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Dinaw Mengestu Wins Ernest Gaines Literary Award

The Baton Rouge Area Foundation has announced the winner of this year's Ernest Gaines Award for Literary Excellence, which is designed to inspire and recognize rising African-American writers in honor of the renowned Louisiana author.

Dinaw Mengestu will accept the award for his novel, How to Read the Air. WRKF's Tegan Wendland talked to him about the challenges of writing fiction and the underlying message in his novel.

WENDLAND: Your book really highlights the struggles of African immigrants, touches on issues of assimilation and also the base human experience of pain - what are you trying to accomplish with the work?

MENGESTU: The main characters are African immigrants but I think, more importantly for me than their status as immigrants is that they are kind of like all people, who are sort of lost and as you said, in pain, and looking for some way of finding a connection with another human being - finding a home, finding their place in America, and because they're immigrants it's maybe a little more intense, but I think that experience is pretty universal. I think everyone is sort of forced to have that experience of re-constructing their home and their identity.

WENDLAND: How much of the story, which tells the tale of a young man in New York and his Ethiopian parents living in the Midwest, is based on your own personal life and experiences?

MENGESTU: There's always little details that writers steal from their lives. Fortunately, my life is radically different from the main characters, but my family did leave Ethiopia around the same time as the character's family in the novel and my parents were separated for a few years before coming to America. Beyond that though, the rest is fairly invented. It was actually really important for me to write a novel that was an argument for imagination and for fiction and so while I might have these small little details, for me it's all kind of about grounding the narrative, but beyond that it's just about pure fiction.

WENDLAND: How much were you trying to draw attention to the fact that immigrant's struggles are often passed down to the next generation?

MENGESTU: There's definitely a generational effect and it's definitely something that immigrants pass on to their own children but I think part of what's sort of so unique about America is that people can ‘become' American and that that assimilation process does happen, but that generational effect is sort of that we pass on our pain, we pass on our suffering, we pass on our abuse to the next generation and it's up to the next generation to handle how they're going to handle that.

WENDLAND: How do you feel about getting the Ernest Gaines award? Have you read any of his work?

MENGESTU: It's been a few years since I've read his work, but when I was in high school and definitely through college I read quite a few of his novels. So it's a great honor, he was one of those sort of seminal figures for me when I was first beginning to think of myself, not necessarily as a writer, but as somebody who loved literature who was able to find an experience of an African American writer, a black writer like him, and James Baldwin, Toni Morrison and Ralph Ellison, all those writers kind of helped validate my own identity very much.

WENDLAND: And what do you hope people really take away from reading your work?

MENGESTU: I'm fairly optimistic at the end of the day, I mean, there is a certain tragedy and melancholy that runs throughout the book, but by and large the overall sentiment of the novel is quite optimistic in that despite the difficulties and challenges that we face in life, at the end we do have this sort of great and amazing capacity to love and to imagine and to give a bit of grace to ourselves and to each other.

WENDLAND: What's next for you? Do you have another novel in the works?

MENGESTU: Yep. I'm hopefully nearing the end of my third book, but you never know.

WENDLAND: What kind of tips would you give to aspiring young writers?

MENGESTU: I think writing is probably both the easiest and the hardest job. It doesn't take that much to write. It takes a piece of paper and a pen or a computer or a typewriter but I think what's necessary is reading constantly and a lot of patience. I think there's a lot to be said about finding yourself able to be alone and stay committed and focused on your work.

WENDLAND: Thank you for your time today.

MENGESTU: Thank you very much.