It’s been a long time since I’ve walked into a bookstore and picked up a book simply because of the gorgeousness of its title, but The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears was such a title.
Several years ago, at the Sunriver Books & Music store in Sunriver, OR, I was drawn to the levity associated with the idea of “Heaven,” and the burdening verb of “bear.” My curiosity was piqued by the ambiguity of the “beautiful things,” because beauty is so subjective it becomes as ambiguous and nondescript as the things it wants to describe. To complete the decision that it was a book worth reading, was the lilt I heard when I read the title out loud to myself, “The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu.”
The story follows Sepha Stephanos, an Ethiopian immigrant who has been living in Washington D.C. for 17 years after fleeing his hometown of Addis Ababa and his country’s bloody revolution. He runs a failing grocery store in the run-down neighborhood off Logan Circle.
Mengestu, like his character, Stephanos, also emigrated from Ethiopia in 1980 when he was just two years-old. But unlike Stephanos, Mengestu is a graduate of Columbia University’s MFA program, a recipient of a 2006 fellowship in fiction from the New York Foundation for the Arts, and a “5 Under 35” Award Winner selected by the National Book Foundation. It wasn’t Mengestu’s seamless prose, or his apparent ease with fictional realism that stood out to me. Rather, the strength of the book lies in the depth of Stephanos’s acute and heartbreaking reflections about displacement, and his resignation to the delusion of the “American Dream.”
There are other themes at work in the book, such as gentrification, identity, belonging, and the varying
degrees of human connection through friendships, including one that Stephanos develops with Judith, a single mother who is separated from her daughter’s Mauritanian father. Judith is an educated white woman with a biracial daughter who moves into a run-down townhome directly across from Stephanos’s store. She begins to fix up the house, and her character is both a symbol of gentrification, and as the friendship between Stephanos and Judith grows between solace and relief from loneliness and the hints of romance, she also represents the seduction of and ultimately the unattainability of the “American Dream” for Stephanos.
The term “American Dream” is overused in our daily lexicon. It’s become trivial, and has maybe even reached its platitude in university lecture halls and political speeches. I don’t know anyone who uses the phrase without a twinge of sarcasm: “Working too much. You know, livin’ the ol’ 'merican Dream,” “Up to my eyeballs in debt—just living the dream.” Mengestu is successful at reminding us that the dream, in particular the American one, unrealized to the individual is still tragic. For me, the reminder was personal.
My parents emigrated over by boat: my father from Hong Kong, my mother from Vietnam, sometime in the late 70s after the Vietnam War. My brother and I are first-generation of Chinese descent born in the United States. We grew up in the suburbs of Oregon, not the ghettos of D.C, but even so, there were moments for Stephanos that arrested my attention and reminded me of my own parents.
For example, on page 41 when Stephanos is in conversation with an uncle:
"Tears would well up in [my uncle’s] eyes sometimes as he spoke about the future, which he believed could only be filled with better and beautiful things. Here in Logan Circle, though, I didn’t have to be anything greater than what I already was. I was poor, black, and wore the anonymity that came with that as a shield against all of the early ambitions of the immigrant, which had long since abandoned me, assuming they had ever really been mine to begin with. As it was, I did not come to America to find a better life. I came here running and screaming with the ghosts of an old one firmly attached to my back. My goal since then has always been a simple one: to persist unnoticed through the days, to do no more harm. "
I see my mother in Stephanos’s uncle. She has admitted that the reason she buys so much stuff, and why she stocks up on so much food, is because she came from without. She has told me stories of herself as a child going weeks in Vietnam without eating anything but balls of sticky rice and soy sauce. And, I could tell that my father, though I know nothing of his childhood, had resigned himself to being just a cook in several Chinese restaurants. He brought home his oil scars and anger and took it out on our family. To compensate, my mother would spend her efforts on the purchasing of things, some of which have been beautiful, while my father lived with as little effort as possible; it was because, I think, China was still drawing his energy backwards, which left him little to move forward with in the States, where I’m certain he still feels like a foreigner despite his citizenship. Stephanos’s reflections also dispel the myth of the ambitious immigrant. My parents, especially my father, might be an anecdote: not all that come here make the best of it.
On page 52, after Judith has invited Stephanos into her living room, he describes the décor, and says:
"It was the same thing with all the other newly refurbished houses in the neighborhood; curtains provocatively peeled back to reveal warmly lit room with forest green couches, modern silver lamps that craned their necks like swans, and sleep glass coffee tables with fresh flowers bursting on top. There was something about affluence that needed exposure, that resisted closed windows and poor lighting and made a willing spectacle of everything."
In contrast to my childhood home, where the walls were bare because we didn’t want to put holes in them. We had unmatched furniture, and we kept the blinds closed even when the windows were cracked open. My grandma, and my aunts and uncles also gave the same treatment to their own homes. I was never quite sure if it was a mistrust of the world, if it was embarrassment because our homes didn’t look like everyone else’s, or if exhibitionism went against the survival instincts of the immigrant family.
Shortly after, Stephanos adds:
"The houses invited, practically begged and demanded, to be watched. When I took my walks at night, this was what I did. I stared into the living rooms of others. I stood across the street on the tips of my toes and tried to catch a glimpse of the kitchen, or the dining room, or the paintings on the wall. Kandinsky and Rothko prints over the sealed-up marble fireplaces; long, elegant dining tables made to look as if they had been hand-carved out of a single block of wood; walls that were painted a subtle shade of gold […] Rarely did I ever see the people who lived in those houses. Sometimes I thought of what I was doing as window shopping."
Growing up, I was in awe of our American neighbors and their interior decorating skills. In high school when I started hanging out with my friends, their houses felt warmer with the correct lighting, their couches plusher, their walls brighter, their homes more lived-in. In a word: cozier. Compared to my house which felt empty, with furniture scattered haphazardly about, our walls sterile. It looked as if we were squatting, getting ready to move at any point, leaving no trace that the house was ever ours except the indents in the white carpet from the cold, brown leather couch.
I always knew our family was different, and this sense of being strange manifested itself in embarrassment and my adolescent rejection of being Chinese. Of being keenly aware of how my mom’s pungent Cantonese cooking wasn’t the same as the pleasant Americana smells of butter and baked goods that came from next door. I insisted on boxed macaroni and cheese. I begged for McDonald's and Burger King. I loved everything that was associated with being American. Assimilation was my survival tactic. Palate, language, and dress. You learn to hide your Asian-ness and you disappear into the perfect pronunciation of the English language, you pick up slang, you laugh at jokes made at the expense of being Asian. You even make jokes at the expense of being Asian. You try to dress like the cool kids on a clearance rack budget.
Mengestu’s The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears was able to put to words the complexities and difficulties of being an immigrant. How the details of our living are markers of our otherness between the culture we were born with and the culture we’re living next to. But next to, is not with. The closeness of this realization can create an internal schism for those of us with backgrounds that are not “American.” This feeling can sometimes create even greater internalized distances like the one I experienced growing up as the only student of Asian descent in my classes. Or the geographic distances that separate my parents from their countries, their homelands that are far from Heaven themselves, that bore them, and myself, by virtue of blood.
Jenny M. Chu
P.S. An addendum. A day after I posted this reflection, a good friend passed along this BuzzFeed video: "Children of Asian Immigrants Reveal The Sacrifices Their Parents Made"