Mengestu and the Immigrant Experience

In The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears Dinaw Mengestu tracks the American immigrant experience through the lives of three characters: Sepha, Joseph and Kenneth. Each of them looks back on Africa in a different way encompassing feelings of longing, disillusionment and nostalgia for what they left behind. In particular, Sepha and Joseph feel displaced in similar ways – coming from well-to-do families, forced to leave due to violence and instability – and yearn for a type of future past for their home countries of Ethiopia and The Congo respectively. This is most readily exemplified in Joseph’s poem concerning the history of the African continent, which reaches its climax when Patrice Lumumba wins election to his nation’s highest office. This moment in anti-colonial struggle bore striking implications for The Congo’s prospects in the events leading up to its independence from Belgium, before their systematic shattering with Lumumba’s imminent execution. Likewise, Sepha holds onto ideas of what Ethiopia could have been, had the revolution never occurred and his family’s comfortable life in Addis Ababa had never been disturbed. Nevertheless, because of their nations’ shared histories, both find themselves exiled in the United States, clinging to these futures past – finding only a small consolation by playing their game of coups.  Conversely, Kenneth fled Kenya for different reasons than his two friends. Coming from an impoverished background, he immigrated to America looking for education and opportunity. While, he misses his family and childhood home, his views tend to be more realist or pragmatic – having no illusions as to what a future in Kenya might have promised.

Despite, their divergent ways of remembering, none of the characters seem to have found happiness in their adopted home. The American Dream ultimately escapes each one of them with Sepha unable to start a business or find love with Judith, Kenneth spending long hours alone in a nearly empty apartment watching television, and Joeseph unmotivated to complete his studies and become a great poet. In doing so, Mengestu shows that no matter one’s background the immigrant experience in the United States often fails to line up to one’s initial expectations or the possibilities outlined in popular culture. As a result, memory, in whatever form, is quite possibly all the characters of this novel have left.

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