The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears
Sepha Stephanos is a middle-aged man who emigrated during the Red Terror of the Ethiopian Revolution seventeen years ago for a new start in the United States. When he first arrived in America as a refugee, he lived for a short time with his uncle in an apartment building in a suburb of Washington D.C., a town famous for its large communities of Ethiopians. His uncle, formerly a prosperous lawyer in Ethiopia, now is a taxi driver and as a parking attendant.
For a short time, Sepha works as a bellhop in a hotel, but after two years, he feels increasingly alienated from this tightly knit Ethiopian community in his uncle’s apartment building because of its insularity and the oppressiveness of its false nostalgia for the time before the Revolution.
So, hoping to achieve some personal success, he leaves to open up a small convenience store by himself in the mostly African-American neighbourhood of Logan Circle in downtown Washington D.C.
His only companions are two fellow African immigrants who share his bitter nostalgia and longing for his home continent. His two best friends are Ken from Kenya and Joe from Congo, and the conversations these three men have about their relationship to their homelands is both bitter and humorous.
Ken represents the successful immigrant who becomes an engineer, imitates the behaviour of “highly effective people,” internalizes the ethos of American capitalism, and has no desire to return to Africa.
But his material success is emotionally hollow, which is why he spends so much of his free time drinking whiskey with Sepha and Joe and hoping for the success of Sepha’s store. Joe instead is a man full of nostalgia for his homeland, who imagines himself writing a great poem about the failed revolution of Patrice Lumumba in the Congo, but who still works as a waiter in a posh D.C. restaurant ironically named the Colonial Grill.
To keep from collapsing emotionally under the weight of his own self-perceived failure, he puts on a professorial air to sustain his dream of going to graduate school.
As Sepha’s his environment begins to change, hope comes in the form of a friendship with new neighbours Judith and Naomi, a white woman and her biracial daughter. Judith is a history professor recently divorced from her African husband who is an economics professor. But when a series of racial incidents disturb the community, Sepha may lose everything all over again.
Sepha feels guilty for what happened to his father, his horrible memory of his father being beaten up by soldiers before his eyes. He misses his homeland, but at the same time, his mother, who still lives in Ethiopia, expects him to make a success of himself and achieve the American dream.
As Judith’s daughter spends more and more time in Sepha’s store, they begin to form a friendship. The plot of the novel centers on Sepha’s faltering, semi-romantic relationship with Judith, the painful transition from being a refugee to making a life in a new country, the paradoxes of the American dream, the longing to return to one’s homeland and the longing to forget one’s past entirely and immerse oneself in the capitalist, consumer culture of the United States.
The story, sometimes frightening, sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes humorous, but always magnificently told, is sure to stay with the reader for a long time.