Conversing with Diasporic Narrative Tradition

As I read “Reconfiguring the African Diaspora”, I was drawn to the way Sepha’s racial identity narrative, as part of the body of newer diasporic fiction, is understood to be in conversation with older depictions of the immigrant position. I think the article could offer an interesting way of linking Sepha and the novel given its positions on the relationship between his racial identity and older diasporic fiction models. According to Ledent, Sepha’s identity can be seen as fluctuating between four communities: African American, white, Ethiopian, and immigrant. I understand these different communities, each possible identities Sepha could embrace or pursue, as options from older diasporic narratives that still persist. In other words, I think of them as possible or desired paths for immigrants solidified into tropes, at least partially, by previous chronicles of diaspora.

Prior to his close-reading, Ledent states that he intends to “read Mengestu’s novel not so much as a text aiming to replace existing paradigms relating to diasporan Africanness, but rather as a critique of their occasional conceptual rigidity” (109). Considering The Beautiful Things Heaven Bears as a novel working to complicate the conversation on immigrant racial identity by being in dialogue with the body of voices formed from other diasporan literature, Sepha’s identity seems to be the primary ground on which said exchange takes place. The character’s fluctuating sense of racial solidarity can be seen as the epicenter of challenges to the rigidity and dedication to narratives of success and identity seen in other novels.

Ultimately, I think the article has led me to a loose allegorical reading of Sepha in that his uncomfortable relationship with certain groups mirrors what the novel, according to Ledent, is avoiding when it comes to the diasporic fiction tradition. “Reconfiguring the African Diaspora” suggests that Sepha has a hard time readily entering some racial communities because participation, investment, and membership are expected; allegiance to “ready-to-wear” identity groups, prepackaged with things like animosity and agendas, is “natural” because of surface similarities such as skin color (110). For example, the Ethiopian community in Berhane’s apartment building is viewed as critical of deserters and dedicated to group-wide norms. Meanwhile, groups like Sepha’s three-man immigrant trio are comfortable because members acknowledge and draw attention to individual experiences. I feel that both the novel and its main character challenge rigidity in favor of interacting with different options as an individual.  Sepha’s interactions with different identity options double as the novel’s conversations with particular tropes set by diasporic narrative traditions. They choose to explore without settling, owning the open-endedness the position provides.

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