q & a with Dinaw Mengestu


MFA students Lam Pham, Joey Rubin, Ella Fishman, and Nick Mangigian from left to right at the q&a.


Joey with Dinaw Mengestu after the q&a.

Dinaw Mengestu is 1. smart 2. wise 3. funny and 4. can look back on the rough few years post his mfa lightheartedly.

Mengestu published his first novel The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears in 2007. The novel he worked on at Columbia he never published. Mengestu expressed that he built that first novel “out of nowhere,’ that the novel was based on big philosophical ideas (poverty, violence, etc. etc.) and the characters only ever had first names like “Bob.” He knew that when he had an Ethiopian name on page 10 of The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears that he had a real novel. He said, “it didn’t feel like I was building something out of nowhere.” And then BAM. A great novel was written. And Mengestu could finally relax during his lunch breaks at his temp job.

When Joey asked Mengestu to reflect on the immigrant experience in the novel, Mengestu replied, “everyone has a break in their lives – divorce, death, growing older,” and that the novel was a way to talk about that, i.e. the novel is much bigger than just immigration. It is Dinaw’s empathy in the novel that has led to its success:  The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears has been translated into 12 languages, and won the Guardian First Book Award.

Other tidbits (paraphrased):

regarding why he doesn’t write short stories and poems:  “respect the form enough to leave it alone”

regarding how to make death, falling in love, having children interesting:  “it’s the gestures people use” that give him a real character, and that haunt him

after someone asked him how he copes with the lonely life of writing:  “i enjoy the loneliness of writing” and that the “anxiety (of said lonely life of writing) is tempered by other writers” and he adds “it matters to me that he/she wrote it”  (note:  Mengestu adores Herzog and A Bend in the River) 

on how going abroad was conducive for writing:  it created “some space, I felt less intruded upon, not by anyone, but parts of myself” and that “being abroad forces you to think about your own language” because “you aren’t inundated with things you understand”

he cautions though:  “dangerous to go to a foreign culture and have a plan to write about it.” Being abroad for Mengestu more or less created the distance he needed from place X to reflect on it and write about it (The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears takes place in Washington, D.C. where Mengestu went for undergrad, but that he wrote while he was living in New York).

on what to take advantage of in an MFA program/writing community:  “spent a lot of time taking ourselves seriously…cause outside of that world no one will”

and finally, on writing advice:  “don’t listen to any advice on writing, you have to learn it yourself…don’t need to have feedback all the time…learn to write quietly…life is heading that way.”

Can’t wait for his reading in April!


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