The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu

In The Art of Travel Spring 2017, 6. Book #1, Washington DC by DanielaLeave a Comment

To begin my post, I would like to briefly mention why I chose this book as the focus of my writing this week. Since arriving in D.C. in late January, I have continuously heard about the large Ethiopian population that inhabits the area, but often fail to see it for myself, noting more business men and women in suits who commute into my neighborhood than pockets of immigrants who live in the area full time. I realize that living in the downtown area where more people work than live gives me a skewed version of what D.C. is like for its native population and I felt that reading about their immigrant population would give me a richer picture of the D.C. I do not get to experience.

Reading The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, gave me not only an insider’s perspective as a resident of D.C., but an insider’s perspective as an immigrant coming to America in search of opportunity. The story’s main character, Sepha Stephanos, is an Ethiopian man that has been living in D.C. now for the better part of twenty years and still finds it hard to reconcile his past with his present. He lives and works in the Logan Circle neighborhood, which is small and mostly contained in the circle itself. Throughout the book he describes the circle in increasing detail and as someone who has been there, I cannot imagine the scene he sets.

Told completely from Stephanos’ perspective, he travels through time, from past to present, in telling his story and in doing so, compares the past state of the neighborhood to its present state which is suffering through heavy gentrification as close as his next door neighbor. Judith buys the house next to Stephanos’ for her and her daughter Naomi and renovates it from the bottom up, both increasing its own value and the value of the neighborhood and further gentrifying it. The more affluent neighbors pop up with their own renovation projects, the worse this issue becomes until eventually, Stephanos is evicted from his corner grocery store. The theme of gentrification escalades as the neighborhood becomes more dangerous for those “outsiders” like Judith and Naomi and they decide to leave. The neighborhood takes it upon itself to eject these transplants as if it could feel itself morphing into something uncomfortable and foreign in a sense. What interests me about this is that my experience here has mostly put me in contact with people who have moved from elsewhere and landed in D.C. for work or for school. It is difficult for me to experience a similar D.C. to what Stephanos experiences because I myself am a transplanted aspect of the city.

Another large portion of the book deals with Stephanos’ goals as an immigrant and what the expectations are for someone who comes here from somewhere else. As he sifts through the time he has spent in American since he arrived at age nineteen, he recognizes that the expectations force-fed to him, to become a doctor or a lawyer or any other type of working professional, has been completely lost on him. All he wanted to do with his life was to be able to have a job where he could read for most of the day with minimal disturbances and still make a living. When immigrants come to the United States, they are often looking for something more that they cannot get from their home countries but can find in the Land of Opportunity. It was interesting to note that Stephanos had no interest in the professional lifestyle that his Uncle had pictured for him, but that he had a different plan. This makes me wonder more deeply how immigrants chose their new cities and neighborhoods when they have all of the U.S. to choose from. Had Stephanos moved where it was harder to make a living, would he have chosen a completely different path? What does a new travel ban say about the future for immigrants in the U.S.?

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