After 17 years, an Ethiopian immigrant wonders to what extent he has become an American.
Every Tuesday evening, three friends meet in the back room of Sepha Stephanos’s bedraggled Logan Circle convenience store to drink, give advice and wax philosophical about Africa, their mother continent. The trio—“Ken the Kenyan,” “Joe from the Congo” and Sepha, who was so skinny he didn’t need a nickname to remind them that he was Ethiopian—met as young hotel clerks when they first arrived in Washington, D.C., but since then, they have taken different paths. Joseph and Kenneth graduated from Georgetown and went on to get higher degrees and well-paying jobs, while Sepha attended community college and then opened his store. As an upscale clientele moves into the predominantly lower-class African-American neighborhood, Sepha’s business dwindles. With the changes, though, comes Judith, a wealthy white woman, and Naomi, her enchanting biracial daughter. Naomi and Sepha strike up an unlikely friendship, and he spends evenings in the empty store with her, reading Dostoevsky. Judith begins to join them, and she and Sepha dance around the possibility of a romantic relationship. As racial tensions grow in the neighborhood, Sepha wonders if he will be able to woo Judith. But around the holidays, she suddenly leaves her house and sends Naomi to boarding school. Alone again, Sepha recalls his childhood in Addis Ababa, where, as a member of the upper class, he’d had high hopes for a different kind of life, before he witnessed his father’s murder and fled the country. Mengestu skirts immigrant-literature clichés and paints a beautiful portrait of a complex, conflicted man struggling with questions of love and loyalty.
A nuanced slice of immigrant life.