This is the second of my (at least!) ten African authors in this year’s Cannonball. I picked this up based mostly on the title and the fact that I hadn’t read anything by an Ethiopian author yet. But this book is not about Ethiopia, really–it’s about being an Ethiopian in America or, more specifically, one hapless immigrant’s experience.
The story is told in first person by the main character, Sepha Stephanos, who fled Ethiopia after the revolution seventeen years previously. He met up with an uncle in Virginia and eventually opened a small grocery store in pre-gentrification Logan Circle in Washington, DC. Now he finds his grocery store failing, gentrification changing his neighborhood around him, his only friends two fellow African immigrants (Ken from Kenya and Joe from Congo–they pass the time playing a game in which they match African dictator’s names to their corresponding countries and years of coups and their discussions of Africa and the lives of immigrants are often poignant and insightful.) In the early stages of the gentrification of the neighborhood, Sepha meets his new well-off white neighbor, Judith, and her biracial daughter, Naomi, who regularly hangs out with Sepha at his store. There is the unspoken possibility of friendship or more between Sepha and Judith, but their economic and personal differences are going to be hard to overcome.
It’s a subtle, melancholy novel, but filled with charm. The characters are well-sketched and heartfelt, the style is succinct and matter of fact without being abrupt. Much of the novel focuses on the internal musings and memories: how did this happen? How has it already been 17 years? What happened to the dreams we used to have? Each character is dealing with profound personal loss–loss of a homeland, of family, of community, of a business, of a relationship, of the hope of a relationship. And yet they keep going, day after day, meeting in the same bars, playing their favorite games, figuring out how to stay afloat.
Sepha is not a heroic figure–he had some dreams of becoming a successful shop keeper but is too indifferent, not ambitious enough, too homesick. Reality was too harsh. But he’s painted as a sympathetic figure, despite (or perhaps because of?) his major flaws.
One of the things I most enjoyed is the loving descriptions of the feeling of walking through Washington, DC. The arbored streets, the pedestrians, the feelings of fall and Christmas in DC are all described in such charming, careful language. So often descriptions of DC focus on “the halls of power” and “the colonial architecture” but fail to capture how oddly charming it is as a city for someone just hanging out, walking around, not caring who’s in the White House. It’s clear that the city holds a special place in the author’s heart; he in fact went to Georgetown (my alma mater!) and to read his descriptions of walking down P St., taking the same route I used to take to meet my now-husband when we were first dating…well, it stirred up not a little nostalgia. And seeing the city from Sepha’s perspective was fascinating and endearing. I confess, I would have given this book a high rating just for those passages.
Rating: 4/5 stars. I really enjoyed this book. The writing is gentle, clear, and wistful. It’s not a happy book, but it’s a thoughtful one. I always enjoy it when an author can make me sympathize with a character not at all like myself–in this case, a middle-aged male Ethiopian immigrant shopkeeper–and not only that, but one who might not be all that likable in the first place. Mengestu crafted this story well and I’ll definitely pick up more of his writing. I recommend this especially to anyone who has a connection with DC.