The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears is a novel that I recently had the pleasure of reading by first-time author Dinaw Mengestu, an Ethiopian American. I’m a communications consultant and writer for philanthropy and nonprofits, and I’m also a creative writer. His novel drew my attention to how I often compartmentalize the two forms of communication when, really, one often complements the other. Compelling stories can personalize the broad-based change that social justice work seeks to create. Like Mengestu, the book’s protagonist, Sepha Stephanos, is an Ethiopian immigrant. But Stephanos is older, in his late 30s, and runs his own small convenience store in a poverty-stricken area of D.C. that is beginning to gentrify. His earnings are too little for him to entertain any dreams grander than to keep making his rent payments. Although he emigrated from Ethiopia half a lifetime ago, his only friends are two immigrants from other countries in Africa.
But hope arrives in the smoldering passion he develops for a white woman and her biracial child who move into one of the neighborhood’s refurbished homes. As his relationship with them evolves over the course of an autumn and a holiday season, he confronts his discarded ambitions for college and a professional life and for love, whether from the family he misses back in Addis Ababa or from girlfriends his sense of dislocation has prevented him from meeting.
Sepha’s hope is bittersweet, as is Mengestu’s sensitive observation of his life. How gently Sepha regards the street people and hookers who frequent his store and loiter in Logan Circle outside it. How casually he speaks with his friends about the dictators who have made living in Africa too risky. Sepha is numb from loss but warm to the everyday beauty of America that exists even in the clogged streets outside his store and the buses he rides through them.
The novel’s title is a quote from Dante’s Inferno in reference to the vision of heaven that Dante sees as he exits the circles of hell. In the words of one of Sepha’s friends, “…no one can understand that line like an African because that is what we lived through. Hell everyday with only glimpses of heaven in between.”
The metaphor, however, applies more to the particular experience of African immigrants in America than their relief from the troubles of their home continent. The challenges of cultural transition force many of them into limbo, seemingly, to be perpetual witnesses to the American Dream but to take part in it only marginally as observers. They feel estranged from the people and the lifestyle they left behind and disconnected to most Americans and our way of life, one that often finds them marginalized for reasons beyond their language or background but the stigmas of a past in a Third World nation, poverty, and skin tone.
Good storytelling, especially from a vantage point as compassionate as Mengestu’s, is worth a stack of socio-economic statistics towards communicating the plight of African immigrants and the need for socially creative responses.
Paul Bachleitner is an independent communications and writing consultant. You can learn more about him at his website: www.bachwriter.com.