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From Dinaw Mengestu, A 'How To' With Few Answers

In his 1988 memoir called, simply, A Life, the controversial director Elia Kazan told a World War II story I've always wanted to believe is true. Kazan wrote that he was present in 1945 on the Pacific island of Biak when his newly released film A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was shown to a battle-scarred audience of American soldiers and nurses. The movie was projected on an outdoor screen in the rain at night, and the audience was rapt despite planes circling overhead and the other noises of war. In the middle of the movie, the film reel broke and Kazan recalled that "a great groan" of disappointment erupted from the audience before the film was fixed and the show continued.

The next morning, rumor went around the base that some Japanese soldiers still at large on the island had climbed to the top of a nearby hill and also had watched the movie. I guess they groaned, too, when the film broke. After all, everybody loves a good tear-jerker about immigrants and promises just out of reach.

Of course they don't make 'em like that anymore. The stories and memoirs written by newer waves of immigrants to America -- writers like Julia Alvarez, Junot Diaz and Gish Jen -- commute back and forth between the old world and the new. And the immigrant "community," unlike the one that populated Kazan's lively Brooklyn streets, is much less sentimentalized and more fragmented and mobile.

Add to this canon of ambivalent new chroniclers of the dream of America Dinaw Mengestu, who was born in Ethiopia, immigrated to the United States as a child, and was educated at Georgetown University (where, somehow, he managed to avoid taking any of my courses). I don't know him, but I do know some of his work. Mengestu has just published his second novel, How to Read the Air; it's a sad stunner of a meditation on the illusory idea of asylum.

Mengestu's main character, Jonas Woldemariam, is not even at home in his own skin, let alone in his adopted home of New York City. A first-generation American, Jonas grew up in the Midwest, the only child of Ethiopian refugees who barely spoke to each other during the decades of their troubled marriage. "What we were was something closer to a jazz trio than a family," Jonas says, "a performance group that got together every now and then to play a few familiar notes before dispersing back to their real, private lives."

Jonas has earned a hard-knocks advanced degree in alienation: He works, first, at an immigrant aid society; later he gets a job teaching composition at a snooty prep school in Manhattan. The hasty marriage that Jonas has embarked on with a lawyer at the aid society is falling apart. As it does, Jonas keeps thinking back on his family legacy of rootlessness: his parents' transplanted lives in Peoria, Ill., and, before that, his father's rough exodus from Ethiopia to Europe, sealed in a box smuggled aboard a cargo ship. The narrative jumps around restlessly among all these time periods, but the description Jonas relates secondhand of his father's odyssey is especially evocative:

At the three-hankie end of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Francie Nolan and her kid brother look out from their tenement rooftop to the skyline of Manhattan: They're certain that a bright American future is theirs, just over the bridge. In Mengestu's beautifully written and wearier update of the coming-to-America story, refugees and their offspring cross a lot of bridges, but none of them ever find the clean well-lighted place of their dreams. It seems that the wanderers in this novel are destined to be a country unto themselves.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan
Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.