Few writers have seen as much of the world or been as acclaimed as Dinaw Mengestu, who presented passages from his works and spoke about his experiences with writing, as well as racism, poverty and violence in countries ranging from Darfur to Uganda and the United States.
“When I was first asked to come up with a title, I reverted to a default one, ‘political fictions,’ and I say that because we use those terms together so frequently that we don’t interrogate what we mean,” Mengestu said. “It seems like an even more important time than normal to engage with the politics of our society and determine what that engagement means.”
Mengestu argued that politics and fiction go hand in hand, but they’re not always viewed that way. Rather, Mengestu suggested that having politics in fiction can create a negative reaction toward the work.
“If you sniff around the corners, around [political writers], you’ll find doubts about the quality of their work,” Mengestu said. “When my students say they don’t want politics in their fiction, it is as much to do with the imaginary demands these worlds place on them as it is the belief that the writer is more invested in the politics than in the work.”
The first novel that he ever tried to write, Mengestu told the audience, was ornate and full of beautiful sentences, but it lacked meaningful or creative details.
“I often tell people about the first novel I tried to write. … I described how the first novel I tried to write was based on these big ideas and sentences that we so dense no one could understand. When I wrote it, I set it in the most American landscape possible, … (gave it) a meaningless title … and a pair of pretentious protagonists,” Mengestu said. “They had eyes, they had hair, but I never would have told you what color they were. My friends and I called it the flood novel, because the flood was the only thing that happened in it.”
From there, Mengestu described how he sent the novel to publishers and agents, only to be rejected by every single one. From that low point, he eventually found the inspiration to continue his writing career while living in Washington, D.C. The turning point, he said, was an encounter with an Ethiopian grocer.
“So the novel failed, and I was back in D.C., and I turn my head and see an Ethiopian man standing behind the counter of a small, run-down grocery store,” Mengestu said. “I went home that evening and began writing something for the first time in almost a year, and I could tell almost immediately that it was different. … It came when I had the narrator’s name. … It was the name my grandfather wanted to give me when I was in Ethiopia.”
This change in inspiration, Mengestu said, was the reason that his new works were successful where his first novel failed. Fictions should not exist in a place where race and sex do not exist, he argued, or in a place where racism or poverty are issues that only “other” or “some” people have to deal with.
Mengestu followed this by reading from his articles about conflicts in Africa, then reading from the fictionalized version of events that he wrote some time after returning.
Students and prospective writers in the audience asked Mengestu’s thoughts on modern stories and how they can become successful writers. The most important thing, Mengestu argued, was to tell stories that are inspired by real experiences.
“He taught us that many writers write what they know, but they don’t always realize that the most effective writing in fiction comes from events that happened in their own lives,” Ali Oshinskie, a sixth-semester English major said.
Edward Pankowski is Life editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.