This has been a breakthrough season for the Ethiopian-born, American-raised, Paris-based novelist Dinaw Mengestu, celebrated as one of America’s best young authors in the New Yorker’s 20 Under 40, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux this December. One of the anthology’s highlights is a piece excerpted from Mengestu’s highly praised second novel, How to Read the Air, as it follows Jonas, an American born of Ethiopian immigrants, who attempts to conjure the story of his parents’ troubled marriage and forge an identity of his own.
With your inclusion in the New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 anthology, followed by the rave reviews for How to Read the Air, does it feel like you’ve won the literary lottery?
I think like many other writers, especially writers still in the early stages of their career, there is a fairly consistent level of anxiety that follows the publication of a first, and now second novel, enough so, at least for me, that I generally feel fairly far from having won anything. Of course you’re grateful for the reviews, both good and bad, for the mere fact that it means someone is paying attention, but all of that fades rather quickly, especially in comparison to the years it takes to write a novel. What’s left then is your wish, desire, dream that the novel has a long life without you because hopefully you’ll be working on the next book.
How well do you think the selection in the New Yorker anthology stands on its own? Does the reader miss anything from the context supplied by the rest of the novel?
The New Yorker piece is intended to stand on its own, and I think it does. Of course, as the author it’s hard if not impossible not to be aware of every sentence, paragraph and chapter missing, but after a few reads I saw it very much as its own product, one obviously related to and yet nonetheless distinct from the novel. Some of my favorite moments in the novel are in that selection, and so while it’s impossible to say that nothing is missing, or that story encompasses everything the novel does in its entirety, I would say the excerpt captures something vital and critical to the story being told.
What does the novel's title signify?
There’s an openness to the title that hopefully invites readers to engage with it and determine a meaning on their own…I do think the title has something to do with the failure of language, or the failure to communicate with a set of specific words that reoccurs throughout the narrative, but I’m reluctant to say too much more beyond that.
What was the genesis of the novel—did you start with the character of Jonas or did plot elements precede the protagonist and his narrative voice?
From the beginning I was interested in this narrator who was inventing a history he had no real access to out of some form of trauma from which he was recovering. It was that act of imagination that really fascinated me, but it took a long time though before I understood who that narrator was, and it wasn’t until I began to understand his relationship to his parents, to the truth, and then eventually to his wife, that the novel began to have something that resembles a plot.
How did the marriage of Jonas’ parents impact his own?
As much as possible Jonas tries to create a persona and then a later a marriage that stands in stark opposition to the violent and combative relationship his parents had. Yet the irony is that he still inevitably finds his own marriage following a similar trajectory…Unlike his parents’ marriage, however, I do think Jonas finds an important piece of grace that ultimately saves his relationship from being a complete mirror of his parents’.
Your fiction has such a strong sense of place. What effect has your relocation to Paris had on your work? Does it give you a different perspective on America?
The one benefit I’ve found of living in Paris while writing How to Read the Air was that at times it felt easier to imagine a version of New York that fit the novel, rather than trying to write the city as I was witnessing it day to day. Fortunately, I still return to the States several times a year, so America never feels far away or alien to me by any stretch, and at least for the foreseeable future I can’t imagine myself wanting to write about Paris to the same degree and depth that I feel toward cities in America.
For a list of more writers featured in the New Yorker's 20 Under 40 collection, click here.
How to Read the Air
Riverhead / October / 9781594487705 / $25.95
20 Under 40: Stories from the New Yorker
Ed. by Deborah Treisman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux / Dec. 14, 2010 / 9780374532871 / $16.00 paperback