"An Honest Exit"
by Dinaw Megestu
Originally published in the July 12 & 19, 2010 issue of The New Yorker.

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This story began with a sure step, letting me know immediately that I was in good hands.

Thirty-five years after my father left Ethiopia, he died in a room in a boarding house in Peoria, Illinois, that came with a partial view of the river. We had never spoken much during his lifetime, but, on a warm October morning in New York, shortly after he died, I found myself having a conversation with him as I walked north on Amsterdam Avenue, toward the high school where for the past three years I had been teaching a course in Early American literature to privileged freshmen.

There something nice about an author who can pack a lot of information in a clear sentence, especially when a bit of that information is a conversation with a dead father. The conversation he has with his father is about that school, The Academy. That’s not its real name but rather a name the author gives it from a Kafka story where a monkey lectures: “I used to wonder if that was how my students saw me — as a monkey trying to teach their language back to them.”

The narrator gets to class, and apologizes for missing class the other day, “and because I felt obliged to explain my absence I told them the truth.’ My father passed away recently. I had to attend to his affairs.'”

And yet, because I had just finished talking to him, I felt that I hadn’t said enough. So I continued. “He was sixty-seven years old when he died. He was born in a small village in northern Ethiopia. He was thirty-two when he left his home for a port town in Sudan in order to come here.”

And while I could have ended there I had no desire to. I needed a history more complete than the strangled bits that he had owned and passed on to me — a short, brutal tale of having been trapped as a stowaway on a ship. So I continued with my fathers story, knowing that I could make up the missing details as I went.

So the narrator goes off on this intriguing story about his father, and we don’t know what’s true and what the narrator is filling in for himself and what the narrator is filling in for his students. But the story is fascinating, so fascinating that it spreads around the school, and each day the students come to class hungry for more. The students, who were just a group before, become individuals to the narrator. And they see him differently:

Huge tides of sympathy were mounting for my dead father and me. Students I had never spoken to now said hello to me when they saw me in the hallway. There were smiles for me everywhere I went, all because I had brought directly to their door a tragedy that outstripped anything they could personally have hoped to experience.

I don’t want to say more about this story. It has many threads, all nicely woven together, and was intriguing on many levels. It makes me anxious to read more of Mengestu.

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By |2016-06-17T13:19:57+00:00July 5th, 2010|Categories: Dinaw Mengestu, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |7 Comments

7 Comments

  1. Trevor Berrett July 5, 2010 at 11:24 am

    A new New Yorker fiction forum is up and ready. By the way, this issue also features an essay by one of my favorites David Grann. I recommend anything he’s written.

  2. Joe July 5, 2010 at 6:39 pm

    This is a deep, rich story. One aspect of it that I really liked was the exploration of truth and fiction and the line between them. I found myself asking myself how the story of the narrator’s father would have been different if it had been presented as absolute truth. But then the whole thing is a piece of fiction, so does it matter when a story within a story is presented as “fact”?

    The last paragraph also gave the piece an unexpected twist (at least it was unexpected for me) and that added new layer to everything that had gone before.

    This story drew me in and held my interest throughout my workout on the elliptical trainer… and it raised some intriguing questions along the way, so my brain got a workout too.

  3. Trevor Berrett July 8, 2010 at 3:00 pm

    I agree with you Joe, this is a great story. So many layers to look at, what with the straight narrative, the father/son relationship and the son’s desire to inherit the story, the teacher and the students, why they like the story, why the principal likes the stories and encourages — for a time. I look forward to his book in the fall.

  4. Ken July 31, 2010 at 6:21 am

    I loved this story. I like the reflexivity of having the story being told not just to us but to our surrogates: the narrator’s English class. I think there’s a rather ironic touch to the fact that the dean of students doesn’t mind class time being taken up by the tale because it is “about important things.” This is sort of like how we as privileged western readers feel there is more content or relevance to a tale of third-world privation than to something more seemingly superficial. And yet…the story is about significant things, about life and death and the poverty and diaspora of our world today.

  5. Whispering Gums August 27, 2010 at 8:24 pm

    Late into this as I’ve only just read and reviewed this one. Fascinating story. I do think it works OK as a short story though perhaps there’s the odd loose end that might not be there if it weren’t an excerpt. I agree with Ken that there’s a touch of irony in it – such as the principal’s attitude to the story and the narrators. Also the idea of the “honest” exit. Was the father’s exit from Sudan and his treatment of his promise to Abrahim “honest”? In one sense, perhaps, but not another? I also liked the allusion to Kafka.

  6. Trevor Berrett August 30, 2010 at 10:37 am

    Sorry I haven’t responded here until now, Whispering Gums (or, Gummie, if you don’t mind my using Guy’s nickname for you :) ).

    I really enjoyed this story. Though I often complain about how many excerpts are used in place of genuine short stories in The New Yorker, this one worked very well for me (as have several others, so my gripe isn’t completely warranted). I am anxious to read it as the novel it is a part of.

    You know? I don’t think I particularly paid attention to the “honest” part of the title. You’re certainly right that his exit, from a technical point of view, was not honest either in its legality or in the way his father failed to ever really pay for it by keeping his promise. Very interesting, and something I need to think about longer.

  7. Whispering Gums October 8, 2010 at 9:37 am

    Sorry I didn’t reply to this earlier – I don’t seem to get follow up comments notification. I’m very happy for you to use Gummie, btw.

    Like you, I tend to prefer to read short stories to “excerpts” but this one has certainly whetted my appetite for the book.

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