The Literary Roads Less Traveled

By Yabroff, Jennie | Newsweek, October 25, 2010 | Go to article overview

The Literary Roads Less Traveled


Yabroff, Jennie, Newsweek


Byline: Jennie Yabroff

An Ethiopian novel that makes us rethink the tropes of immigrant literature.

Yosef Woldemariam came to America from Ethiopia by way of Sudan, first walking through war-ravaged villages to a port town, then stowing away on a ship in a packing crate so tiny that he was forced to sit with his arms folded around his legs because he could neither stand nor lie down. He endured six months in a detention camp off the coast of Italy before finally joining his wife, Mariam, in Peoria, Ill., where his son, Jonas, was born. Yosef's is a classic immigration story, tragic and heroic, a testament to what the human body can endure and the human spirit withstand in the quest for a better life. When Jonas later relays his father's story to the students he teaches at a private Manhattan high school, they are moved and inspired. The only problem: little, if any, of the story Jonas tells is true.

The narratives we tell and believe about people who come to this country are the subject of How to Read the Air, the new novel by the Ethiopian writer Dinaw Mengestu. The author was one of The New Yorker's "20 Under 40," a list that also includes writers from Nigeria, China, the former Yugoslavia, Russia, and Latvia, as well as several American-born children of immigrants. At a time when some of our most powerful, and popular, stories are narrated by foreigners (and some of our most contentious public debates concern foreigners' rights to be in this country), Mengestu's novel keenly explores our complicated relationship with the idea of the immigrant experience.

Much of Jonas's narration is made of exaggerations, fabrications, and half-truths: he lies about his father, he lies about himself to his wife, and he lies in the reports he writes for a refugee-aid organization. …

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