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