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Dinaw Mengestu, An honest exit

August 28, 2010

There are, I suppose, two exits in Dinaw Mengestu’s short story “An honest exit”, which you can read at The New Yorker. One is the exit the father in the story made, when a young man, from his home in Ethiopia and the other is his final exit from life. (No spoiler here: we are told he dies in the first line of the story.) Mengestu is an Ethiopian-born American writer. According to Wikipedia, this short story is an excerpt from his coming novel, How to read the air, and clearly belongs to that growing body of work, Immigrant Literature.

As it turns out it was rather an apposite read for me, given all the “Stop the boats” calls we Aussies have just heard during our recent election. I wish more people would read stories like this. They might then realise that boat people (let’s forget the people smugglers for a moment) are not opportunists gaily leaving their homes to sail to a “better” place. They are leaving their home, their culture, their life – and they do not usually do it lightly or with ease.

Anyhow, this particular story starts with the father’s death and the son, a college teacher in Early American literature, deciding to tell his father’s story to his students.  However, as is only too common, he doesn’t know the full story:

I needed a history more complete than the strangled bits that he had owned and passed on to me – a short, brutal tale of having been trapped as a stowaway on a ship. So I continued with my father’s story, knowing I would have to make up the missing details as I went.

And so, over the course of a few lessons, he tells a story to his students, about how his father managed to get to Sudan, and from there, through the help of a man called Abrahim (“like the prophet”), onto a ship bound for Europe. As we hear the story – which is believable even if not necessarily factual – we also learn a little about the son. He says, for example, that he calls his place of work “the Academy”, a name he has stolen from a Kafka story about a monkey who’s been trained to give a speech to an academy:

I used to wonder if that was how my students and the other teachers, even with all their  liberal, cultured learning, saw me – as a monkey trying to teach their language back to them.

We see how disconnected he feels from both his father and his life. However, as he tells his story he seems to start to (re)connect a little:

They [his students] had always been just bodies to me … For a few seconds though I saw them clearly …They were still in the making, each and every one of them. Somehow I had missed that … As I walked home that night I was aware of a growing vortex of e-mails and text messages being passed among my students. Millions of bits of data were being transmitted … and I was their sole subject of concern. I don’t know why I found so much comfort in that thought, but it nearly lifted me off the ground, and suddenly, everywhere, I felt embraced.

A little further on, we learn that his father’s story is being spread around the “Academy”, albeit distorted as these things go. He hears various versions involving the Congo, Rwanda and Darfur! He is at one point called into the dean’s office:

“… How much of what they’re [students] saying is true?”

“Almost none of it,” I told him …

“Well, regardless of that,” he said, “it’s good to see them talking about important things. So much of what I hear from them is shallow, silly rumours. They can sort out what’s true for themselves later.”

The narrator is a little disconcerted by this, by the idea that “whether what they heard from me had any relationship to reality hardly mattered; real or not, it was all imaginary to them”. And yet, he himself is making a lot of it up as he goes! He continues his story with the students, ending at the point his father leaves Sudan as a stowaway. He says:

My students, for all their considerable wealth and privilege, were still at an age where they believed that the world was a fascinating, remarkable place, worthy of curious inquiry and close scrutiny, and I’d like to think I reminded them of that. Soon enough they would grow out of that and concern themselves with the things that were most immediately relevant to their own lives.

What he doesn’t do is tell the real truth of his father’s escape. Rather, when he gets to this point in his father’s story, he says “I knew that it was the last thing I was going to say to my class”. We don’t actually know what he does next because the rest of the story concerns his father, but it seems that there is a third exit in the story, his from teaching. It probably is “an honest exit”. All in all, this is an intriguingly layered story about migration, dreams and trust, stories and truth, teachers and students, and privilege.

To end, I might just return to Kafka’s “Report to the Academy” in which the ape says, “There is an excellent German expression: to beat one’s way through the bushes. That I have done. I have beaten my way through the bushes. I had no other way, always assuming that freedom was not a choice”. It rather suggests to me that there’s more than one reason our narrator alludes to Kafka’s monkey…

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. Susan permalink
    August 28, 2010 11:06 pm

    This story seems to be from his next book, Hot to Read the Air. Amazon describes the main character there as “a fluent and inveterate liar–a skill that comes in handy at his job at an immigration agency, where he embellishes African immigrants’ stories so that they might be granted asylum”.

    • August 29, 2010 12:02 am

      Ah, thanks Susan. Presumably that’s the son and this is the job he moves to after teaching? I wonder if that makes him a reliable or unreliable narrator. For this excerpt I guess I’d say reliable because he tells us that he’s making things up? It sounds like this may not be a typical “refugee” or “migrant’ novel.

  2. August 29, 2010 12:07 am

    An interesting take on immigration.

    Over here, we are also having issues on legal and illegal immigration.

    We have having lively debates.

    • August 29, 2010 12:15 am

      Where is here, Isabel? The US? I lived in SoCal for three years, and immigration was certainly an issue there. TC Boyle’s The tortilla curtain is a great evocation of that situation.

      • August 29, 2010 6:02 am

        I am Hispanic, but I am not in favor of so many Latinos coming to the US without papers. I walk around with my voter registration card, in case ICE (the immigration agency) questions me. When I visit TX, I always wonder whether I should take my US passport or not.

        ICE needs to examine the immigration quotas. When Senator Edward Kennedy was alive, he somehow managed to increase the slots for Irish citizen and lessen it for others, even though Ireland is a small country.

        I also don’t like how one of the largest Latino stations, UNIVISION, encourages illegal immigration. Jorge Ramos, a top anchor there, doesn’t understand the implications of unauthorized migrations and thinks everyone is against all Latinos. Talk shows on that network have lawyers who give advice to viewers on how to avoid ICE, instead of telling people to wait in line, like everyone else.

        I disapprove of the Mexican government telling the US to treat the aliens better, in light of how they treat other Latinos. If someone from Central or South American is caught in Mexico without a visa, the person is jailed, beaten, robbed of their money, and if you are a woman, raped. Then, the person is kicked out of Mexico.

        Women from the Middle East are flying into Detroit Michigan to give birth. All hospitals must treat anyone who walks into the emergency room of a hospital. 18 years from now, these US citizens, who spent just a couple of weeks in the US, can come back here and bomb something.

        The US does need immigrants, to keep the country going and to allow new ideas to flow, but it should be in an orderly manner.

  3. August 29, 2010 10:17 am

    Immigration is such a tricky issue Isabel. The issue of most concern to me is refugees/asylum seekers and how we treat them. Some people aren’t simply looking for a better life/more opportunities (which is understandable enough but which is not a life-threatening reason) while others are in danger. The father in this short story left Ethiopia because he’d already been jailed once for taking part in a political rally. I can understand people in this situation being desperate and willing to attempt “illegal” migration if the opportunity arises.

    LOL re Texas. When I lived in the US and we holidayed through Texas we wondered about taking our passports with us because we’d heard so much about border patrol there.

    • August 29, 2010 1:35 pm

      Sorry, I forgot to mention asylum seekers. I have no problems with that.
      And, the government can be inconsistent with that. I read awhile back about some women (forgot the country) that were going to be sent back home to certain death. Somehow, word got out in time, and they were able to stay!

      • August 29, 2010 1:45 pm

        Ah, thanks for the clarification Isabel, I rather thought you weren’t talking about them. It’s such a fraught problem but I wish people – here, anyhow – would be a bit kinder about their plight.

  4. Liz permalink
    November 18, 2010 10:01 am

    In case some of you are interested, KQED’s “The Writers’ Block” just published an episode of Dinaw Mengestu reading from his new novel:

    http://www.kqed.org/arts/programs/writersblock/episode.jsp?essid=38061

    • November 18, 2010 4:23 pm

      Thanks for letting us now that, Liz. I’ll check it out…I’d rather like to read the novel.

      • liz permalink
        November 20, 2010 10:58 am

        no problem –you can also embed the reading – you’ll find the code to the right of the
        audio player.

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