LEWISTON — “We always knew pieces of our lives were missing, but no one could ever describe them to us,” Ethiopian-American novelist Dinaw Mengestu said to a small group of students and educators at the Lewiston Public Library on Tuesday afternoon.

His family didn’t talk about their former lives in Ethiopia, he said, “because of the violence that surrounded it.”

Mengestu moved to Peoria, Ill., from Ethiopia in 1980, when he was 2 years old. During the Ethiopian revolution, most of his father’s brothers were either killed or imprisoned, and the family no longer felt safe.

Once settled in America, the family’s conversations avoided all but the vaguest mentions of their heritage. His parents told him each day that he was Ethiopian, but with few other Ethiopian families in the area, he lived “in a cultural vacuum,” Mengestu said.

“Nobody was going to tell me my history, nobody was going to tell me my culture,” he said. So Mengestu began writing it himself.

Mengestu’s two novels about African immigrants to America — the latest is “How to Read the Air,” published in 2010 — have earned him a host of awards and accolades, including a spot on The New Yorker magazine’s “20 under 40” writers to watch. On Tuesday, the acclaimed author came to Lewiston to speak about his work at Bates College, and to lead a writing workshop focused on the immigrant experience at the library.

About 10 students, teachers and dedicated readers gathered at the library at 4 p.m. Tuesday to discuss literature, school work and inspiration with the author. Mengestu told them about finding a place for himself in both Ethiopia and America through his writing. The students, some of them fairly recent immigrants to America themselves, asked how long it takes to write a novel, and how to keep up with school work despite the challenge of learning a second language.

Lewiston High School senior Abdirahman Abdi, whose mother is also Ethiopian and who came to Lewiston just two years ago after eight in Kenya, noted that reading all of his assignments on top of answering comprehension questions and taking quizzes can be overwhelming, and that some of the work doesn’t take his own life experiences into account.

“You don’t have a choice. You can’t take Somali classes” at the high school, he said. “You have to learn what everyone else is learning.”

Mengestu agreed that students who have immigrated to America often have to work twice as hard as others to learn not just current lessons but the ones they missed out on while moving from one continent to another or living in refugee camps.

He suggested that reading books for personal pleasure, aside from homework, would help make the school assignments easier.

“Writing begins with reading,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what you read, just start. … It becomes an addiction really fast, I think.”

Then, “you look out the window one day and you realize that it sort of looks different,” Mengestu said, “because you have more words.”


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