Novel explores feeling of social disconnect

Christopher Nguyen

The immigrant experience has become familiar ground for novels in the last decade with Junot Diaz’s “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” and Jhumpa Lahiri’s short stories becoming best sellers and widening the scope of American fiction so much so that it has become almost commonplace to read. Even though Dinaw Mengestu’s latest novel “How to Read the Air” tells another story about cultural divide and immigration, it excites readers with its clarity and confidence in delineating the separation of being American yet still so foreign to your country.

Mengestu’s second novel follows Jonas Woldermariam, an Ethiopian-American, on a journey retracing the steps of his immigrant parents’ move from Illinois to Nashville. The trip is not to be taken as a celebration of life but as a catharsis. Recently divorced from his wife, Jonas wants answers to his stilted emotional disconnect with people and to the fraught relationship between his own mother and father. He moves from point to point, retracing the steps of his parents as they attempted to reinvent themselves as Americans three decades earlier while he reinvents his identity.

The distinctive factor in “How to Read the Air” is the way in which Mengestu can make the complex easily connective to readers. He gracefully untangles the strings of being an Ethiopian-American in New York City to form a tale of the search for a human bond. Also, he depicts the connection between Jonas’ own marriage and that of his parents with an ease that does not feel contrived but completely nuanced. Through this scope, Mengestu fully realizes the power of the past in propelling the future. In his desperate escape to confront his father’s abuse as a child, Jonas disappears into the air, only to
realize the consequences of this emotional void as an adult.

Mengestu writes in a crisp, clear prose. Over and over, he shares passing moments of Jonas’ marriage and childhood in heartbreaking detail. Though, if there were one hesitation, it would be that he begins to wander off into his writing, hammering down a thought or message too forcefully.

“How to Read the Air” signals the emergence of a fully mature writer who is able to write about the American experience and the immigrant experience as one and the sam, because he understands that the cultural, language and social barriers do not bar us from the universal hope for connection.

Grade: A