Dinaw Mengestu is a National Book Award Foundation “5 Under 35” writer, a New Yorker “20 Under 40” writer to watch, and a recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. His other novels are The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears and How to Read the Air.
Dinaw Mengestu: I came to Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North late in life, shortly after I had finished my second novel and was just beginning to make the first tentative steps into the third. I read it once, and then a few weeks later, once more. I began to carry it in my bag, next to my laptop, or in my coat pocket where it easily fit. I opened it at least once a week to no particular page. After a few minutes, I would close the book, slightly uncertain about what I had just read, even though I knew the outlines of the story better than almost any other novel. I would often wonder why I had never heard of the novel before, and why the same was true for most people I knew. Under the broad banner of post-colonial literature, it deserved a place next to Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, but to think of it only in those terms undercuts its value as a stunning work of literature, as a novel that actively resists the division of art into poorly managed categories of race and history.
Those divisions are a fundamental part of Salih’s novel. The story, set in a recently independent Sudan, with footprints in England and Egypt, mocks and eviscerates the clichés that come with looking at the world as a division between us and the Other. That fractured gaze, whether it is born out of race, gender, or privilege destroys the characters in the novel, none of whom are merely victims or perpetrators. Through them, the story becomes an argument for a better way of seeing, which has always struck me as being one of the novel’s better gifts, something which it is uniquely poised to do, if only because it demands the reader’s imagination, and by doing so affirms our capacity to live beyond the limited means of our private lives. We read not to encounter the Other, but to see ourselves refracted in a different landscape, in a different time, in shoes and clothes that perhaps bear no resemblance to our own.
Writers, especially those of us with roots in other countries, are rarely left to ourselves. We are asked to declare our allegiances, or they are determined for us. I’m an immigrant writer, or an African writer, or an Ethiopian-American writer, and occasionally an American writer according to the whims and needs of my interpreters. I can and do embrace those roles, even as I try and assert through my work the limits of those distinctions by working through all the ways in which both our collective and personal stories converge once they are placed side by side.
Before Salih sets his characters in motion, he offers this passage early in the story:
I preferred not to say the rest that had come to my mind: that just like us they are born and die, and in the journey from the cradle to the grave they dream dreams some of which come true and some of which are frustrated; that they fear the unknown, search for love and seek contentment in wife and child; that some are strong and some are weak; that some have been given more than they deserve by life, while others have been deprived by it, but that the differences are narrowing and most of the weak are no longer weak. I did not say this to Mahjoub, though I wish I had done so, for he was intelligent; in my conceit I was afraid he would not understand.
It’s a slim novel, well under 200 pages, and a declaration of universal humanity so bluntly stated so early in a narrative—on the fifth page—certainly runs the risk of sentimentality. It’s easy to want to bristle against a passage like that, especially coming from a still unknown narrator. Salih skirts that risk by leaving his narrator’s thoughts unspoken. Only the reader has access to them, and what could have been a heavy-handed tool of an author desperate to say something meaningful, sets up a dialogue between the reader and the story in which those universal conviction is put to the most extreme possible test.