Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Escaping from New York, Ethiopia, Marriages, Truth, Life...a Book Club Discussion About Dinaw Mengestu's How to Read the Air

A young man works in a refugee settlement center. His job? To rewrite the stories of the wannabe immigrants so that they were more likely to be granted asylum.

His name is Jonas Woldemariam.

"Where are you from?," people would ask.

"Peoria," he would reply.

Mengestu's second novel, How to Read the Air (French edition pictured above, being as the author lives in France, hardcover to the left), is another twist in the traditional immigrant story. It's about a group of people who rewrite their present to make sense of their past.

Mengestu weaves three narratives, one of Jonas's courtship and later estrangement from his wife Angela. The second is of the journey of Yosef and Mariam, the parents of Jonas,  but not from Ethiopia to the United States, but from Peoria to Nashville. And then there is the saga of Yoself's escape from Ethiopia through Sudan that Jonas tells his students at the school where he teaches.

But there are clues that all of these stories, just like the ones that Jonas embellishes for the asylum center, might not be true.

Our in-store lit group met to discuss How to Read the Air (UK edition below right), and had a polite but not always on-the-same-page discussion about storytelling, fiction, truth, and asylum centers. I started out with a few misleading truths of my own--that we would meet on January 2 (postponed) and that the book was at least partly about Ethiopia. It turned out that even Yosef's story begins on the border of the Sudan. Mengestu's point seems to be "don't make assumptions about me," but C. noted that even reviewers sometimes misled their readers about how much Addis you were really getting.

Reading a bit of Mengestu's own story, he grew up with fellow students upset that he didn't fit their mold. To whites, he was black. To other blacks, he didn't speak right, didn't look right, had the wrong kind of name. These are themes we've come across before, most notably in The Girl Who Fell from The Sky. We wondered how often this happens in real life, an actual confrontation of this sort, wherein G. noted that this happened to her a number of times in life. Why aren't you whatever?

Or to rephrase the assumption statement, "Don't put me in a box," as C2 noted. The box imagery seemed to be prevalent in the story, culminating in the storage box that Jonas claims Yosef was placed in for his immigrant voyage. I saw the story with a parallel action motif, of escape. Everyone in Mengestu's story is escaping from something--another country, marriage, expections, one's past, New York. A recurring joke that Jonas's wife Angela likes to tell involves all the ways her father left the family.

If there was any sort of consensus in the conversation about How to Read the Air (the American paperback at left), it seemed to be a dislike or at least a lack of understanding about Angela. She's an African American woman who has overcome a tough past to be a New York lawyer. She's at a second-rate firm, but she's got a game plan to get ahead, only Jonas isn't with the program. I sort of sympathized with her more than others--and felt that Jonas never really made the attempt to understand her. This is compared with Jonas's father Yosef, who despite physically abusing his wife, got some sort of sympathy from the story Jonas told to his class about his escape, and this sympathy passed on to our readers. I was surprised by this.

Storytelling accomplishes a lot. It passes on knowledge. It creates relationships. But one thing we don't always think about is that storytelling is a balm for the truth.

For example, I think the fiercest debate was whether Yosef's story was true, false, or true with embellishment. It's my thought that there are hints throughout the narrative that the story is false.

Others disagreed, but at least in this case, I'm the one telling the story.


Our next in-store lit discussion is Monday, February 6, 7 pm. We're talking about Andre Dubus III's memoir Townie. Speaking of father-and-son narratives, this is about Dubus's upbringing in a hardscrabble mill town with a single mom, estranged until young adulthood from his acclaimed short story writer father. Hope I got that correct--I no longer trust my descriptions.

Townie should be coming in paperback any minute, or if you'd like to buy the hardcover from us, we're keeping it priced at 20% off until the paperback arrives.

And then on Monday, March 5, we'll discuss Karen Russell's Swamplandia. You knew it had to happen...

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