Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Dinaw Mengestu Captures Immigrant Life

Book Tour is a Web feature and podcast. Each week, we present leading authors of fiction and nonfiction as they read from and discuss their work.

"How was I supposed to live in America when I had never really left Ethiopia?" questions Sepha Stephanos, the protagonist of The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears. That isolation and frustation of immigrant life is thoughtfully portrayed in the award-winning fictional debut from Dinaw Mengestu.

The story of an Ethiopian immigrant who fled his country's communist revolution, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears follows him nearly two decades later, struggling to live the American dream, with a failing convenience store in a gentrifying Washington, D.C., neighborhood.

Praised by the New York Times Book Review as a "great African novel, a great Washington novel and a great American novel," the book was awarded the Guardian First Book Award in 2007. The National Book Foundation included Mengestu on its list of "5 Under 35" "as someone whose work is particularly promising and exciting."

Mengestu, like his protagonist, was born in Ethiopia, but came to the United States in 1980 at the age of 2, a move that reunited his family after his father had been forced to flee. Mengestu was educated at Georgetown and Columbia University.

The author says the voice of the narrator "popped" into his head one night when he was walking in D.C. and "saw an Ethiopian immigrant behind the counter of a small, little grocery store." And although the Times comments on Mengestu's "fine ear for the way immigrants from damaged places talk in the sanctuary of their own company," he says he "didn't deliberately go off and research anything" to write the novel.

"Obviously, I come from a family of immigrants," he says, "and if you pay attention to the environments around you, you get a sense of who these people are." He adds, "The character is driven by a search for a sort of home ... what I think is a pretty universal and pretty common feeling."

This reading of The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears took place in February of 2008 at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit

Linda Kulman
Linda Kulman, the editor of’s weekly feature Book Tour, is an avid reader, veteran journalist and writer living in Washington, D.C. She worked as a senior writer at U.S. News & World Report for a decade, where she reported for every section of the magazine. Most recently, she covered religion and consumer culture. Kulman’s book reviews have appeared in The Washington Post and on She has collaborated on four non-fiction books, working with a variety of notable figures. Early on in her career, she worked for several years as a fact checker at The New Yorker. Kulman also earned a degree from Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism.