Writer’s long road to ‘genius’ is a story of overcoming racism
By Mike Thomas | Staff Reporter
During his first day as a freshman at Fenwick High School in Oak Park, Dinaw Mengestu broke from the class tour and vomited in a nearby bathroom.
While his orientation nausea abated, there remained a gut-level discomfort that persisted for the next couple of years. Its primary cause: race.
“To some people I wasn’t considered African-American enough or black enough,” the 34-year-old Ethiopian-born author and recent MacArthur Fellowship recipient says of his days at Fenwick, from which he graduated in 1996.
“And then, of course, there were some white students who just saw me as a n-----.”
Not only that, they called him ‘n-----’ to his face.
“Most of my freshman year I had students sitting next to me calling me ‘n-----’ in class,” he remembers. “I had students walking down the hallway who yelled, ‘That n----- smells!’”
Teachers, he says, tended to turn a deaf ear.
Quiwana Bell, a classmate at the Dominican-run Catholic institution whose alums include Pulitzer Prize winners and an astronaut, knew Mengestu only casually, but she felt his pain acutely.
“It was isolating, it was lonely,” says Bell, who is black and was raised in an all-black Chicago neighborhood. “It must have been especially difficult for him, because he was black but he wasn’t black American.”
Not surprisingly, Mengestu’s fiction (“The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears,” “How to Read the Air”) owes a debt to those less-than-thrilling days of yesteryear. Race and economics are central concerns in all of his books, he notes, and born out of his time at Fenwick. So, too, is isolation and an acute awareness of “how easy, almost inevitable it is to absorb the bigotry of others; it leaves an indelible mark.”
Although Mengestu (whose first name is pronounced “dih-NOW”) had emigrated to America — Peoria, specifically, where his father worked for Caterpillar — when he was barely a toddler, his 14-year-old self suddenly began trying “to identify very strongly with Ethiopian culture” by wearing Ethiopian symbols on his clothing and immersing himself in Ethiopian history and politics.
“The one form of defense I had against the overt racism in the school,” he says, “was to try to identify myself outside of it.”
As he quickly came to realize, outside was a far more comfortable place to be. Outside and alone: with his thoughts, with the world and eventually with words.