In the novel, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, Ethiopian immigrant Sepha Stephanos and his friends Joseph Kahangi and Kenneth live in Washington. The three friends came to the United States around the same time and met while working as valets in a Washington, D.C., hotel. Seventeen years later, they still have a tough time reconciling their past with the American experience. With regards to that, Kenneth’s case appears to be the most interesting in my opinion.
Unlike the other two, Kenneth does not seem to have totally lost the fire of ambition that once burnt in the heart of the trio. Chasing his American dream, he did make it through engineering school and has a decent job. However, his delusional dreams of grandeur are taking time to materialize and just like Sepha and Joseph, he is haunted by his past as hinted at by their game on African dictators. Culturally, they are no longer wholly African – to put it candidly – but they are not American either. Kenneth and his friends find themselves in a dubious space where, despite having left their homeland, they remain locked out of the American experience by their alien identity.
Kenneth’s pathetic attempts at making the costume of the successful and powerful American fit him is risible yet somehow touching in the sort of naiveté his endeavor implies. He dresses up all the time. He is, Sepha tells us, « an engineer who tries not to look like one. He believes in the power of a well tailored suit to command the attention and respect of those who might not otherwise give him a second thought. » (2) Kenneth also mimics his boss’s attitude and way of speaking at his engineering firm. After a conversation with Sepha, « [h]e hangs abruptly then. This is what he believes men in power can do.» (35) He believes in maxims as laughable as « American men are successful because they say the same thing over and over again. » ( 2) He even sports an English accent at some point. (42)
Kenneth efforts compared to the apathy of Sepha, whom he tries to keep motivated, do command some respect. He is indeed pushing forward, to put as much distance as he can between him and hell and approach the beautiful things that heaven bears and that he can still see at least in his mind. His endeavors to get himself out of the dark are so delusional and so doomed to failure that one does not know if one should laugh about it, cry or do both.