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Layers of Complexity: MacArthur Fellow Dinaw Mengestu Talks About Being Black in America

Dinaw Mengestu, who was born in Ethiopia and writes about the struggles of Africans trying to assimilate in America, was interviewed by in light of Black History Month in the US. In the interview he talked about how Africans in the United States might have benefited from the civil rights legacy, but at the same time also have the “profoundly defining psychological experience of growing up Black in America”.

Mengestu, a journalist whose work has appeared in a number of leading publications, was awarded the 2012 MacArthur Fellowship (also known as the “genius grant”), and is a professor at Georgetown University. He wrote The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, Children of the Revolution and How to Read the Air. His new novel All Our Names, will be published later this year.

The Beautiful Things That Heaven BearsChildren of the RevolutionHow to Read the Air The MacArthur foundation says they award individuals who have shown “extraordinary originality,” but what does the award mean to you?

Dinaw Mengestu: Many things … Some of it very pragmatic in that it allows me to make sure that I can continue writing the stories that I want to write without having to worry whether they have enough commercial market value. But I think that the psychological effects are just as equally important in that I spend a lot of time writing about people in communities that often are on the margins of social discourse, or that are viewed through very kind of narrow clichés and templates. And so this kind of affirms your work in trying to agitate for their complex resistance.

In this opinion piece for the New York Times, Mengestu writes about his relationship with Washington, DC, where he went to university, and trying to persuade his French in-laws to see city as he did:

My wife and I began to unconsciously prepare ourselves for living in Washington, D.C., long before we actually moved to the city. Over the course of three years and half a dozen trips from our apartment in Paris to my parents’ home deep in the Virginia suburbs, we imagined hypothetical versions of our life there. We wandered through Georgetown and pictured ourselves living in a colonial-style mansion on a cobblestone road. We went out to eat in Columbia Heights and imagined life on a not-too-quiet street near our favorite strip of restaurants and bars.

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