow, I will be able to finish it and jump right in soon!


message 6: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments Columbus wrote: "Just to be clear and for those familiar and/or living in the DC area. Is Logan Circle an actual neighborhood or is it fictitious?"

Logan Circle is an area that everyone who grew up in DC is familiar with. (DC girl here!) Mengestu does an excellent job of describing the area realistically - beautiful old homes in an area that fell into decay and was a central location for hoookers until gentrification took over. It's within walking distance from Howard University.


message 7: by Qiana (new)

Qiana | 189 comments Since we've started with the setting, perhaps this would be a good time to talk about Mengestu's decision to locate his story there. Do you think he uses Washington, D.C. to convey a sense of America more generally or given its nickname "Chocolate City," is it meant to represent evolving African-American urban communities - or something else? Could this same story have happened in NYC, Chicago, Atlanta? In other words, what do we gain by having Sepha's story set in our nation's capital?


message 8: by ColumbusReads (new)

ColumbusReads (coltrane01) | 3863 comments Mod
Thanks Duskyliteri & Wilhelmina! I had wondered about Logan Circle the entire time while reading the book. Megnestu’s description of the area and the gentrification taken place reminds me of many neighborhoods in the Atlanta area and the problems that inevitably exist when outsiders move in.
It’s funny though. I have a good friend who is Vice-Pres of an intown Neighborhood Assoc in
Atlanta, experiencing intense, full-throttle gentrification. His biggest frustration is getting long time residents to come to neighborhood meetings and become more active in neighborhood functions where they could voice their dissatisfactions, frustrations and vote on changes. He receives about 25% attendance from these residents. It drives him nuts. I thought Mengestu’s depiction of the gentrification issue was spot-on and told with a very balanced view of the parties involved.


message 9: by William (new)

William (be2lieve) | 1307 comments Mod
If gentrification was a nuclear bomb then Logan Circle was its epicenter in DC. The original. From pimps and prostitutes, drug buyers and sellers, to stick-up boys, these were the actors when it was Black and poor. Houses that were obviously once grand were in disrepair or boarded up and vacant. If you can find a house on Logan circle selling for less than a million dollars now please email me poste haste. If you can find a poor Black person they are probably just visiting.


message 10: by ColumbusReads (new)

ColumbusReads (coltrane01) | 3863 comments Mod
Qiana maybe Mengestu had a larger meaning for setting the story in DC vs Chicago, NYC or some other metropolis, but I surmised it was that he lived in DC and knew the area fairly well. Did I read somewhere that he grew up there? I don't know. But, typical of many first novels, you write about what you know or areas you're familiar with, I guess. However, with the influx of more people moving back into the inner city and pricing long-time residents out, we haven't seen the end of it.

This novel reminded me so much of  Them: A Novel by Nathan McCall about  gentrification in Atlanta's Old Fourth Ward. Not the story itself but the subject. Read it if you have the opportunity.


message 11: by William (new)

William (be2lieve) | 1307 comments Mod
Ron Charles, book critic for the Washington Post, figuratively threw his hands in the air in a recent review of another book whose protagonist was a first person introspective male. He said that lots of the 'literary' fiction from male authors that he reviews lately seems to feature inward looking, brooding, and seemingly isolated looks at male viewpoints and ponderings of life. Male views written in a mostly until now female style. He went on to name names and the only reason I really remember the critique was because he included Dinaw Mengestu in the list.
While not quite as dismissive of the trend as Charles was I too suffer a bit from it. I just finished a book before this called Man Gone Down that at twice this books length gives you twice as much man introspection and peeks at man subconscious unspoken wants and desires as this. Good lord, when are these characters going to stop mulling over their fates and hopes and dissappointments and actually get off their butts and DO something about them? That both of the protagonists of these books were Black and played against type as rather moody, meek, and insecure rather than cartoonish supermen was actually a refreshing change for the most part and I'd recommend both to reader for the exceptional quality of the writing and intelligent storytelling. I'm just saying that a little navel gazing tends to go a long way and a lot of navel gazing makes me want to cringe.


message 12: by George (new)

George | 766 comments There are about 100,000 Ethiopians currently living in the metropolitan DC area, and it's a community that continues to grow since the 70s. While I enjoyed the book in certain aspects, the protagonist seems utterly disconnnected from life at all levels. it's hard to feel too much sympathy or empathy for him. Not to mention it's entirely Amharic centric and there's lots more to Ethiopia than that, even though I'm sure most of the Ethiopian community in DC is Amharic.


message 13: by Qiana (new)

Qiana | 189 comments @Columbus: Mengestu lived in New York after coming to the U.S., but it appears he attended Georgetown University, which may account for his knowledge of the area?

@William: The trend in navel gazing IS getting a little formulaic and tiresome! Although, I can't help but say this - if I were to remove all the references to contemporary names and novels from your comment, I might have thought you were talking about Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (which is a favorite, but the title character is likewise moody, insecure, introspective). Do you think Ellison is a model for a lot of these new black male writers?

@George: Your point about Sepha's disconnect "from life of all levels" makes me wonder how you and others would respond to this question about how he and his friends relate to one another:

Mengestu opens the novel with Sepha and his friends, Joseph and Kenneth, and the game that they play matching African coups with dictators and dates. The three come from different parts of Africa, and have left different places and people to be in the US. Why do they play this game? How does it affect their relationships with each other? With the country they now call home? With the continent they left behind? Though they are close friends with a long history, why do you think that Joseph reacts the way that he does when Sepha appears at the restaurant? What about Kenneth’s attempts to help Sepha figure out a way to keep from losing the store? How do their differences help or hinder the narrative?


message 14: by ColumbusReads (last edited Feb 05, 2011 05:56AM) (new)

ColumbusReads (coltrane01) | 3863 comments Mod
Interesting. I hadn't noticed a shift towards this type of writing recently or even heard anyone mention this. I wonder if this is really a trend or more indicative of male writers being more comfortable within themselves and writing characters that are more introspective. Personally, I would hope it's the latter. I guess I would have to be a bit contrarian here and look at it a little differently. I actually think it's a bit refreshing to see male writers writing lead characters in this style; a deviation from the norm. Also, if Ellison, and his nameless protagonist, is the blueprint for these new black writers, then I certainly can live with that.


message 15: by ColumbusReads (new)

ColumbusReads (coltrane01) | 3863 comments Mod
@William - I searched Ron Charles review listings on WaPost but was unable to locate the article you mentioned. Please share if you still have it. Thanks!


message 16: by ColumbusReads (last edited Feb 05, 2011 09:11AM) (new)

ColumbusReads (coltrane01) | 3863 comments Mod
Qiana- Sepha, Kenneth & Joseph's dictator/coup game sort of reminded me of something some my co-workers used to do. They were from Zimbabwe, Nigeria & Haiti respectively, and they would often bring up incidences of class struggles, coups and different rebellions in their country and discuss how it made them feel. They looked back and laughed at this but you could also see the pain that they were often feeling about having to leave their African country due to this (Caribbean in Haiti's case but some of the same problems applied at the time). Although, this wasn't a game like Sepha and his friends played -attaching the year & country to the named Dictator - the concept and purpose was similar and that was to retain that connectedness to a place they had mixed feelings about.


message 17: by William (new)

William (be2lieve) | 1307 comments Mod
I took a stroll around Logan Circle last night. I went to see a play at the Studio Theater, one of the jewels of the gentrification which is described in the book. The neighborhood now is really post-gentrification the only sign of its past life is the pawn shop on 14th street that stubbornly refuses to bend with the times and can coexist with the Bang and Olufsen showroom next door. Perhaps that the Studio regularly casts cutting edge black play writes is a nod to its former life as a rundown warehouse and shooting gallery..If you ever get a chance to catch one or all of the trilogy of plays by Tarell Alvin McCraney about how African traditions and religions follow and influence a modern day family set in Louisiana don't miss it.

@Columbus Here it is:
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/...


message 18: by Izetta Autumn (new)

Izetta Autumn (izettaautumn) | 36 comments I am so excited to participate in a discussion about this book. I really loved it - from the precise detail of describing DC to the powerful isolation that Mengestu is able to convey. As a native of DC, I couldn't believe how wonderfully Mengestu captured that area of the city. I remember a time when you didn't see white people on 15th St or above (anywhere near) Logan Circle. Now there's a Whole Foods...

@Columbus(10): Washington, DC has the largest community of Ethiopians outside of Ethiopia, largely Amharic - I'm guessing that in addition to the author's own connection to the city, that population piece may also have had a part. If anyone lives in DC the African Art museum has a few great Ethiopian works on display in its exhibit African Mosaic: http://africa.si.edu/exhibits/mosaic/...

@William(11): Thank you for the link to Charles' piece. Charles had me at "Hemingway did it best." Well Hemingway talked about isolated, wandering white men - not isolated, wandering, struggling against class and racism men of color. Maybe I'm not troubled by the navel-gazing because I find the writing that comes from it, really exquisite. It just seems as if Charles is telling men to "suck it up" or "man up," and something about that to me is not appropriate. I think that's especially unfair when it comes to writers of color, and am dismayed that Charles isn't able to see that connection. Reflection and introspection, has often been denied characters of color. And I think there's a while generation of male writers - from Diaz to Whitehead, Thomas, and Mengestu, allowing men of color a fuller inner life. There's also something in Charles' review that just doesn't sit well with me...I don't know; maybe that's not fair.

I found it interesting how clearly Mengestu was influenced by Russian authors - and how lovely the reading scenes are with Sepha and Judith's daughter.

I wondered about the structure of the novel, particularly the way that Mengestu lets the story unfold. As a reader, did that work for you? What about Judith? I couldn't quite decide how I felt about her.


message 19: by George (last edited Feb 06, 2011 04:57PM) (new)

George | 766 comments honestly, I'm not sure how I feel about either Sepha or Judith.

@Qiana(13) For me the game the three men are playing is just dark humor emphasizing their connections with each other, and other Africans, and their dispair over the various African countries inability to succeed and move forward in its post independence period. laughter is always more socially acceptible than tears, especially for men. The game serves to emphasize their connections and separates them from the rest of the neighborhood, which none of them seem to feel any emotional connection to. I'd say they live here now, but have yet to really think of America as home. and they appear to have lost most of their connectivity to their original homes, so they forge a new community around each other, the dispossessed.


message 20: by Toni (new)

Toni (mshoni) | 41 comments Sepha's disconnection is one of the reasons that I fell in love with this book. It sharply contrasts the myth of the hardworking immigrant, and The American Dream. Also as a native of DC, the setting was the reason I picked it up initially.


message 21: by George (new)

George | 766 comments well, I've been living off and on in DC and the metro area since 83. I'm very familiar with Logan Circle, lived on Mt. Pleasant, etc, so that part works for me as well. the book is an interesting take on the immigrant, although of course, Sepha didn't exactly choose to come here, unlike most immigrants. Refugees aren't really immigrants in the normal sense. I spent years working with refugees outside of the US and more years as a political asylum officer in the US, including two in DC and I've interviewed several hundred Ethiopians in DC, reviewing and adjudicating their claims. so, it reverberates with me on multiple levels. but, having said that, I still have very mixed feelings about Sepha as a person.


message 22: by ColumbusReads (new)

ColumbusReads (coltrane01) | 3863 comments Mod
Thanks for the article, William. It's great to have current and former DC residents to share insight on the Logan Circle neighborhood. Obviously, that plays a vital role in the book.

Izetta, "exquisite" is the perfect word I would give to Mengestu's writing. I frequently found myself re-reading some of the passages and just letting it sink in. The story resonated with me if only for the fact that it dispelled some of the conventional theories about immigrant life here in the US and elsewhere. We're aware that Ethiopians (and other African nations) are not a monolith but it's often hard to tell that by what you read. Mengestu does a wonderful job with this (and to a lesser extent with his sophomore effort    How to Read the Air )


message 23: by Toni (new)

Toni (mshoni) | 41 comments Having also read How to Read the Air, I will say that creating likable protagonists that we instantly connect to is definitely not in Mengestu's plan.
In response to an earlier comment by Columbus, I read this book and then I read Them: A Novelright after. I grew up in DC and live in Atlanta now, and it was interesting reading about the role that gentrification is playing in both cities. Them is not nearly as well written as The Beautiful Things... though.


message 24: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments I agree, Toni - I found "The Beautiful Things.." to be a far superior book to "Them". (I'm also DC-to-Atlanta.)


message 25: by George (last edited Feb 07, 2011 01:15AM) (new)

George | 766 comments I wouldn't say I dislike Sepha, far from it. but, he's extremely frustrating. It would be nice to see him get up, go out and do something. Apparently, he hasn't had a real relationship with a female of any persuasion since he arrived. So, here he is with a shot at a relationship with someone interested in him as well and it all just slips away because he can't bring himself to take any action. He doesn't want to be embedded in the Little Ethiopian community like his uncle, but can't create any other life for himself, won't even try. I just want to beat him with a stick, in a nice way, no real damage, for his own good as it were.

At some point, perhaps we can explore why he's so incapable of action, but it's still early in the month and I don't want to include too many spoilers. The book is certainly well written though.


message 26: by Mistinguette (last edited Feb 07, 2011 01:04PM) (new)

Mistinguette Smith | 191 comments I've just started the book (Alas, snowed in means no library delivery!) but I am finding the writing jewel-like and refined. I think I liked and understood Sepha's broken heart from the start.

I don't know DC , and I don't feel that it diminishes my immersion in the story at all. Beautiful Things could just have easily been set in my old neighborhood in South Harlem. I am struck by the sense of this as a recurrent story about blackness in America - an involuntary journey, followed by despair and isolation. For Sepha, the wounds of displacement are so deep that opportunities to connect with anyone who doesn't share his trauma requires a reach that is further than he is able to make.


message 27: by Mistinguette (last edited Feb 07, 2011 08:42PM) (new)

Mistinguette Smith | 191 comments OK, I finished the book tonight. Totally couldn't put it down.

When I first read this thread, I thought that gentrification was a central theme in the plot; in fact, it's one of many kinds of displacement and dispossession at the center of this novel. Sepha is a political refugee, but he is also displaced from the Ethiopian community, his class background, and his family.

Because of this, his alienation and paralysis makes sense to me. I'd really like to hear more from folks for whom this didn't connect, or who couldn't quite warm up to Sepha. I'm particularly interested to hear from you, George: I don't know much about political refugees from Ethiopia & look forward to what you can share.


message 28: by George (new)

George | 766 comments Mistinguettes,

well, it's a great deal more complicated than you'd get simply from reading the novel, and it isn't exactly over yet. The Amhara ruled over the empire of Ethiopia for a very long time and considered themselves superior to every other group in every other way, including racially. When Mengistu and the Dergue overthrew Selassie, they had a radical communist agenda, but by in large they were still Amhara. In addition to the Red Terror mentioned in the book, there was also the White Terror, which you don't hear that much about. however, the White Terror was directed against Mengistu, since they were considered insufficiently ruthless against the landlords and other ruling class folks. The groups that eventually overthrew Mengistu were from other tribes, like the Tigreyans and Oromo. So, when they took over, they not only got rid of the communists, but also Amharic rule. So, since that time, the Amhara have felt displaced in many respects inside Ethiopia, and formed their own political group, the All Amhara People's Organization, or AAPO, which has had fairly serious problems with the current, non-Amharic rulers. Most current asylum seekers claim to have been persecuted based on membership in AAPO.

Then of course, there is Eritrea, the coastal region that was an Italian colony going back to the 1890s. Most other Ethiopans don't think of Eritrea as a separate entity even today, although they more or less begrudgingly accept its independence. but, lots of non-Eritrea people who were born in Eritrea were never recognized as Eritrean citizens, and many left. The Eritreans in particular disliked the small Jehovah's Witness community for failing to take sides during the war and refusing to swear allegiance to Eritrea.

By the way, lots of people who were studying in Eastern Europe when Mengistu fell got stuck and were afraid to return. many of them eventually came to the US as well.

I could go on, but I imagine most are asleep by now. but, since you asked....


message 29: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments Not asleep at all, George. Very interesting. How would all of this political upheaval affect an individual in exile like our protagonist?


message 30: by George (new)

George | 766 comments well, I suppose one might say that home is not home anymore with a fair degree of accuracy, among other things. and none of the actions taken by the emperor or the communists preserved Ethiopia at its height or the position of the Amhara. lots of dead, lots of destruction and the dismembering of the country.


message 31: by jo (new)

jo | 1031 comments wow it's only the first week of feb and this conversation is already going crazy. i'm a third of the way through and won't jump in till i finish it, cuz i see a few spoilers at a glance. see you later!


message 32: by William (last edited Feb 23, 2011 07:46PM) (new)

William (be2lieve) | 1307 comments Mod
I read an atricle profiling the author upon publication of his second book, How To Read The Air, where he said he purposely created his characters to show the other side of immigration. To go against the prevalent view of immigrants as super hard working people filled with the American dream of unlimited opportunity and streets paved with gold. That he wanted to show the isolation, dislocation and malaise that many immigrant/refugees suffer.


message 33: by ColumbusReads (last edited Feb 08, 2011 09:50AM) (new)

ColumbusReads (coltrane01) | 3863 comments Mod
George, thanks for lending that back-history of Ethiopia and that Horn of Africa region. It's not boring in the least bit and essential to understanding Sepha's story especially that as it deal's with his family and the political disturbance back home. 

Several reviews on Goodreads and elsewhere have commented on their frustration with Sepha's perceived lack of ambition and also lack of assertiveness in his dealings with Judith. One part of the book that explained a lot in my opinion and left me scratching my head in others, on pages 40 & 41 (in the PB edition of the book) in which he has one of many quiet moments in the store, he mentions his many visits to the library, checking out 4 books at a time to get through the week ( I think Sepha would've likely  been a member of LFPC) he also say's "I did not come to America to find a better life.....my goal since then has alway's been a simple one: to persist unnoticed through the days, to do no more harm." --does this constitute a lack of ambition? Does Sepha feel this way? As for his relationship with Judith (or lack there of) is there an unmentionable gulf in their relationship/friendship due to their race?


message 34: by Izetta Autumn (new)

Izetta Autumn (izettaautumn) | 36 comments @George(28): Thank you! Your information about the history of Ethiopia is fantastic. More...more. I think that history is really necessary in understanding the novel. It really highlighted for me Sepha's negotiation of isolation and the feelings he has about his family/community. But also I think in how Sepha thinks about the class dynamics of Logan Circle. Does Sepha see those dynamics differently because of his own very specific experience with class?

@William(32): I like that Mengestu writes the non-normative immigrant narrative. Especially right now when conversations about immigration are (wait if I say whack will that be too non-descriptive) so steeped in problematic ideology. There's a way that Mengestu complicates immigration. He adds a fuller picture by challenging the dominant narratives. Sepha's a sort of anti-hero hero.

Sometimes I found it heartbreaking to read Sepha's loneliness. It reminded me of that last line in Sula, when Nel lets out that "loud long cry without a bottom"...it's this very real sorrow and loneliness. I really appreciate Mengestu's commitment to character development.

Seoha isn't happy, content, able to start over; he's stuck and that's real. I think the Logan Circle/DC setting is really important to the novel...don't want to give a spoiler, but in short, I do think that DC provides a setting that makes the story unique; universal, able to happen in a lot of cities, but also solidly connected to a particular city and neighborhood.

I do think that there is a gulf between Judith and Sepha - and George's info about class and Ethiopia make me think about that gulf not just being around race, but also being around Sepha's conflicts re: class/inherited wealth/power.


message 35: by George (last edited Feb 10, 2011 01:41AM) (new)

George | 766 comments I don't know that I see the problem between Judith and Sepha as really race based as such. One could ask the same question about the lack of a relationship between Sepha and the rest of the neighborhood for that matter. Plus, there's no real shortage of Ethiopian women in the area, if it was a really just a matter of culture or race. He just seems incapable of any action to me, that he doesn't really want a place in the world so much as space to be left alone. It's hard to see what it is he really wants on any level. He didn't want to get stuck in an Ethiopian time warp with his uncle and the rest of the folks in the Silver Springs building. He sort of wants to do well with his store from time to time, but doesn't really make much of an effort to do that and instead acts against that more often than not. there's no real evidence that he has made any effort to become part of or relate to the other people in Logan Circle. To me it seems he believes that all action is ultimately futile and as capable of destructive results as positive ones, and that he can never really anticipate what the results will be of his actions, that he can never really know enough to anticipate what will happen if he does act. for me, this has more to do with the death of his father and his own subsequent exile than anything else.

I think another theme that no one has really mentioned yet is that for Sepha and the others, Logan Circle is on the verge of turning into a kind of Ethiopia again. there is some limited violence by others around him, but no matter what he does, he will be dispossed yet again, he can't stay. in the end, there really isn't anything he can do to reverse or fight against the gentrification of the neighborhood.

by the way, I'm glad people found the political commentary useful. I get rather caught up in these things and try to be careful that people's eyes don't glaze over, but I don't always succeed. I lived in Israel for a bit as well, when the Falasha were being settled there. Now that really was sad. Sepha had it pretty easy in comparison.


message 36: by ColumbusReads (new)

ColumbusReads (coltrane01) | 3863 comments Mod
Here's an interesting interview with Mengestu on The Tavis Smiley Show. Audio available as well:

http://www.pbs.org/wnet/tavissmiley/a...#


message 37: by Mistinguette (new)

Mistinguette Smith | 191 comments BIG, FAT SPOILER ALERT

It seems clear to me that Sepha is so deeply traumatized that he cannot commit to being alive, much less to doing anything or engaging with anyone. He's got tremendous survivor guilt over his father's death b/c of his actions as a teenager. His emotional numbing seems reasonable, given the tortured bodies he's seen publicly displayed, and watching his own father be beaten and presumably murdered. He could not live in DC's Ethiopian community without being face to face with his shame all day every day, since everybody knows everybody's business. He seems to exile himself from Ethiopians in DC as if it will expiate his guilt over being exiled from his home. And ,just on a human level, how do you live with knowing that your family really is better off without you?

I wonder if the setting is designed to parallel Sepha's interior state: neighborhoods that have seen so much abuse that violence becomes normative; neighbors who are unable to allow any goodness or beauty in their environs because it awakens them to unbearable pain and shame over what they have become.


message 38: by jo (new)

jo | 1031 comments i also read this book through a trauma/depression lens, and didn't find stephanos (why does everyone here calls him sepha when everyone in the book calls his stephanos?) annoying or irritating or difficult to relate to at all. i found him profoundly human and very idea to identify with. i am not a political refugee but, as an immigrant, i too feel pretty alienated both from my native country, my adopted country, and their respective people both here and there.

this thread is full of really smart stuff and unless qiana comes up with a new volley of questions i don't know that i can add a lot without resurrecting questions that have not been answered yet. which i may well do. but it has to be daytime. :)


message 39: by Qiana (new)

Qiana | 189 comments Hi all! The use of Sepha vs. Stephanos is most likely my fault, since that's what the publisher's reading guide that I'm drawing from uses.

Here are three questions that relate specifically to the use of books as objects in the novel and as interpretive allusions. Any thoughts on these?

*In recalling his uncle’s questioning why he had “chosen to open a corner store in a poor black neighborhood,” Sepha says that he had “never said it was because all I wanted...was to read quietly, and alone, for as much of the day as possible.” Books play a huge role in Sepha’s life as well as in the action of the Mengestu’s story. Did you feel that a particular literary reference gave you a glimpse into Sepha’s character that was unexpected or surprising? Which one and why? Or if not, why not?

*Speaking of books, reading The Brothers Karamazov together becomes a way for Naomi and Sepha to relate to each other, regardless of their age and implied class differences. Why do you think he highlighted his favorite passage (below) for Naomi, the one he memorized and “read out loud to the shelves and empty aisles,” writing “Remember This” in the margins of his copy of the book?
People talk to you a great deal about your education, but some good, sacred memory, preserved from childhood, is perhaps the best education. If a man carries many such memories with him into life, he is safe to the end of his days, and if one has only one good memory left in one’s heart, even that may sometimes be the means of saving us.

*As we learn in the novel, its title comes from a passage in Dante’s Inferno that Joseph believes to be “the most perfect lines of poetry ever written.” Why do you think Mengestu chose the title The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears? What parallels do you see between Sepha’s story and Dante’s?



message 40: by jo (last edited Feb 12, 2011 02:24PM) (new)

jo | 1031 comments i confess that, having read Dante's Inferno in italian more times than i care to count and having even taught it (i don't like it so it was some kind of torture), i never noticed that super-special line. in fact, even though it is entirely possible and even likely that mengestu read it in italian, i don't find it special at all in the original (much, much more beautiful in english!). for those of you who read italian (or spanish):

Lo duca e io per quel cammino ascoso
intrammo a ritornar nel chiaro mondo;
e senza cura aver alcun riposo,
salimmo sù, el primo e io secondo,
tanto ch'i'vidi le cose belle
che porta 'l ciel
, per un pertugio tondo.
E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle.

in italian it sounds more like "the pretty things in the sky."

i'm sure absolutely no-one is interested in this digression, but i thought i'd throw it there, bc it says something, maybe, about the power of translation. or maybe it just says something about my absolute lack of poetic sensibility, in which case sorry for having inflicted it upon you.

this is what i find interesting in sepha's use of these two books (i don't remember others! do other people?): that they are both western classics. to me, they speak of colonization, of a very educated african boy reading western literature because that's the kind of literature that deserves the name of literature.

wow these questions are good. i could go on about the other ones but i'll stop here! :)


message 41: by George (new)

George | 766 comments well, the Italians only controlled Ethiopia for about 5 years or so. it was a very short reign indeed. Not long enough to make much of an impression. The Ethiopians beat the bejesus out of them the previous time they tried to take the place in 1896.


message 42: by ColumbusReads (last edited Feb 12, 2011 08:06AM) (new)

ColumbusReads (coltrane01) | 3863 comments Mod
@Jo -the only other book I recall mentioned is V.S. Naipaul'sA Bend in the River  (although, the title itself is never mentioned) Sepha receives this book from Joseph and they have a long-running joke about that whenever Joseph enters the store. Saleem (or Salim) is a store owner in an African country and there are obvious parallels in the two stories with immigrant life and a sort of displacement in an unnamed African country.   I wonder if we're to infer anything into Sepha receiving a book from Joseph, by Naipaul, considering his controversial career other than the similarities in the story? Same with The Brothers K.


message 43: by jo (last edited Feb 12, 2011 08:25AM) (new)

jo | 1031 comments ah. good catch! he gets the Brother's K. from Naomi, right? and she apparently picks it only because it's big (there's an exchange between judith and sepha about this that is not entirely clear to me). okay, so the only book he mentions that is not a gift from someone is dante?

there's a whole nice lovely article on wikipedia about the italian colonial effort, but i can't read it because history makes my eyes sink into my head. when i read nuruddin farah i noticed a very heavy italian influence in somalia's culture. i have no idea about ethiopia, except from this here book, and dante...


message 44: by Mistinguette (last edited Feb 12, 2011 01:45PM) (new)

Mistinguette Smith | 191 comments Having been taught to worship Dante's Commedia, Jo's comments have me ROTFL at her irreverence!

I imagine the bookish Sepha would be scandalized, too. Some of his emotional distance - or how he has learned to emotionally distance himself-- is by becoming a scholar, if a self-educated one. In another life, he might have been one of Jo's colleagues. It's never remarked on directly, but Sepha shows himself to have become well read in western classics (Dante) American literature (Dickinson), transcendentalist political thought (Emerson) and 19th c. Russian novelists(Dostoevsky). He is a bookish young man who belongs in a library or behind a lectern immersing young undergrads in Dante, not behind the counter of a ghetto convenience store.

The title of the novel is quite catching -- in the Inferno, this line marks the moment when The Pilgrim Dante and his guide Virgil ascend from Hell. But Sepha Stephanos will never ascend from his particular hell: he will only be able to glimpse the heaven of authentic relationships, financial security, the respect of his family. And, if we look at Sepha's story as parallel to the Commedia, then it is Naomi, not her mother, who is Sepha's Beatrice: she is his hope for redemption, the force that motivates him to go on.

I thought The Brothers Karamazov was a totally bizarre choice of a book for Sepha to act out for a child, but Qiana's question makes me reconsider that opinion. Was reading this aloud Sepha's way of telling his story as the grand and nihilistic tragedy it truly is? My memories of Brothers Karamazov are vague (OK, boring), but doesn't the eldest brother kill his father, and end up exiled? Are there other parallels here?


message 45: by Terri (new)

Terri (browngirl) | 7 comments Mistinguettes, I'm agreeing with much of your assessments on Sepha's isolation. He doesn't know where there is room for him. Being rootless is his reality and he simply may not be able to embrace the alternative for fear of another involuntary displacement.This is why a relationship couldn't fully develop between him and Judith. He's not able to surrender to love.

From The Brothers Karamazov: "What is hell? I maintain that is the suffering of being unable to love."

To reiterate Mistinguettes point, that failed relationship is Sepha's peek at the "beautiful things" but love still evades him.

That Naomi comes to him as some form of motivation is, I believe, why he shared his favorite passage from The Brothers Karamazov with her. It sounds like he's letting her know that she's given him that one happy memory to treasure and he wants her to remember to do the same when that happens for her.


message 46: by Rashida (new)

Rashida | 264 comments Why didn't anybody tell me that having a baby would make it so hard to participate fully in goodreads? Everytime I get on to post, there are more great comments, and I don't have two hands long enough to respond. But, I'm going to jump in.

On Sepha's likability/frustrating non-ambition. Columbus- that quote you pulled in post 33 is exactly why I find Sepha extremely likable, understandable, and utterly heartbreaking. He is still blaming himself for all the ill that has befallen his family. And he is so afraid that he will bring similar ill fortune to any he gets close to, that he has purposefully isolated himself. To us looking in at him, we obviously don't blame him, and want to shake him and tell him to get out there and let someone into his life. But it makes sense to me, and is realistic to me that he would be so effected by that tragedy in his life. He is putting everyone ahead of himself, and that's not something that I can condemn him for.

What did people think about Sepha's walkabout after he receives the eviction notice? Was this bravery or ultimate giving in?

I also wanted to talk about the Christmas shopping episode, but the baby is demanding attention.. next time


message 47: by Izetta Autumn (new)

Izetta Autumn (izettaautumn) | 36 comments Has anyone in DC seen Washington City Paper's recent article, "Something Happened at DC9? Who Did it Happen to?":

http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/ar...

The article explores the life and dying moments of Ali Ahmed Mohammed who died outside of a nightclub in DC called DC9. Ali was a young Ethiopian immigrant, who'd grown up in DC. So much of this article connected back to the discussion here on goodreads, but also to Mengestu's book, and most prominently to Sepha.

Thought I would share. Mistinguettes and Rashida thank you for your thoughts - you took the thoughts right out of my head and said them 100 times better! Great point Rashida about Sepha's walkabout. Mengestu's description of the walk is so detailed and hews to the layout of DC so well. I wasn't sure about his walk; initially I thought it was a giving in, but your question makes me reconsider.


message 48: by ColumbusReads (new)

ColumbusReads (coltrane01) | 3863 comments Mod
Izetta, thanks for sharing this article.. Really tragic and troubling story. The article mentions several things mentioned in the book and that we discussed: the sizable Ethiopian population in DC; Silver Spring, MD as a settlement for Eth immigrants; the coup on Emperor Haile Selassie. Not that he needed to, but did Mengestu ever mention Islam or Little Ethiopia in the book? Just wondering since it's mentioned in this article.


message 49: by George (new)

George | 766 comments Yes, the article is very interesting, particularly while reading this book. don't recall anything on Islam in it, but my impression was that few of the Amhara are Muslim, although it is a significant issue from time to time. Much more so in the past, although Ethiopia has an honored past in the Koran for giving sanctuary to the followers of Mohammed when they were being persecuted in Arabia before Mohammed took over Mecca and Medina.


message 50: by William (new)

William (be2lieve) | 1307 comments Mod
Sepha's walk/abandonment of his store was one of the least pleasant, for me, parts of the story. I called into question why he ever chose Logan Circle as a place to do business in the first place. Was he only looking to further exploit the poor residents? He never really put down roots or became a part of the community. That he followed the White tourists a few blocks west to the richer whiter (at the time) DuPont Circle seemed a metaphor. With each block the buildings prettier, the air itself more fragrant. And when he stopped to call his shop and the old nosey Black lady answered who was presumably looking out for his possessions and what things of value were left there he didn't even speak but hung up in her ear...ugh! Sepha used the community, prostitutes when he was horny, workers when he wanted to make a little more money but he wasn't rooted in any way. The only saving grace, if it can be called, that is that it seems his aloofness comes by honestly from his childhood traumas and not the some time condescension and patronizing that can come from Africans feed a steady diet of negative media representations of African-Americans


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