Dinaw Mengestu's, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears
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.