Wednesday, January 12, 2011

How to Read the Air by Dinaw Mengestu

How to Read the Air

A friend says this is less an immigrant narrative than a meditation on marriage, on a dysfunctional family, on ordinary life. It is true that much of it appears to be lies. Or story. Perhaps that is all the immigrant experience, or ordinary life, is...all story. We can make our own story if we don't like the hand we're dealt. That is the beauty of fiction. In the last third of this novel I was struck with some echo of the parents' lives being replayed in the son's. Of course by then we were made aware that his parents' lives were what he chose to tell us--to create for us--and his own life was equally suspect, the author being a self-professed liar. He created for the students in his English class the immigrant narrative of his father, wildly speculating and inventing on the horrors of the journey in the belly of an overburdened ship. His students began to see him--really see him--and it gave their own lives depth and grandeur. We don't fault the author of these inventions because if not true in his own instance, these things were undoubtedly true for some people, somewhere, sometime. And anything that can break through the insularity of a freshman English class is education.

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