SCOTT SIMON, host:
Dinaw Mengestu's new novel opens with a sad scene: Mariam, a young woman sitting in a car in Peoria, Illinois, preparing to go an a road trip to Nashville with her husband, Yosef, whom she's not really known for three years, after he fled Ethiopia for America. Yosef has escaped some terrible things. And he takes them out, bruise by bruise, on Mariam.
The novel is narrated a generation later by their son, Jonas Woldemariam, who will make his own journey to retrace their lives as his own marriage unravels in New York.
"How to Read the Air" is Dinaw Mengestu's highly-anticipated second novel, following "The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears." He joins us from our studios in New York.
Thanks so much for being with us.
Mr. DINAW MENGESTU (Author, "How to Read the Air"): Thank you for having me, Scott. It's a pleasure to be here.
SIMON: And it's irresistible to note, there are - there are a lot of parallels between, well, a few certainly noticeable parallels between your life and the lives of some of your characters. Cause you were born in Ethiopia, came to United States when you were two, and then - during the time that was called the Red Terror - and I gather you grew up in Peoria for a while.
Mr. MENGESTU: I did. It was the first landscape that I really have distinct memories of. And so when I began writing this novel, it seemed almost inevitable, if not natural, that I would want to return to that place and return to that time period.
SIMON: So - invites the question: Are the similarities just superficial? You needed a background for a character, or there's something more at work here?
Mr. MENGESTU: You know, there's a friend of mine who told me he, another writer had once told him that, you know, if you begin with certain facts from your own life you're that much more freer in your own mental space to imagine the rest, and I think that there is a real truth to that. For me the particularities of growing up in Peoria were the things I kind of needed to actually ground and root the novel in my head. And once I had that setting and that place in my mind really fixed, then I was really able to create characters who are distinctly and dramatically different from my own personal experiences.
SIMON: The novel has two parallel narratives, Yosef and Mariam, as we mentioned, and then a generation later, Jonas and his American wife, Angela. Real practical question first: How do you plot narratives that go in and out of each other like that? I mean index cards? Do they have computer software these days?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MENGESTU: I wish they had computer software because I'm sort of generally terrible about plotting out my work as I'm writing. You know, the novel really began with Yosef and Mariam and was very much an investigation of their marriage as it's being seen through their son a generation later. And it wasn't really until I understood their marriage and all the things that could possibly have gone wrong in their relationship that I was able to get a sense of the narrator's voice and understand who their son was, and then that's when I realized that they were actually two marriages happening at the same time, and then that sort of back-and-forth process.
SIMON: Jonas goes to work for an agency that handles asylum cases in New York.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SIMON: And it's a very cynical business the way you describe it.
Mr. MENGESTU: Yeah.
SIMON: He makes things up.
Mr. MENGESTU: The way we sort of have come to think of the idea of the immigrant narrative or the immigrant story, I think it's kind of hard not to be a little cynical about that. It's very easy to sort of consider it as one simple story that we've all heard and we've all grown very familiar to. You know, I can see that with my own work's reception sometimes, where people will say, ah, it's an immigrant novel, it's an immigrant story, and often times that can be enough to sum up the entire narrative in people's minds without knowing any of the details or facts because all you need to know is that the person came from Africa or they came from X country that has X number of problems. And therefore to actually understand the particulars of those stories seems like a burden sometimes. And so people would rather have a kind of general flat story that they are already familiar with, and the narrative...
SIMON: The flat story being they've seen terrible things, they're here to change their lives.
Mr. MENGESTU: Exactly. And isn't it all so awful over there? And now that they're here, let's make, you know, their lives will be better. And Jonas is very aware that.
SIMON: I mean let's explain how it goes, practically, is people will come to him and they'll have a story about why they fled their country but he feels he's got to embroider it to have a chance of making an impression.
Mr. MENGESTU: Exactly.
SIMON: So it's, you've got two kids? Let's make that six, that sort of thing.
Mr. MENGESTU: Part of what Jonas I think is doing in those situations is he's aware of the fact that for most people the worst the narrative is the more acceptable and the more manageable it is for people to understand and sympathize with.
SIMON: I want to get to the life that Jonas' mother, Mariam, has. There are many sections that recount bruises, and worse, that she is dealt by her husband, Yosef. And I think most readers will read those sections and scream out: leave him. I wonder if you can read a section from this book in which -well, maybe you can set it up for us. Jonas is the narrative voice.
Mr. MENGESTU: So this is Jonas, he's been retracing his parents' road trip through the Midwest and he stops at a landmark that his parents had stopped off in outside of the Peoria, Illinois, and he is imagining his mother as she was when she was at this place with his father, and he's trying to imagine what would've happened if she had been able to leave her father - his father - at that moment.
As she runs she grows more confident in her footing. She stumbles less and quickly learns to spot the clearings ahead. Leaves rush by. And as she runs, she can't help thinking to herself, there's no stopping her now, she's an athlete, a long distance gold medal-winning Ethiopian runner, capable of heroic feats of endurance and strength and soon the world will know her name. If there were barriers before her, she would hurdle them in one long clean stride like a gazelle in disguise. An army of men couldn't catch her. Their bullets, arrows, and rocks, along with their violent angry words, all would (unintelligible) harmlessly by or fall uselessly to the ground in her dust. And how long could she keep this up? Not long at all. Five - or let me be generous because this is my mother and it's hard not to be, and say 10 minutes at most. And then what? There's nowhere to go then but back, which is precisely where she and I are headed now. But God, what a beautiful run we might have had.
SIMON: That's heart-piercing. Jonas, in the course of the narrative, becomes a schoolteacher and he has a - his students are interested in his background and he applies his storytelling talents to that too. And when he makes up stories for his students about his father, that's the father he wished he had?
Mr. MENGESTU: It's both. It's the father he wishes he had and the father he had. And if anything, the two would need to be sort of reconciled, you know? He needs to understand exactly how his father became this angry violent man. And by the end of his life this sort of angry, violent, frightened and shriveled man. And he has for the most of his life avoided trying to understand what made him into that person. And once he begins imagining this story, he is actually concerned enough with his father's life to actually figure out, well, how did this man become who he was, and how could he have actually been possibly a better person if this had not happened to him? So it's very much, I think, a melding of fact and fiction and hope at the same time.
SIMON: I made a note of a line that really got to me uttered by one of your characters towards the end, Angela, who, of course, is married and then gets a divorce from Jonas. But she says, well, doesn't seem to be afraid of death or suffering so much as she says she's afraid of disappearing. She says I'm afraid to find some day there's no one who knows me anymore - I could disappear and who would care? Is that one of the driving forces of our lives?
Mr. MENGESTU: I think it is. I think that compulsion to find close attachments is sort of enormously and profoundly rooted in the fact that it's so easily -so easy to find yourself feeling weightless in the world and to find yourself sort of almost dispensable, to - I think, you know, it's very easy to feel like you're being whittled away bit by bit in the world and that what pieces of you are left can easily be scattered if there's nothing to hold onto or no one to hold onto you.
SIMON: Dinaw Mengestu, his new novel, "How to Read the Air."
Thanks very much for being with us.
Mr. MENGESTU: Thank you very much for having me.