Yosef Woldemariam came to America from Ethiopia by way of Sudan, first walking through war-ravaged villages to a port town, then stowing away on a ship in a packing crate so tiny that he was forced to sit with his arms folded around his legs because he could neither stand nor lie down. He endured six months in a detention camp off the coast of Italy before finally joining his wife, Mariam, in Peoria, Ill., where his son, Jonas, was born. Yosef’s is a classic immigration story, tragic and heroic, a testament to what the human body can endure and the human spirit withstand in the quest for a better life. When Jonas later relays his father’s story to the students he teaches at a private Manhattan high school, they are moved and inspired. The only problem: little, if any, of the story Jonas tells is true.
The narratives we tell and believe about people who come to this country are the subject of How to Read the Air, the new novel by the Ethiopian writer Dinaw Mengestu. The author was one of The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40,” a list that also includes writers from Nigeria, China, the former Yugoslavia, Russia, and Latvia, as well as several American-born children of immigrants. At a time when some of our most powerful, and popular, stories are narrated by foreigners (and some of our most contentious public debates concern foreigners’ rights to be in this country), Mengestu’s novel keenly explores our complicated relationship with the idea of the immigrant experience.
Much of Jonas’s narration is made of exaggerations, fabrications, and half-truths: he lies about his father, he lies about himself to his wife, and he lies in the reports he writes for a refugee-aid organization. Jonas tells himself the ends—getting his students to think about the rest of the world, bonding with his wife, winning his clients amnesty—justify fudging the facts. “History sometimes deserves a little revision,” he says, “if not for the sake of the dead, then at least for ourselves.”
The canon of literature describing immigrants’ experiences has helped shape what we think their stories should sound like: they should testify to horrific acts of violence and be salted with nature-based aphorisms and sly observations about the crazy ways of the privileged white man. (In the recent bestseller Little Bee, the wise, preternaturally calm Nigerian teen narrator marvels that a coffee table is not made of coffee, and people in England buy wood at the store.) Jonas refuses to conform to expectations, giving a terse “Illinois” when a potential boss asks where he’s from. He prefers to let others project their own fantasies of his exotic heritage on him as he walks around in a cloud of alienated rage, quietly sabotaging his job and his marriage.
The fact that Jonas is so hungry for facts about his heritage—he retraces his parents’ misbegotten honeymoon in the hopes that understanding their marriage will lend him a better sense of himself—gives the lie to his justifications for tampering with the truth. “I had given my students something to think about, and whether or not what they heard from me or from their classmates had any relationship to reality hardly mattered,” he thinks. But of course it matters. More than any horrors Yosef may or may not have endured on the way to America, the truth of his experience matters, and the fact that Jonas can never know that truth is the most tragic element of this one, specific, immigrant story.