Dinaw Mengestu, himself an Ethiopian by birth but who came to the United States as a refugee as a small child, won the Guardian First Book Award with this, his debut novel. It tells the story of Sepha Stephanos, an Ethiopian refugee who runs a corner shop in a run-down area of Washington DC, at the point at which the neighbourhood is beginning a process of gentrification.
As the blurb on the back cover says, he is a man ‘caught between two existences’, his Ethiopian existence and his American one. However, such a statement does not do justice to this short novel’s complexities. It is less about two existences than multiple identities. There is is identity as a refuge (the accounts of his experiences in Ethiopia), his identity as part of an Ethiopian family (his relationships with his uncle, also in the States, and his mother and brother, still in Ethiopia), his identity as an African (his relationship with two other non-Ethiopian African reugees – the ‘children of the revolution’), and his identity as an American (his relationship with Judith and her daughter Naomi, part of the new professional class that has begun to move into the neighbourhood). Each of these identities has its own purpose and it is the fact that they are all at cross-purposes with each other that renders Sepha in a state of confusion and inertia. It is the relationship with Judith and Naomi that holds for him the most promise and which he desires most, but it is this relationship that is never consumated, as his other identities prevent him from completely commiting himself.
It is a novel of diasporic experience, but not the usual one of outright triumph or failure. Sepha will survive and continue to survive, but the complexity of and contradictions within his multiple identities are never resolved.
At times I found this novel quite hard-going – the prose style is not always as engaging as it might be, but there is a lot packed into this book and its strengths and sophistication come to you after the reading, upon reflection, rather than at the moment of reading.