Dinaw Mengestu — acclaimed journalist, essayist and novelist — delivered a lecture titled “The Politics of Aesthetics: The Danger of Writing from the ‘Margins’” Tuesday evening. At the talk, Mengestu meditated on the tendency of the contemporary literary community to believe that incorporating social and political realities into literature invalidates a work’s claim to aesthetic greatness.
Mengestu called attention to the bias he saw working against the socially conscious work of African, African-American and minority literature in contemporary literary appraisal. Mengestu, the winner of a 2012 MacArthur Genius Grant, asked his audience to consider the different attitudes that artists of the 20th century took when approaching political subjects. Noting that much of high literature is associated with “looking toward the stars,” he pointed to the importance of 20th-century writers, including James Baldwin and Albert Camus, who explicitly wrote about the “anguish” they saw in their surrounding racial and social communities. Mengestu suggested that this literary shift toward more political subjects was not a turning away from the demands of aesthetic literary criterion, but a necessary change engendered by the unavoidable suffering artists came to see in the modern world.
“The aesthetic priorities of the artist have to bend to current need,” Mengestu said. This contrasted with Mengestu’s former belief that his own knowledge and experience had no literary value. He found the cause of this belief in the prevailing narrative that any subject relating his experience as an Ethiopian-American could not be great literature “because it wasn’t universal; it was concerned with subjects too singular, too marginal and therefore less compelling, less important.”
Mengestu also related how various aspects of his experiences as a young reader and writer informed his outlook on the intersection of literature and racial politics. Starting his story in the third person and ending it in the first, Mengestu told of how he had been made to question the literary merit of Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man.” In the novel, Ellison addresses many of the intellectual and social issues facing African-Americans at the turn of the 20th century. While Mengestu said he had been moved by the work, his teacher and classmates only focused on problems with the text, leading Mengestu to reread the book to “rediscover the greatness he once saw” in it. It was not until years later that Mengestu said he managed to admit to himself that he reread the work looking for its weaknesses, not believing that anything resembling his personal experiences could give rise to great literature.
Among his early life experiences that made him aware of his fear of writing on political topics, Mengestu talked about the unpublished novel that he began writing while a senior at Georgetown University.
“[My first novel] had a meaningless and pretentious title, ‘All the Points In-Between,’ and inside there was a great, big biblical flood that was just about to happen, and none of the characters had any distinguishing mark or trait, anything that could identify them as black, or white, or Latino or Asian. These characters were there to engage in a great, grand philosophical debate, the kind that I imagine come from looking at the stars.”
It was only after Mengestu was unable to get his novel published that he realized the work was “empty” because it did not engage with his own personal life and history. Mengestu came to realize that he need not sacrifice the quality of his work by writing about issues of race and politics.
Still, Mengestu wondered “why it is fair to ask all male writers of my generation what impact David Foster Wallace has had on their work, as opposed to, say, the country’s only living male Nobel laureate.”
Students in attendance found Mengestu’s talk moving, poetic and eloquent. Frazer Tessema ’17, who is also of Ethiopian descent, thought Mengestu accurately represented the Ethiopian-American experience, adding that he found it empowering to see someone come so far and receive as much recognition as he has.
“I think he intertwines the African-American and the African experience so beautifully, and makes it seem one,” Tessema said.
Yale professor and judge Guido Calabresi ’53 LAW ’58 believed his mother would have deeply enjoyed Mengestu’s lecture. Calabresi co-founded the lecture series which hosted Mengestu — the Finzi-Contini Lectureship — to honor his mother.
“He speaks and writes beautifully,” Calabresi said of Mengestu, noting how much his mother would have related to Mengestu’s history. Mengestu fled Ethiopia with his family after the country’s political revolution, and similarly, Calabresi’s mother fled fascism in Italy to come to New Haven in 1939.
Included on The New Yorker’s 2010 “20 Under 40” list, Mengestu is the author of three New York Times Notable Books, including his most recent novel, “All Our Names.”