Ethiopian-American Artists Make Their Mark

Author Dinaw Mengestu

Dinaw Mengestu

hide captionAuthor Dinaw Mengestu teaches at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and lives in New York City.

Blair Fethers

Hear, read excerpts from Dinaw Mengestu's novel, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears:

Artist Julie Mehretu

Julie Mehretu i i

hide captionBorn in Addis Ababa, artist Julie Mehretu was brought up in Kalamazoo, Mich. She has lived in New York and Senegal.

Courtesy The Project, New York
Julie Mehretu

Born in Addis Ababa, artist Julie Mehretu was brought up in Kalamazoo, Mich. She has lived in New York and Senegal.

Courtesy The Project, New York
Julie Mehretu's 'Stadia II' i i

hide captionJulie Mehretu's Stadia II, 2004, acrylic on canvas, is part of an exhibit by the artist in Hannover, Germany.

Kunstverein Hannover
Julie Mehretu's 'Stadia II'

Julie Mehretu's Stadia II, 2004, acrylic on canvas, is part of an exhibit by the artist in Hannover, Germany.

Kunstverein Hannover

Musician Gabriel Teodros

Gabriel Teodros i i

hide captionHip-hop musician Gabriel Teodros lives in Seattle.

Gabriel Teodros

Hip-hop musician Gabriel Teodros lives in Seattle.

A generation of Ethiopian Americans is making its mark on the arts. They are part of a wave of young people whose families fled Ethiopia in the 1970s and who came of age in the United States. Their writing, music and art are adding a new chapter to the epic of American immigration.

Author Dinaw Mengestu's first novel, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears (Read an Excerpt), came out this month to warm reviews. At an Ethiopian restaurant near downtown Washington, D.C., Mengestu, 29, is thinking back on the journey that brought him here. Born in Addis Ababa, he left Ethiopia at the age of 2, then spent the next seven years in Peoria, Ill. Now Mengestu teaches at Georgetown University and lives in New York City.

Incongruous as this path may seem, Mengestu says it began with the bloody revolutions that followed the overthrow of Ethiopia's Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974. Tens of thousands of Ethiopians were imprisoned and executed.

Mengestu's novel follows a character who, after his father is killed, makes his way to the District of Columbia. Mengestu drew on family history to imagine the past of his main character. Sepha Stephanos eventually opens a grocery in a gentrifying D.C. neighborhood and begins a relationship with a white academic and her biracial child.

At least 22,000 Ethiopians call the District of Columbia home. About half a million live in the United States. Some survived the horrors of the 1970s and 1980, and now their children are trying to make sense both of that period, which they never experienced first hand, and being young and black and African and American here.

Gabriel Teodros, a hip-hop musician who lives in Seattle, is part of a rising movement of young writers, artists, and musicians who are figuring out how to explain the various worlds they traverse and the sometimes odd cultural interconnections they find.

Take, Teodros says, Jamaica's Rastafarian culture, the trappings of which are popular in the United States. It literally venerates Ethiopia's former emperor.

"What do Ethiopians think when they come to this country and they see all these people who really don't have too much knowledge about what's going on in Ethiopia, like [sporting] Haile Selassie on a shirt or wearing red, yellow and green [the Ethiopian flag colors]? I think for the most part, like when Ethiopians see that, they're either like flattered, like 'Wow, these people think Ethiopia's really cool...' Or they feel that it's cultural appropriation. Like, 'Why do you have the emperor's face on your shirt?'"

Teodros complains that most Americans just associate Ethiopia with famine. But this generation has the pride of being from a place that remained largely independent while other African countries endured decades of European colonization.

Born in Addis Ababa, painter Julie Mehretu is an art-world star. Her work is coveted by collectors and fetches hundreds of thousands of dollars. Mehretu, 36, was brought up in Kalamazoo, Mich., and has lived in New York and Senegal.

In her huge paintings, Mehretu layers together fragments of maps and architectural drawings into a shattered whole with shapes and markings that seem to have a meaning of their own, says Mik Awake, who covers arts and letters for an Ethiopian-American magazine called Tadias.

"There's a whole language she's invented that draws not just from one tradition or another, Ethiopian or American, but it's just this completely new and ambitious take on the world and the world as a kind of gathering place where all these different symbols divorced of any kind of direct direction meet, converge and separate," Awake says.

He says that like every first generation in America that's preceded them, this one has new answers to the question of who Americans are.

Excerpt: The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears

'The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears'

Joseph's already drunk when he comes into the store. He strolls through the open door with his arms open. You get the sense when watching him that even the grandest gestures he may make aren't grand enough for him. He's constantly trying to outdo himself, to reach new levels of Josephness that will ensure that anyone who has ever met him will carry some lingering trace of Joseph Kahangi long after he has left. He's now a waiter at an expensive downtown restaurant, and after he cleans each table he downs whatever alcohol is still left in the glasses before bringing them back to the kitchen. I can tell by his slight swagger that the early dinnertime crowd was better than usual today.

Joseph is short and stout like a tree stump. He has a large round face that looks like a moon pie. Kenneth used to tell him he looked Ghanaian.

"You have a typical Ghanaian face, Joe. Round eyes. Round face. Round nose. You're Ghanaian through and through. Admit it, and let us move on."

Joseph would stand up then and theatrically slam his fist onto the table, or into his palm, or against the wall. "I am from Zaire," he would yell out. "And you are a ass." Or, more recently, and in a much more subdued tone: "I am from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Next week, it may be something different. I admit that. Perhaps tomorrow I'll be from the Liberated Land of Laurent Kabila. But today, as far as I know, I am from the Democratic Republic of the Congo."

Joseph kisses me once on each cheek after he takes his coat off.

"That's my favorite thing about you Ethiopians," he says. "You kiss each other on the cheeks all the time. It takes you hours to say hello and good-bye because you're constantly kissing each other. Kiss. Kiss. Kiss."

Kenneth pours Joseph a scotch and the three of us raise our cups for a toast.

"How is America today, Stephanos?" Joseph asks me.

"He hates it," Kenneth says.

"That's because he doesn't understand it." Joseph leans closer toward me, his large moon-pie face eclipsing my view of everything except his eyes, which are small and bloodshot, and look as if they were added onto his face as an afterthought.

"I've told you," he says. "This country is like a little bastard child. You can't be angry when it doesn't give you what you want."

He leans back deliberately in his chair and crosses his legs, holding the pose for two seconds before leaning over and resting both arms on his thighs.

"But you have to praise it when it comes close, otherwise it'll turn around and bite you in the ass."

The two of them laugh and then quickly pour back their drinks and refill their glasses. There is a brief silence as each struggles to catch his breath. Before either of them can tell me something else about America ("This country cares only about one thing..." "There are three things you need to know about Americans..."), I call out, "Bukassa." The name catches them off guard. They both turn and stare at me. They swirl their cups around and around to make sure it looks like they're thinking. Kenneth walks over to the map of Africa I keep taped on the wall right next to the door. It's at least twenty years old, maybe older. The borders and names have changed since it was made, but maps, like pictures and journals, have a built-in nostalgic quality that can never render them completely obsolete. The countries are all color-coded, and Africa's hanging dour head looks like a woman's head wrapped in a shawl. Kenneth rubs his hand silently over the continent, working his way west to east and then south until his index finger tickles the tip of South Africa. When he's finished tracing his hand over the map, he turns around and points at me.

"Gabon." He says it as if it were a crime I was guilty of.

"What about it?" I tell him, "I hear it's a fine country. Good people. Never been there myself, though."

He turns back to the map and whispers, "F*** you."

"Come on. I thought you were an engineer," Joseph taunts him. "Whatever happened to precision?" He stands up and puts his large fat arm over Kenneth's narrow shoulders. With his other hand he draws a circle around the center of Africa. He finds his spot and taps it twice.

"Central African Republic," he says. "When was it?"

He scratches his chin thoughtfully, like the intellectual he always thought he was going to become, and has never stopped wanting to be.

"Nineteen sixty-four? No. Nineteen sixty-five."

"Nineteen sixty-six," I tell him.

"Close."

"But not close enough."

So far we've named more than thirty different coups in Africa. It's become a game with us. Name a dictator and then guess the year and country. We've been playing the game for over a year now. We've expanded our playing field to include failed coups, rebellions, minor insurrections, guerrilla leaders, and the acronyms of as many rebel groups as we can find—the SPLA, TPLF, LRA, UNITA—anyone who has picked up a gun in the name of revolution. No matter how many we name, there are always more, the names, dates, and years multiplying as fast as we can memorize them so that at times we wonder, half-jokingly, if perhaps we ourselves aren't somewhat responsible.

"When we stop having coups, we can stop playing," Joseph said once. It was the third or fourth time we had played, and we were guessing how long we could keep it up.

"I should have known that," Kenneth says. "Bukassa has always been one of my favorites."

We all have favorites. Bukassa. Amin. Mobutu. We love the ones known for their absurd declarations and comical performances, the dictators who marry forty women and have twice as many children, who sit on golden thrones shaped like eagles, declare themselves minor gods, and are surrounded by rumors of incest, cannibalism, sorcery, and magic.

"He was an emperor," Joseph says. "Just like your Haile Selassie, Stephanos."

"He didn't last as long, though," I remind him.

"That's because no one gave him a chance. Poor Bukassa. Emperor Bukassa. Minister of Defense, Education, Sports, Health, War, Housing, Land, Wildlife, Foreign Affairs, His Royal Majesty, King of the Sovereign World, and Not Quite But Almost the Lion of Judah Bukassa."

"He was a cannibal, wasn't he?" Kenneth asks Joseph.

"According to the French, yes. But who can believe the French? Just look at Sierra Leone, Senegal. Liars, all of them."

"The French or the Africans?"

"What difference does it make?"

* * *

We spend the next two hours alternating between shots and slowly sipped glasses of Kenneth's scotch. Inevitably, predictably, our conversations find their way home.

"Our memories," Joseph says, "are like a river cut off from the ocean. With time they will slowly dry out in the sun, and so we drink and drink and drink and we can never have our fill."

"Why do you always talk like that?" Kenneth demands.

"Because it is true. And that is the only way to describe it. If you have something different to say, then say it."

Kenneth leans his chair back against the wall. He's drunk and on the verge of falling.

"I will say it," he says.

He pours the last few drops of scotch into his cup and sticks his tongue out to catch them.

"I can't remember where the scar on my father's face is. Sometimes I think it is here, on the left side of his face, just underneath his eye. But then I say to myself, that's only because you were facing him, and so really, it was on the right side. But then I say no, that can't be. Because when I was a boy I sat on his shoulders and he would let me rub my hand over it. And so I sit on top of a table and place my legs around a chair and lean over and I try to find where it would have been. Here. Or there. Here. Or there."

As he speaks his hand skips from one side of his face to the other.

"He used to say, when I die you'll know how to tell it's me by this scar. That made no sense but when I was a boy I didn't know that. I thought I needed that scar to know it was him. And now, if I saw him, I couldn't tell him apart from any other old man."

"Your father is already dead," I tell him.

"And so is yours, Stephanos. Don't you worry you'll forget him someday?"

"No. I don't. I still see him every where I go."

"All of our fathers are dead," Joseph adds.

"Exactly," Kenneth says.

It's the closest we've ever come to a resolution.

From The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu. Copyright © 2007 Dinaw Mengestu, Published by Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), all rights reserved.

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