Guest post by Linda Shaji-Pauline:
Linda Shaji-Pauline, a fellow feminist and a rice lover, who had an affinity for post-colonial literature but now realises that there is much more to read as well. When she’s not at work, her motto is, “will walk for food.” You can often find her walking around all over the city in search of that new restaurant. She is still undecided if she loves music or books more but agrees that together they make the best combination. Together they make her life in finance very tolerable.
I love debuts, and why not? There is a new author / musician / composer / actor whose art is to be explored by their audience.
Dinaw Mengestu’s 2007 book, Children of the Revolution, captured my attention in a second hand book sale for not just being a debut but also for being written by an immigrant writer. Dinaw Mengestu is Ethiopian-American. This was the first book that I was reading that had a connection to Ethiopia. I do not consider it Ethiopian in nature, it is still American.
Written in a first person narrative, the story is that of Sepha Stephanos who left Ethiopia as a refugee simply seeking survival in America. He does not bring along with him the great American dream, he simply wants to be invisible enough to survive. Sepha survives on his meagre income earned by running his simple grocery / general store. It is not the best store in the neighbourhood as he frankly attests.
Sepha lives in a neighbourhood that is not affluent by any means. His life is disrupted with its first wave of gentrification, bought in with the arrival of Judith, a white woman, and her biracial child, Naomi. Slowly and not so silently, we see how the neighbourhood changes and how that changes Sepha too.
I was hoping that this book could cover more on gentrification, but it is not a sociological study, so obviously the author hasn’t. Instead, he chooses to look at the more humane side and writes about a man so caught in his past that he has very little ambition. The only good thing that this gentrification has brought in, is to heighten his sense of ambition.
But does it last? Read and find out!
Through the book we see him with three friends, two of them fellow Africans (mind you not Ethiopians) and Naomi, Judith’s daughter. The last friendship is something I enjoyed reading the most about. It was heartwarming to see him connect the most with a lonely child, over Russian classics. His friendships with fellow migrant Africans are out of the ordinary.
In Children of the Revolution, we see him describe immigrant ways of survival – of living and moving into a locality and in the same places like your country men do, of kinship that helps the most homesick of immigrants, of sharing food with your countrymen and the struggle of keeping your identity while living a life in a foreign state. The book made me rethink the idea of a political refugee. The American books that I had read before, explored the idea of an immigrant moving to the US to live the American dream. But what about those like Sepha who have sought political asylum and are forced to be immigrants? Aren’t their experiences very different than the first kind of immigrant?
For a book with the name revolution, there is nothing that seems as big as a revolution. On the contrary Children of the Revolution is a tender story of a simple man. It left me intrigued enough to read his later works.
Speaking of the name of the book, while reading the book, I realised that the title sounded rather familiar. It is the title of a 70s’ song by the band, T. Rex. Sepha and his friends sing along to this song in a bar together to celebrate their exiles from their beloved homelands.
Listen to the song here!
So leaving behind the title fetish that seems to have struck me as well, I would recommend this book for its realistic approach to an immigrants’ life, for its simplicity and for its endeavour to remind us to to treat political migrants with more kindness and empathy.
This post is part of the Pardesi series that highlights immigrant experiences.
You can contribute as well! Click here for more information.