MacArthur “Genius Grant” winner Dinaw Mengestu grew up in Forest Park, the son of Ethiopian immigrants.
His mother, Hirut, worked for Rush Hospital and father, Tesfaye, owned a messenger service in Chicago.
“Forest Park was a wonderful place to grow up,” Mengestu, 34, said from his office at Georgetown University in Washington DC, where he’s working as a visiting professor in the English department. “I have great memories of growing up on Marengo. You walked out the door and 800 kids came running up to play with you.”
Mengestu said his American upbringing consisted of “eating hot dogs and watching the Cubs.”
But always present were the displaced memories and questions about the life-journeys of his political refugee parents. Both came to Illinois during the Ethiopian Civil War in the late 1970s. Almost 7 million Ethiopians died of violence and war-related famines in the early 1980s.
“It’s said that you teach your kids your nostalgia,” Mengestu said. His writing career has mostly involved exploring how his refugee parents buried their nostalgia for the past. “You have a sense of what’s been lost,” he said. “They can’t show you what they’ve lost. Their past was looming over them all the time.”
The MacArthur Foundation has recognized Mengestu for his look into the stories of American immigrants of the African diaspora. He’s written two novels, The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears (2007) and How to Read the Air (2010) and is working on a third.
Mengestu will receive $500,000 – paid out quarterly over the next five years – from the foundation. He’s among 23 MacArthur fellows who received the “no strings attached” grant to pursue their creative endeavors. Mengestu said he was near tears when he heard about the award while attending a literature festival in Kenya.
“I was overwhelmed. I had no friends or family to tell in Nairobi,” he said.
Mengestu was allowed to tell one person, his wife, and quickly let her know. Per the foundation’s rules, they had to keep the secret for two weeks.
Mengestu said he will use some of the award for the other part of his writing career. Like one of his literary heroes, V.S. Naipaul, Mengestu writes first-person journalism from the remote regions of the earth – in Mengestu’s case, from the conflict areas of the African continent. Mengestu has written about the mineral rights conflicts in East Congo. He’s also tackled the war in the Sudan, as well as reported from Uganda and Rwanda. He’s been published in Rolling Stone, Jane women’s magazine and Granta, a literary magazine in the United Kingdom.
Mengestu said he considers himself on a mission to present the complexities of African conflicts. And fewer magazines, he insists, are willing to pay for the coverage.
“I want to address what I think are journalistic failures,” Mengestu said.
He gave the example of the Kony 2012 internet phenomenon, embraced by celebrities Kim Kardashian and George Clooney. The film was a simplistic video of the Ugandan atrocities of guerilla general Joseph Kony and his treatment of child soldiers in the Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army. The film, however, was later criticized as exaggerated and inaccurate.
Mengestu would love to go to Somalia but thinks his wife might not be crazy about the idea. The MacArthur grant will free up time, Mengestu said, to report from Africa, and also to help his contacts in Africa develop a network of publishing houses for indigenous writers, many of whom write in English.
“English is quite a vibrant and dynamic language and it’s made alive by these populations in a different way,” he said.
Now a father of two young children, he recalls fond memories of growing up in Forest Park. “We had a very international life. My best friend was Columbian growing up. Other friends were from Vietnam and Germany. Almost all of my friends’ parents had accents.”
His memories of being a teenager at Fenwick High School in Oak Park were not so rosy. “It was difficult. It was a fairly racially-segregated place to be,” said Mengestu, who graduated from Fenwick in 1996. But he did have one memorable teacher.
Fenwick administrator, former St. Bernadine Principal and Forest Park Kiwanis Club member Gerald Lordan was fictionalized in his first book.
Lordan recalled instantly recognizing himself from his days teaching a “politics of revolution” political science class at Fenwick.
“I bought a copy of the book and I was reading it and there it was,” said Lordan.
“He posed me as a political science professor at a community college in northern Virginia. Then he rejects the theories I taught him on the politics of revolution and change,” Lordan joked.
“The professor says there are only three complete revolutions in history: the Chinese, the Soviet and the French,” Lordan added. “But the Ethiopian protagonist lived through the overthrow of Haile Selassie, thinks to himself, ‘this man has no idea what he’s talking about.'”
Lordan remembered Mengestu as an introspective student who threw himself into his teenage job at West Suburban Special Recreation Assn.
“A teacher’s greatest joy is to be surpassed by his students,” Lordan said. “I show my students that book and say I hope all of you will write a book that I’ll pick up and read.”