The Vilcek Foundation is the organization that has as its mission raising awareness the contributions of immigrants to the arts and sciences. The foundation is honoring authors in connection with a panel it is hosting next week in New York entitled "The New Vernacular: Immigrant Authors in American Literature." At the program, the Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Literature will be awarded to Ethiopian-born Dinaw Mengestu. Over the next few days, I'll also be honoring the finalists.
Dinaw Mengestu is a novelist and has also reported on Africa for publications like Rolling Stone, Harper's and the Wall Street Journal. NPR had this to say about Mengestu's debut novel:
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.