Dinaw Mengestu, An honest exit

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…