Children of the Revolution By Dinaw Mengestu

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Hell every day with only glimpses of heaven in between.

An early birthday present from a friend sent this book my way and I stayed awake for three nights, basking in the profundity of the lucid storytelling.

Why this novel rates lower than expected on Goodreads, I'm not sure. However, I am thrilled it found me. This is a novel that distills longing and loneliness in a such way that makes only a crass reader unable to empathize with the internal struggles of this protagonist, Stephanos.

A corner store owner and former child refugee who escaped after witnessing trauma, Stepha finds himself in a poor, African-American neighborhood enduring gentrification in Washington D.C.

Stepha spends his days in his rundown corner store dealing with undiagnosed post-trauma, some days opening his store at inconsistent hours. As a child in Ethiopia, he witnessed his father dragged out of his home. To save his life, his mother begged him to escape. He was uprooted from his home and now he knows he cannot go back.

He delivers milk to an older African-American neighbor frequently, provides cheap candy for kids walking from school, keeps his store open for prostitutes needing to buy condoms at night, stocks bottled water for the new early-morning joggers who recently moved into the neighborhood.

He lives in a small, poorly furnished apartment. When he gets drunk with his friends, Joseph and Kenneth, they memorize the names of dictators and various coup d'état from around Africa. He loves reading Dostoevsky, specifically, The Brothers Karamazov. His friend, Joseph, loves poetry; in fact, the name of this book, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, is from Dante.

He and his friends think of themselves as children of the revolution, but deep down they know they are not. They are only survivors thrown into a new society where they do not feel like they belong. The only thing they have fought for is the right to live.

He has bursts of beauty when he falls in love with a white woman and her daughter. They move into his neighborhood, refurbish an old house, purchase items at his store, ask his opinion on matters, invite him to meals. He wants to see himself as the person he would have been if his family had not been destroyed. The world is at once bright and beautiful. There is hope. But even hope can feel unreachable when one thinks oneself guilty of hyperinflated optimism, when too many social inequities are at stake.

Somehow Stepha's solitude and how he views his inadequacies remind me of Haňťa's in Too Loud a Solitude. His story of nostalgia, pain, regret and deep melancholy is one shared by countless who have escaped upheaval, only to realize that there really is no paradise: we forget who we are and where we came from, and in so doing, believe we are entitled to much more than we deserve.. Children of the Revolution This is a magnificently simple book. Deceptively simple, like the Old Man and the Sea, in that you breeze through it and think nice story but when you pause for one moment and think about it, you realize that it is so much more than a nice story.

A blend of the political uncertainties and accompanying atrocities of the African continent with the ever present class struggles (overlaid by racial tension) of America. The parallels and similarities are clear but woven through the book in a way that respects the readers' abilities to understand them on their own.

It is also a tale of immigrants blending together the lives they left behind with the lives they are leading with the lives they want to have and justifying the possibilities.

It is a sensitive book and a kind book, full of passion yet gently written. It is a book that causes thought but one cannot say it is a clever book. Clever implies that games were played and to say that about this book would be a jab to its heart.


I had never really left Ethiopia, Addis Ababa 2004, foto Paolo Pellegrin-Magnum.

Sepha fugge dall’Etiopia dopo che i militari hanno ucciso suo padre; lascia dietro la madre e il fratello più piccolo, e se li porta dentro ben serrati nella memoria.

Arriva in US, a Washington, si appoggia allo zio, anche lui espatriato, emigrante, profugo, esule, rifugiato, fuggitivo…

Dopo un po’ di tempo, arriva il momento in cui sente di doversi muovere con le sue forze, il momento per esplorare nuovi territori e nuove esperienze.

Logan Circle, la piazza dove affaccia il negozio di Sepha a Washington, D.C.

Non va molto lontano Sepha, il senso di sradicamento rimane, non riesce a superarlo del tutto: però riesce ad abborracciare una forma di esistenza in un quartiere povero della capitale aprendo un piccolo market, dove la notte gode della compagnia di prostitute e clienti che rendono il posto meno triste e deserto.
Poi, le visite degli amici, un congolese e un keniota.
Un tran tran che potrebbe durare a lungo se nel quartiere non si trasferisse una coppia speciale: Judith e sua figlia Naomi.

La bella casa di Judith e Naomi all’angolo con Logan Circle.

La ragazzina ha sangue misto, il padre è un professore di economia della Mauritania: sarà questo che la spinge a fare frequenti visite a Sepha, a trascorrere ore e pomeriggi interi nel suo piccolo negozio?
Sarà la mancanza della figura paterna che la tiene inchiodata mentre l’etiope le legge “I fratelli Karamazov”?
Judith è bianca, ha ristrutturato splendidamente la casa sulla piazza proprio di fronte al negozio, e una sera invita a cena Sepha…

Mengestu da piccolo con la sorella

Sepha vorrebbe essere fedele a due patrie, non tradire quella d’origine in Africa, e abbracciare quella nuova che l’ha accolto in Occidente.
Ma sa che ciò a cui si fa ritorno non potrà mai essere quello che abbiamo lasciato.

Neppure il paese della grande libertà è riuscito a sconfiggere i pregiudizi, né di classe né di colore della pelle.

Mi è piaciuto questo romanzo, esordio di Dinaw Mengestu.
Tra le altre cose, è anche una prospettiva diversa al tema dell’emigrazione.

Foto Paolo Pellegrin-Magnum. Children of the Revolution wow--what a compact, melancholy little novel. written in overlapping layers as the narrator grapples with what has become of his life, it's almost like a snowglobe of sadness, isolation, regret, and loss. shake it, and you see fragments of Sepha's family life in Addis Ababa; shake it again, and you see fragments of his friendship with two other African immigrants, apparently his only close and sustained friendships in America; shake it yet again, you see him navigate with poignancy a new friendship with the biracial daughter of the white woman who moved into the neighborhood and you see him navigate his complex feelings of attraction to the white woman; shake it again and you see the complexity of a typical DC neighborhood left to rot after the 1968 riots and struggling now with creeping gentrification. Sepha is not really one of the people of the neighborhood, despite having lived there for a long time, and the white woman, Judith, definitely is not--Judith is part of the scorned they. in the neighborhood where i lived in DC for eight years they (myself included even though i bought my house before gentrification took off and i failed to renovate until i wanted to move) were called new people, which always made me laugh because it only ever referred to white people; a black person moving in to the neighborhood and fixing up a house was never called new people.

The Logan Circle that Mengestu described through Sepha's story rang true with me and made me wish we had more such literary gems about DC. We have an overabundance of spy thrillers, crime thrillers, voyeuristic tales about the movers and shakers in government, lobby firms, white-shoe law firms, etc...which turns DC into a bit of a caricature. DC is so much more than that. it's a small city that happens to hold the seat of government, but it's full of neighborhoods full of normal everyday people who cover the spectrum of socio-economic status--from chronically homeless and possibly psychotic to large populations of immigrants working three jobs to black or white middle-class to ridiculously wealthy, white or black.

the neighborhoods of DC have been rather segregated for decades now, but something happened in the late 1990s that turned the tide. broken down neighborhoods that had been neglected for nearly two generations suddenly became desirable. Disenfranchised people suddenly found themselves threatened with dispossession, if not dispossessed. Young, middle-class people priced out of more appropriate neighborhoods, see a chance to live in the city and become part of it but have to struggle with invisible barriers they don't understand. Developers and the Office of Tax and Revenue see a grand opportunity, in some cases razing entire neighborhoods that had been the home of entrenched open-air drug markets for at least twenty years in order to build beautiful modern office buildings, high-scale apartments and condos, and a new baseball stadium. Mengestu captures this dynamic in a subtle, frank way that left me wishing that more writers would take the time to write about this DC. Children of the Revolution Big disappointment. This is all about an Ethiopian refugee who's now been in Washington DC for 17 years and runs a grocery store in a poor neighbourhood. Now the author must know whereof he speaks, but I could hardly believe the picture he painted. In 17 years, we are to understand that Sepha, our immigrant, has made precisely two friends. And these two friends have only made two friends - each other. And none of these three immigrant friends have got married or had any long term relationships. Really? Their lives have been lived in a state of suspended animation otherwise known as mild coma, life as it is lived when you can't find the remote control. I may be as far as it is possible from being an Ethiopian immigrant, but I could not believe this stuff.
The other thing is that this novel is relentlessly downbeat. You scour the pages for an echo of an upbeat - oh, was that one? Nah. Everything goes from bad to worse. If a little sprig of hope grows up (as in the lovely friendship between Sepha and his neighbour's daughter) you can be sure it will be squashed without mercy a few pages down the line.
Eventually - well, actually quite quickly - this novel wears out its welcome. Sepha is such a refined, Dostoievsky-munching languid deadbeat. He can't be arsed to open up his shop most of the time. He lets everything fall into graceless decay, and that's okay by him because - well, because of the ghastly trauma suffered back in Addis Ababa when his father was shot as an imperialist lackey. That's bad all right, and it might be enough to paralyse the son's life. So okay, make this guy a minor character in some other Ethiopian immigrant's story, instead of making us wade through 228 pages of moping about. Children of the Revolution

Awards Include:
Finalist for the Young Lions Fiction Award
Finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for First Fiction
Winner of the Guardian First Book Prize
New York Times Notable Book
Winner of the National Book Foundation's �5 Under 35� Award
Recipient of a Lannan Literary Fellowship
Winner of the Prix du Premier Roman
Named the Seattle Reads Selection of 2008

Seventeen years ago, Sepha Stephanos fled the Ethiopian Revolution for a new start in the United States. Now he finds himself running a failing grocery store in a poor African-American section of Washington, D.C., his only companions two fellow African immigrants who share his bitter nostalgia and longing for his home continent. Years ago and worlds away Sepha could never have imagined a life of such isolation. As his environment begins to change, hope comes in the form of a friendship with new neighbors Judith and Naomi, a white woman and her biracial daughter. But when a series of racial incidents disturbs the community, Sepha may lose everything all over again. Children of the Revolution


Rating: 4.25* of five

How wonderful it is to find a first novel that feels so accomplished and tells such an engrossing story. I can't imagine that real, enjoyable talent is becoming rarer in a world that contains such eloquent proofs of its health.

Mengestu tells the story of three friends, African immigrants all, who meet in Washington DC, for so long the home territory of nativist sentiment in our republic of exclusion. I don't think a recap of the plot will help anyone decide whether or not to buy the book, because its outlines are simple: Men seeking material success in the motherland of same are thwarted and, through effort and good fortune, succeed at things they weren't looking to succeed at...temporarily.

A fire plays a major role in completing the story, and since I am currently seeing a fireman, that caught my eye. It's not, to my surprise, used as a pat plot device, but imbued with a real sense of the inevitability of sadness, loss, and change in the entwined lives of three lovely characters. Naomi, to name but one, is a heartbreakingly well observed actor in the piece despite her tender years, and Judith her mother is such a deftly drawn, conflicted, real person that I was tempted to look her up in the phone book; as for Sepha, he can come stay with me until things get better. That's the kind of connection Mengestu's characters call forth in me, and I hope in you too.

Bravo, Dinaw Mengestu. Thanks. Write...well, publish...more soon, please. Recommended for all readers of fiction. Children of the Revolution It came down to two things for me: The narrator and the location. The narrator's voice is haunting and sweet. Tinged with sadness and hope, that at times made it difficult to bear. But it propelled me on, hoping to see this kind and pitiful man receive some happiness, some lasting beauty in his life. The other characters are mere set pieces (and perhaps I should deduct a star for that?) to generate reaction from our narrator, to give us some peek into his psyche. But those peeks are so well rewarded that I don't mind the lack of depth afforded to the other players in this tale. And given that it's a first person narrative, that's not such a big flaw. We can only know the other characters as well as our narrator knows them himself and with as much information as he chooses to reveal. The absence of deep and personal relationships is at the heart of Sepha's story, and it serves to illuminate his loneliness and isolation. He's no martyred saint. He's had his share of tragedy and ill shakes in life, but undeniably he's contributed to his present condition through his own inactions and turbidity. But that only shows us his very real soul and his fragile humanity. Mengestu has done a beautiful job showing us this person.

As for the location. Well, conflicted feelings. This is describing gentrifying that began some 20 years ago, but has hit a frenzy peak now. The restaurants, theaters, chain organic grocery stores. And only 4 miles down the road from me! I like all those things. But I don't like that people got pushed out to bring it. Or is it that I don't like that I can't afford to live there, either? Is it only a problem because it's gentrified past me? Would I have shopped in Sepha's store? Would I have complained of prostitutes in the park? Gaah. Uncomfortable questions. While this particular incarnation is local to me, and therefore seems especially close, I imagine these issues can be extrapolated to any urban area and speak to many readers. Of course, I can't falsely distance myself to test that theory.

I look forward to the next efforts of Mr. Mengestu. Children of the Revolution The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears was the July selection for my book club, but I almost didn't read it because I knew I wouldn't be able to make the actual meeting. But, I decided to read it anyway and I'm glad I did.

My expectations going in may have shaped my feelings about the book. I knew that it was written by an Ethiopian immigrant and that it was about the Ethiopian immigrant experience in Washington, D.C. Before picking it up, I assumed it was a memoir. I thought it would be dense and that my main motivation for turning each page would be because it was something I SHOULD read. I could not have been more wrong. It's fiction, very readable, and I learned a lot without feeling SHOULD-ed into it. Having lived in D.C. for two years, it was interesting to read a story that takes place in a familiar setting.

This is not a book, however, where much actually happens. It's the story of an Ethiopian immigrant (did I cover that?) named Stephanos who owns a corner convenience store and deli counter in Logan's Circle, which is on the cusp of gentrification. The novel unfolds in a non-linear fashion; time goes back and forth between the present day, a few years prior, the time when he first arrived in the U.S., and his previous life in Ethiopia.

The title comes from Dante's Inferno, at the point where the poet leaves Hell. This is a fitting image, as Stephanos (and most of the other characters) seems to be in a continual state of limbo, which is Dante's first circle of Hell. When he first moved to the United States, he barely interacted with the outside world because his heart was still in Ethiopia. Now, he's barely floating through the days, struggling to keep his store in business, though struggling implies effort. There are a few moments where Stephanos almost grasps the beautiful things that heaven bears, taking control of his life, but these quickly slip by. The ending seems optimistic, but is ambiguous. Does Stephanos finally leave Hell, or does he once again get swept into the circle of limbo?

Circles are a prominent metaphor in the novel - most notably, Logan Circle itself, where General Logan proudly sits atop his horse. There's also the cyclical nature of gentrification . Stephanos boasts to two tourist that wander into his store that it used to be one of the most desirable neighborhoods in the District, full of senators, congressmen, relatives of presidents; you had to have connections, money, and power to live there. Since Stephanos has lived in Logan's Circle, it had always been run-down, but declined even further as the years passed by. Soon enough, a white woman moves into and restores the deteriorating Victorian mansion next door and developers begin evicting the long-time residents. Finally, there's the circadian rhythm of Stephanos's life, where most days resemble the day before - opening the store, watching the typical flow of customers, sitting with his two friends after closing each night.

The story is sad. Not so much in the horrifically tragic way, though the flashbacks to Ethiopia are heartbreaking. It's more that there is a quiet melancholy exuding from each of the characters. The novel is character-driven, not plot-driven, and each one's despondent state provides insight into the impacts of gentrification and about what it is like to be an immigrant. Children of the Revolution Seventeen years ago Sepha Stephanos fled Ethiopia during the revolution which called Sepha's father. Now Sepha owns and works in a convenience store in a poor African-American neighborhood in Washington, D.C. In seventeen years (seventeen!) Sepha has made friends with a couple other immigrants from his home country, but that is the extent of his relationships in the entire time. As the neighborhood falls apart around him, and his store continues to fail (it doesn't help that he's rather lackadaisical about working anyhow...), racial incidents begin to occur. In the midst of the turmoil Sepha meets a white woman, Judith, and her biracial daughter, Naomi, as they move in. There is a feeling of hope and peace with their arrival since, you know, it takes a white person to fix the bad neighborhoods. (Yeah, that is called sarcasm.)

I really wanted to like this book more. Maybe it would have made more sense told from a different perspective. The story itself was written well and from a first person perspective, which makes me argue if Sepha was such a good narrator, perhaps he should have been doing something else with his time other than working in a failing convenience store. Just an idea. His lack of concern for anything in his life, his laziness, drove me nuts and makes me question why he left Ethiopia in the first place - obsensibly it was to make a better life for himself, and sure, I suppose not having a gun to your head regularly makes a better life, but maybe I'm missing something here.

Again, Mengestu wrote beautifully but the story itself was hard to swallow. Not bad for a first novel. Sure beats my own first novel. (Yeah, that's right, I don't have one.) Children of the Revolution This is an excellent book. On its surface it's about the immigrant experience, but it delves deeper and achieves a universality which is much more profound. Anyone who has ever experienced the dislocation of not belonging to a time or place can relate to this story. Despite socio-economic differences, these characters share a struggle to be part of something greater than themselves. This individual striving to belong assumes socio-political implications as the plot enfolds. Social unrest in a gentrifying neighborhood in Washington, DC mirrors the horrors of revolutionary Africa. And for those who are straddling between those worlds, nothing can erase their sense of alienation. That their stories play out in the US capital, makes this an especially gripping tale of life in America in its waning days of dominance in the world.

Children of the Revolution