Award-winning Author Learned to Love Georgetown
November 2, 2011 – Dinaw Mengestu (C’00), the critically acclaimed author of two novels, says he tried to walk away from Georgetown the first day he arrived.
Mengestu is the author of The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears (2007), which received a “5 under 35” recognition from the National Book Foundation, among other awards. His most recent novel, How to Read the Air (2010), led the New Yorker to name him one of its “20 Under 40” notable young writers.
Though he now says Georgetown made a big difference in his life, it didn’t start out that way.
Too Many Differences
“From the very first day I walked on to this campus, I tried to walk away from it, and I mean that literally,” he told Georgetown students during his last visit to campus.
He says he saw too many differences when he compared himself to the other students in his dorm as a freshman. Born in Addis Ababa, Mengestu and his family moved to Peoria, Ill., when he was 2.
The prospect of living on campus led him to leave campus to find a café where he could read and write.
A New Perspective
The future novelist says he thought, “Every single person came from the same homogenous privileged background.”
“I found it was easier to judge this campus and the world by extension, rather than take the necessary risk to see and understand everything clearly,” he explained.
But Mengestu came back to campus and took that risk. That led to him treasuring the mentorship of English professor Norma Tilden and other Georgetown faculty members.
“Dinaw immediately grasped the possibilities of a kind of writing poised between a journalist’s engagement of facts and imaginative writer’s re-creation of personal experience,” Tilden has said of Mengestu.
In the English department at Georgetown, he says he found “an intellectual space that I felt warmed by and fascinated by.”
After graduating from Georgetown, he obtained an MFA in fiction from Columbia University.
How to Read the Air
Mengestu’s first book is about an Ethiopian running a struggling grocery store in a poor African-American neighborhood in Washington, D.C. His second novel is about a troubled Ethiopian immigrant family.
Early in the fall semester, Mengestu returned to campus to speak at Georgetown’s First-Year Academic Workshop. Over the summer, each first-year student reads a book by an international author.
This year, students read Mengestu’s How to Read the Air. At the workshop, the author answered students’ questions and gave a lecture about some of the challenges he faced as a student.
Sense of Peace
Mengestu no longer walks away from campus.
Though he lives with his wife and two sons in Paris, he says, “Since graduating [from] here, I can’t stop coming back.”
“I’ve come back to teach, I’ve come back to give readings and lectures,” he says. “I’ve come back to visit my professors, and … often times just to wander and walk all through this place that I was … afraid of for so long. And every time I come back, I find myself with a greater sense of peace than I ever could imagine.”