Dinaw Mengestu “An Honest Exit”
The New Yorker Fiction: 20 Under 40
July 12/19, 2010 issue

The story begins with an imagined conversation: “Thirty-five years after my father left Ethiopia, he died in a room in a boarding house in Peoria, Illinois, that came with a partial view of the river. We had never spoken much during his lifetime, but, on a warm October morning in New York shortly after he died, I found myself having a conversation with him…”

The story continues with an imagined biography. The narrator explains to his high-school students that he was absent because his father died and feels that simply announcing this leaves too much unsaid: he tells a story.

And that’s exactly what it is: a story. “I needed a history more complete than the strangled bits that he had owned and passed on to me — a short, brutal tale of having been trapped as a stowaway on a ship. So I continued with my father’s story, knowing that I could make up the missing details as I went.”

(Of course we know we’re reading a story, but the father’s history expands, from his days serving hundreds of cups of tea to dockworkers to his long days’ journey, and the narrative adopts an intensity and credibility that presses towards completion; the narrator’s listeners/readers are only aware of his fabrication because they’re/we’re regularly reminded of it, by the narrator himself, whose unknowing is as vitally present as his knowing.)

The story ends with a revelation that forces a reconsideration of the father’s past; it’s an invitation to reconstruct a reader’s response, a survivor’s reimaginings in the wake of a loss.

Dinaw Mengestu’s full-length works include The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears (2007, published as Children of the Revolution in the UK) and How to Read the Air (2010). The text of this story is available here, his Q&A here, an interview with Granta here, and his brief biography on African Success here.

Have you read a story about loss recently? Have you read Mengestu’s fiction before?