How to read the air by Dinaw Mengestu

223_HowToReadtheAir-largeI didn’t know the existence of this author until last month when I attended the Blue Metropolis Montreal International Literary Festival. I had bought a VIP pass and attended all the events on the  “writing out of Africa” track. At that festival, I met and discussed with Nigerian author Yejide Kilanko (I reviewed her first novel here), Congolese author Alain Mabanckou (I haven’t read any of his book yet, but it’s coming) and  Ethiopian-american Dinaw Mengestu. It was great weekend indeed!

I attended the two events of Mr Mengestu and it made me bought this book right away. This novel is very different from everything I read so far. I will tell you why in a moment.

But first, as usual, a word about the author:

About the author

Dinaw Mengestu  is an award-winning novelist and writer. He was born in 1978 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.  His family emigrated to the United States, when he was two years old. He received a BA in English from Georgetown University and a Master in Fine Arts (MFA) from Columbia University. His journalistic work has appeared in Rolling Stone on the war in Darfur and in Jane Magazine on the conflict in northern Uganda. He had also write for Harper’s and The Wall Street Journal. In 2010, he was chosen as one of the 20 best writers under 40 by The New Yorker. His first novel “ The beautiful things that heaven bears” also titled in some countries as “The children of  the  revolution” have been translated into several languages including French.

About the book

This is the official excerpt:

One early September afternoon, Yosef and Mariam, young Ethiopian immigrants who have spent all but their first year of marriage apart, set off on a road trip from their new home in Peoria, Illinois, to Nashville, Tennessee, in search of a new identity as an American couple. Soon, their son, Jonas, will be born in Illinois. Thirty years later, Yosef has died, and Jonas needs to make sense of the volatile generational and cultural ties that have forged him. How can he envision his future without knowing what has come before? Leaving behind his marriage and job in New York, Jonas sets out to retrace his mother and father’s trip and weave together a family history that will take him from the war-torn Ethiopia of his parents’ youth to his life in the America of today, a story—real or invented—that holds the possibility of reconciliation and redemption.

As I was saying on the beginning of this article, this book was a very difficult read. Let me rephrase that, it was a very difficult read that got easier at the end. Why?  A typical immigrant story would have start by explaining the life of the parents and why they left Africa, before actually moving on to the second generation. In this novel, the story does not follow the usual way. And, I have to confess that I was struggling at one point. Luckily, I am a very tenacious reader!

 7  things I like about “How to read the air”

  1. I like the title. See, “how to read the air” basically refer to the fact that when you live in some dangerous environment, knowing how to read the air is essential for your survival. You must possess a sixth sense that allows you to detect the change in the Air, which announces imminent danger. How do I know this? euhh… it’s in the book. Yosef was at a rally in Addis Ababa, when the army descends on them. One nasty soldier was targeting him, that’s when he read the air and duck a millisecond before a bullet fly past him and kill a 16-year-old boy straight out of the village.
  2. The structure of the book. Very, very unusual. The story start with Yosef and Mariam getting ready to leave for a trip. Jonas was not even born. Then, just at the next chapter, the story has moved on to Jonas first day of school, next chapter it has moved on to Jonas’s Job  after university in a refugee center in New-York. On the background, Yosef and Mariam hate each other, fight all the time and leave in poverty. The first part is quite confusing. After the first part, the story is mostly about Jonas and Angela, his Africa-American girlfriend. On the last parts, we then get to know the story of Yosef and Mariam! I love it, its was different from everything that I know!
  3. The book is about Ethiopian immigrant yet a huge part of the book is happening in Sudan.  I love to be surprised by a story. So I was expecting a big chunk of the story to happen in Addis-Ababa or at least a part of the story. Well, not quite. Most of the story happened either in the US or in Sudan.
  4. Real or invented. Jonas does not know much about his parents. The little he knows is the bites he had scrapped here and there over the years. When, he retells the story of his parents, most of is invented. Now imagine being in the middle of a story, dying to know what next, instead  at the next line, Jonas said that he does not recall his father saying that very thing. Ahahah. Shocker! I know….I call it Genius.
  5. The principal themes. Jonas, a second-generation immigrant, narrates the story. You would expect things like identity, am I American or Ethiopian? Again, the author takes another route. What is highlighted in this novel is Jonas ineptitude to live a normal life because of his past. His past was a very lonely, sad and depressing one. His father was abusing his mother all the time, mainly because of the frustration he fells  about his success as an immigrant. Obviously, it affected Jonas badly. I like the angle of identity that was covered though. Frustration, domestic abuse, insanity, bitterness are all linked together in the discovery of Jonas identity. These are the emotions that shaped him.
  6. My favorite character Abdallah. I am not even sure he really existed as Jonas depicted him in Yosef’s life.To know why go back to point 4.  Why do I like him? He lives in a very harsh environment, yet he helps people. He also went to great length to ensure the safety of his daughter. He said he constantly lives in fear that something bad is going to happen to her. Isn’t it awesome?
  7. THE END! At one point in this book  I had doubt about the story. But, all was revealed in the end. I adore it, and from that end  I know why so many praises has been showered on this author.

That’s it!

4 Things that almost made me go crazy

  1. This novel was so depressing. really depressing!!I think the author did it on purpose, what else? All characters were sad to the point that you expect a suicide on every new chapter.Too much depression for me!
  2. The structure of the book was pretty different. It didn’t help me when I am was reading the novel. Most of the time, I was pretty confused. I love the novelty but do I really have to wait until P 200 out of 305 to understand things? The first time yes! another  time no.
  3. I was expecting more from Ethiopia. But it is mentioned very quickly here and there to talk about the time when Yosef got arrested but again the story was more about Yosef than Ethiopia.
  4. The Back and forth between reality or invention. I command the work of this author on this but it required a great deal of energy to keep up.

Voila!

Did you read this book? If so, Please do share your insights on the comment box. I would love to discuss this book with someone.

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2 responses to “How to read the air by Dinaw Mengestu

  1. Pingback: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie | Under the Neem Tree·

  2. Pingback: What I read in the first half of 2013 and where I am heading for the rest of the year | Under the Neem Tree·

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