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Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears
Told in a
haunting and powerful first-person narration,
The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears
by Dinaw Mengestu is a deeply
affecting and unforgettable debut novel about
what it means to lose a family and a country,
and what it takes to create a new home.
years ago, Sepha Stephanos fled the Ethiopian
Revolution for a new start in the United
States. Now he finds himself running a
failing grocery store in a poor
African-American section of Washington, D.C.
His only companions are two fellow
African immigrants who share his bitter
nostalgia for their home continent.
As his environment begins to change,
hope comes in the form of a friendship with
new neighbors Judith and Naomi, a white woman
and her bi-racial daughter.
has already won numerous accolades, including
the National Book Foundation's 5 Under 35
Award, the 2008 Lannan Literary Fellowship,
and France's Prix du Premier Roman Etranger.
His first book The Beautiful Things that
Heaven Bears has been shortlisted for the
Guardian First Book Prize in the U.K., named The
New York Times Book Review’s 100
Notable Books of 2007, named Seattle Reads
pick of 2008 by the Seattle Public Library,
and named one of Amazon.com's Top Ten novels
of the year and one of their Top Fifteen
overall books for 2007.
Dinaw Mengestu was born in Addis
Ababa, Ethiopia, in 1978. As a young child,
he immigrated to the United States with his
mother and sister to join his father, who had
fled Ethiopia during the Red Terror. He is a
graduate of Georgetown University and
Columbia University's MFA program in fiction,
a former Rolling Stone reporter, and
the recipient of a 2006 fellowship in fiction
from the New York Foundation for the Arts.
opens the novel with Sepha and his
friends, Joseph and Kenneth, and the game
that they play matching African coups
with dictators and dates. The three come
from different parts of Africa, and have
left different places and people to be in
the U.S. Why do they play this game, and
how does it affect their relationships
with each other?
play a huge role in Sepha's life as well
as in the action of the Mengestu's story.
Did you feel that a particular literary
reference gave you a glimpse into Sepha's
character that was unexpected or
class struggle, and ideas of democracy
reverberate as prevailing themes in the
novel. How does Mengestu weave these
themes into the Sepha's interactions with
Judith and Naomi?
we learn in the novel, its title comes
from a passage in Dante's Inferno
that Joseph believes to be "the most
perfect lines of poetry ever
written." Why do you think Mengestu
chose the title, The Beautiful Things
that Heaven Bears? What parallels do
you see between Sepha's story and
Dante's? (An e-book copy of Dante’s Inferno
may be found at http://hafl.sirsi.net/uhtbin/cgisirsi/07LrAOGjId/0/90840011/9)
he goes shopping for Christmas presents,
Sepha strolls optimistically throughout
the city, finally feeling he has
"the beginnings of a life" in
America. This optimism is shattered when
he finds that Judith and Naomi have left
the city for the holidays. Why do you
think Sepha's optimism depends on having
Judith and Naomi close?
does death affect the Birdswell family?
surprised you about the brick thrown
through Judith's windshield and at
Sepha's store, as well as the fire that
destroyed her house?
appear frequently in the novel: Sepha's
uncle Berhane's letters to various
politicians, Sepha's letter to Judith,
Naomi's letter to him. How does Mengestu
use letters to further our understanding
of those characters in the novel?
is the significance of Mengestu's choice
to set the story in the nation's capital,
Washington, D.C.? Do you feel that the
city is a character itself?
Sepha has been in the U.S. for seventeen
years, he still seems stuck between
America and Ethiopia.
In an interview, Mengestu
theorizes that Sepha will never return to
Ethiopia despite his yearnings because
"nostalgia and memory are all he
has." Do you agree? Why do you think
he has stayed and never gone back?
Adapted from http://pplprograms.blogspot.com/2008/02/author-dinaw-mengestu-this-sunday.html