Lannan Chair of Poetics Dinaw Mengestu (COL ’00) kicked off the Reading and Talk Series in the Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice Tuesday.
Mengestu was a Lannan fellow as an undergraduate and has returned to campus multiple times since leaving Georgetown, including a stint as a writer-in-residence in 2007 that corresponded with the release of his debut novel “The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears.” In 2011 he spoke to freshmen about his novel “How to Read the Air” for the annual Marino Family International Writers’ Academic Workshop.
Mengestu said he was honored to be back at Georgetown and looked forward to teaching “The Writer’s Perspective,” a literary seminar and creative writing workshop in the fall 2012 semester.
Born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Mengestu moved to Illinois in 1980. Most of his writing addresses the emotional transition and integration of African immigrants into American society, but he said he does not feel pressure to represent the Ethiopian community in his work.
“My characters reflect a history and culture that is mine, but more importantly, they are human beings,” he said. “They portray the loneliness of immigrants, the loneliness of an everyday man struggling to bear and love life in all its complexity.”
During the seminar, Mengestu discussed how his particular history and identity influenced his development as a writer.
“I basically had to write myself into existence,” he said. “My perspective is uniquely mine — the absence of an Ethiopian community during my childhood, the resistance to becoming an American citizen during my teenage years, the racism I encountered growing up — and I have the authority to create something out of that.”
Mengestu explained the faith required to impress readers.
“As a writer, you find the music and equilibrium of a sentence, then a paragraph, and you take a tremendous leap of faith, which is hoping that readers will invest themselves in your text.”
Maria-Jose Navia, a doctoral candidate in the Spanish and Portuguese department, attended the seminar after reading Mengestu’s second novel, “How to Read the Air.”
“I finished the entire book in one night,” she said. “It was incredible, and I just had to hear him speak in person.”