How Novels Widen Your Vision

Author Dinaw Mengestu says good books help you to recognize yourself in the unfamiliar.

Doug McLean

“It was, gentlemen, after a long absence—seven years to be exact, during which time I was studying in Europe—that I returned to my people.”

So begins Tayeb Salih’s 1966 novel Season of Migration to the North. This fraught first sentence, spoken by a westernized Sudanese narrator returning home, has many layers of division—between home and away, between outsider and insider, between strong and weak, between man and woman, between West and East, between black and white.

In his essay for this series, All Our Names author Dinaw Mengestu indicts what he calls “the fractured gaze”: any worldview that sets apart “us” apart from “them.” For Mengestu, literature offers a way to see beyond the simplistic labels that confine us. In a passage from Season of Migration to the North that suggests the essential human sameness of the Sudanese and Europeans, Mengestu locates his mission statement.

Mengestu’s third novel, All Our Names, complicates notions of identity, too: One of the book’s narrators lives under the assumed identity of a different person. The book begins with two friends at college in Kampala, Uganda. When violent revolution breaks out, Isaac decides to stay and fight, while his friend, the narrator—whose real name we don’t know—flees to rural Illinois using Isaac’s passport. All Our Names is told in two viewpoints: Chapters alternate between “Isaac” and the American woman who loves him but cannot know his frightening past.

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.

The passage is tinged with doubt, and it’s because of that doubt that the narrator’s thoughts are rescued from serving as mere platitudes. As an undergraduate I took a theology course titled Religion as Writing. If writing can be considered a form of faith, then inevitably doubt has to accompany it. Of all the anxieties a writer faces—from bad reviews and disappointing sales, to the value of the work itself—none seems as pressing to me as my doubt that I am able to render through language characters who regardless of where they have come from, or what they have endured, can be known to the reader in Kansas just as well as they are to the reader in Addis Ababa. That doubt is more than just a problem of aesthetics. I know my work will fall short in ways too numerous to count, but my faith in fiction was always greater than my own ambition. Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, the color of my skin and my rather peculiar background as an Ethiopian immigrant delineated the border of my life and friendships. I learned quickly how to stand alone. That loneliness was broken daily with the novels I read, often on the weekends in a diner with cheap coffee and a pack of cigarettes. My frustration and sometimes hatred of the world was treated; it was mended slowly with each leap into a foreign world, whether it was of Faulkner’s or Emily Dickinson’s making.

I came to writing as a supplicant, out of debt and gratitude. If it was necessary, under some dramatic form of duress, to state what the value of literature, or the novel is, I would most likely recite that passage from Salih, not because I’m certain those sentiments are true, but because like the narrator I come to books hoping to find that they just might be.