The Rumpus interview with Dinaw Mengestu

October 19, 2010 at 7:24 am (read)

I have an interview up on arts/culture website The Rumpus today with author Dinaw Mengestu.

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Dinaw Mengestu’s name may be hard to pronounce (dih-NOW men-GUESS-too), but you’ll soon be hearing it a lot more. Earlier this year, the Ethiopian-born author was named to The New Yorker’s list of the top 20 fiction writers under age 40, and his second novel, How to Read the Air, was published last week. Like his acclaimed debut, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, the new novel explores the dislocation of African immigrants. This time around, the narrator is Jonas Woldemariam, a withdrawn and slippery character who, following the death of his father and the collapse of his marriage, retraces a road trip his Ethiopian immigrant parents took through the Midwest 30 years earlier. Just don’t believe everything he says.

I caught up with Mengestu last weekend before a reading at The Booksmith in San Francisco, where he talked about the importance of imagination, responded to his “ridiculous” recent New York Times review and lied to my face (by request).


Check out the interview here!



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The Best of the New Yorker Festival

October 19, 2010 at 7:18 am (Uncategorized)

Here’s a way-delayed cross-posting of my recap of The New Yorker Festival, which took place in early October.

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This past weekend, I went to the annual New Yorker Festival, where the magazine rounds up its formidable roster of contributors, subjects and friends for a weekend of talks and performances. The five events I attended had sex, violence, music, humor and mutant radioactive albino crocodiles. Here are the best parts of the weekend:

1. The Jason Schwartzman promo for the magazine’s new iPad app. The short film, which was screened before every event, finds the handlebar-mustachioed actor demonstrating the app in a series of odd situations (in the shower; at a piano singing about the cartoon gallery). It was progressively funnier for the first three viewings; the fourth and fifth were not quite as amusing.

2. Alec Baldwin’s charm. “Alec Baldwin is here because I love him,” said interviewer Ariel Levy. “I’m glad you could all be here for our date.” The 30 Rockboss has an undeniable smarmy appeal, brandished in discussions of his early ambitions (to be President), impressions of Tracy Morgan and Marlon Brando, and mockery of early roles like the tough-guy boyfriend in Working Girl. In 2008, The New Yorker published a fantastic profile of Baldwin, who, far from resting on his laurels (or Emmys), seems perennially dissatisfied with his life and career. At the talk, he pointed out (and repeatedly demonstrated) an acting tick that’s been bugging him, where he adds emphasis to Jack Donaghy’s lines by doing a “vibrating, metronomic” movement with his head. It sounds weird to call a large, 52-year-old man with a history of anger problems endearing, but he was.

3. Childhood memories at the “Sex and Violence” panel. Fiction writers Wells Tower (Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned), Joyce Carol Oates (her latest isSourland) and Junot Díaz (The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao) were asked about when they first experienced the thrill of violence. Tower revealed some fierce horseplay with his brother: “I hit him in the face with a bat and threw a knife at his throat.” Later, when talking about the hypersexualization of the Caribbean, the Dominican Republic-born Díaz recalled childhood advice: “Always have two girlfriends—play them off each other,” said mom. And from his uncle: “Only women with big asses. Remember that.”

4. The mutant radioactive albino crocodiles in Werner Herzog’s new movie,Cave of Forgotten Dreams. The 3-D documentary is about the Chauvet Cave in France where, in 1994, archaeologists discovered astonishing paintings, depicting rhinos, cave bears, horses and more, that date back 32,000 years. A postscript to the film features greenhouses, some 20 miles from the cave and heated with excess water from a nuclear power plant, that house hundreds of crocodiles, whose offspring include albino creatures. Herzog imagines what those crocodiles might think if they saw the cave paintings. The animals are actually alligators, and their mutation has nothing to do with radioactivity. “So what?” said Herzog. “There should be imagination, the ecstasy of truth.” And indeed Herzog has gone beyond simple documentation, musing, in his offbeat way, on spirituality, history and the very nature of human-ness.

5. The transformative power of performance at “From Russia with Spunk,” with Regina Spektor. In conversation with writer Michael Specter, the 30-year-old musician was adorable: tiny, giggly, with a high voice and a habit of saying “you know” every five seconds. Then when she took to the piano, she unselfconsciously unleashed bold, passionate songs and sounds, from a barking dolphin imitation in “Folding Chair” to the ominously beautiful, pounding “Après Moi.” Spektor’s songs have the drama and quirk of musical theater, so it’s welcome news that she’s almost done composing the music for an upcoming Broadway show based on the story of Sleeping Beauty.

6. The range of writer Ian Frazier. The reporter and humorist spoke with editor David Remnick about his ambitious, 500+ page new book Travels in Siberia, which he’s been working on since 1993. He took five trips to the region, which has a tragic and mythic history, a vast geography spanning eight time zones, and a climate that alternates between frozen tundras and mosquito-blanketed swamps. But apparently it’s fun and funny there, too. Frazier, who wrote the well-known humor piece “Coyote v. Acme” (it’s styled as a lawsuit by Wile E. Coyote against the maker of defective, explosive products), described Siberia as a land of “extreme humor”: “Russia is like slapstick, only you actually die.” Little-known fact: before coming toThe New Yorker, Frazier worked for the Hugh Hefner-owned magazine Oui, for which he “wrote captions for pictures of naked people.”


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