One of the country’s rising literary stars is coming to Jackson Hole.
Fiction author, professor and MacArthur fellow Dinaw Mengestu will speak at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Teton County Library’s Ordway Auditorium as part of the library’s “Writers in the Library” series. The event is free and open to the public.
Mengestu was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, but his family left the country amid war when he was two. They moved to Peoria, Ill., and then to Oak Park Ill., when he was nine. He earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Georgetown University and a master’s degree in fiction from Columbia University. He is Lannan Chair of Poetics at Georgetown University and is the University of Wyoming’s current Eminent Writer in Residence.
His first book, “The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears,” was published in 2007. His second, called “How to Read the Air,” was published in 2010. His latest effort, “All Our Names,” was released earlier this year.
He has received many awards, including a Los Angeles Times Book Prize in 2008, a “20 Under 40” award from The New Yorker in 2010, and in 2012, a MacArthur Foundation fellowship.
“We’re really excited to be hosting Dinaw Mengestu right now in his career,” said Julia Hysell, a spokeswoman for the library. He had two wildly successful novels, but the reception and the accolades he has gotten about his third novel have been really remarkable and have cemented his position as one of the preeminent writers writing in America.”
Hysell said the library booked Mengestu to speak before his third book came out, and before the success he earned from it.
“When he first agreed to speak, we didn’t even know what we had,” Hysell said. “It’s been fun to see all the recent exposure he’s enjoying.”
His latest book has garnered the positive attention of the press.
“With ‘All Our Names,’ he has grounded his search in a story so straightforward but at the same time so mysterious that you can’t turn the pages fast enough, and when you’re done, your first impulse is to go back to the beginning and start over,” wrote New York Times book reviewer Malcolm Jones.
What he presents here is tantalizingly laconic —long on mood, short on details—an attempt to represent the conflicted emotions of someone who has survived the loss of his family, his friends, his country, his identity,’ wrote Washington Post book reviewer Ron Charles. “The emotional power of ‘All Our Names’ seeps through lines that seem placid on the surface.”
Megustu writes about the immigrant experience in all his novels, but the books are about more than immigration. The immigration narrative is the canvas upon which he paints, he said.
“I think American literature is full of immigrant narratives. We know that story quite well’, Mengestu said in a speech to the MacArthur foundation upon receiving his fellowship. “Part of what I’m definitely interested in doing is adding to the complexity and levels of the immigrant narrative in America.” -
His own immigration story is a big part of his writing, he said, relating his high school experience in Oak Park.
“I was neither white nor ‘African-American’ in that sense, which was more problematic,” Mengestu told the Chicago Tribune. “You were reacting to kids who were sometimes openly racist, but on the other side, you were different from the black kids as well because of your name and your cultural history. That’s when I started thinking of myself as being more than ‘black’ or ‘American,’ but as being a product of Ethiopia.”
The library has been bringing authors to speak at the library for years, but only recently has the staff started using the title “Writers in the Library” for the events. Hysell said the library is getting more serious about author visits.
“Its’ going to be a consistent and regular way to bring a diverse group of authors to the Hole,” Hysell said. “We know our community of readers have really varied taste so were looking at doing these every few months — bringing someone to the library as a way to hit on a lot of these different kinds of tastes.”
Copies of Mengestu’s books will be on sale at the event and at Valley Bookstore. He will be signing books after the event.