Wednesday, October 01, 2014

[Memphis Reads 2014] Fresh Reads Top Ten Winner Hozyer Saeed

      Fresh Reads Essay Contest Winner Hozyer Saeed
      “Living here is as close to living back home as one can get, which is precisely why I moved out after two years and precisely why my uncle has never left.” In this part of the book, Stephanos tries to visit the old apartments he lived in with his uncle, but he was not there. While Sepha is there, he realizes how much the apartments felt like back home. But if he missed Ethiopia so much, why would he leave those apartments if they reminded him of back home?

Throughout the book the reader is able to see Stephanos go through a complicated stage in his life. Some days he wants to give up, put down everything, and abandon his corner store and go back to his homeland. “As a capital city, it doesn’t seem like much. Sixty-eight square miles, shaped roughly like a diamond, divided into four quadrants, erected out of what was once mainly swampland. Its resemblance to Addis, if not always in substance, then at least in form, has always been striking to me.” All through the story, Stephanos tries to compare America to his homeland, maybe to make himself feel better, maybe to make himself feel as if he is at home. His stay here, in America, seems like it would work out for him, but he refuses to accept change. If he tightened up his store and became more social, he would have a good life. Sepha does not want to accept that fact, though. He says, “I refused to acknowledge the charm of a sunset or the pleasure of a summer afternoon. If possible, I would have denied myself the right to breathe another country’s air or walk on its ground.” The negative attitude really impacts his stay, causing him to live a bit miserably.

While reading The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears I would connect to Sepha time after time. Dinaw, the author, did a great job making sure he connects his foreign readers to Sepha, which made this book intriguing. I, like Stephanos, have also been in the situation where I was stuck between a rock and a hard place. I was much in the same position as him, where I missed home, Kurdistan, where I was born, but I was not able to go back with ease. Entering America in 1996 was mostly every Kurd’s dream, because of the harsh times it was going through. People were getting abused by the Iraqi government; it was awful to live there. I am grateful that we had the opportunity to move to the United States, but sometimes you stop and wish things had worked out better at home and none of that happened. Everything has either a positive or negative consequence, in most cases both. The negative part of living in America was not being able to be with the rest of your family. That was the biggest disappointment. You also miss out on the culture back home. When you do get here to the States, you are mixed with the American culture and often times forget about your own. I have no uncles, aunts, or cousins here; it is only my brother, two sisters, mom and dad. I am grateful to have them here, although it would be undoubtedly better to have the rest of the family.

My family and I had our green cards since 2006, giving us permanent resident, which also gave us the privilege of traveling back home, but when we did, there was always a bad outcome. The expense of going back is extremely large. It usually affected us here, but we might not show it when we get back, because it is worth every penny when we see our family. That was half of the problem; the other half was always being questioned and taking longer for our documents to get here conveniently because of the September 11. Since we were Middle Eastern citizens at the time, they made us go through extra investigation before allowing us to go home. After years of waiting anxiously, the chance finally came for my parents to take the Oath of Allegiance in 2006 and to become citizens of the United States. Although it made the process of going back home quicker, because we did not have to worry about going through the extra investigations, it did not help financially. We have gone back four times and on average we roughly spent around $10,000 on gifts, food, hotels, etc., not including plane tickets for each member of the family. There are six of us, and it costs $2,000 per person. It never mattered, though, when we are back home in Kurdistan; the price would not affect us until we made it back to the States. Then it was going back to work on a daily basis for my parents. Most occasions they hoped they got the chance to work overtime or come in during the weekends, because that is how hard we were impacted financially from going home to see family.

Like Sepha, there are always communications between us and the rest of the family back in Kurdistan, thanks to electronics. It has been easier, too, over time as devices have gotten more advanced. Now we use tools and phone applications like Viber or Facebook that help us connect to them easier and smoother. As I get older, I get more fond of my hometown. Now I am making plans to visit soon.

--Hozyer Saeed

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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

[Library Events and Programs] "Memphis Reads" Community Read Begins Tomorrow

Tomorrow (October 1, 2014)  marks the official start of Memphis Reads, a community-wide initiative presented by a partnership between Christian Brothers University and the Memphis Public Library. 

The Memphis Reads title for 2014 is The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu.

About the book: 
The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, first published in 2007, blends fiction with fact and Mengestu’s own history, detailing the experiences of an Ethiopian immigrant living in Washington, DC after fleeing his country’s revolution seventeen years earlier. Told in a haunting and powerful first-person narration, the novel is a deeply affecting and unforgettable examination of what it means to lose a family and a country—and what it takes to create a new home. It deals with themes that are increasingly prevalent in our national and international conversations such as immigration, race, the concept of family, and the increasing divide between poverty and wealth. It won the Guardian Unlimited’s First Book Award and was named a New York Times Notable Book.

This book is available at the Memphis Public Library also as a downloadable e-book and book club kit from our Books in a Bag service. (Click for library catalog

Dinaw Mengestu's public reading and book talk are November 4, 2014

Click the tags, CBU Fresh Reads or Fresh Reads Top 10 Essays, for the top ten winning essays inspired by Mengestu's novel from participants in Christian Brothers University's Fresh Reads program. These essays will continue to post throughout the month of October. 

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[Library Events and Programs] What's Your Flavor Returns October 1, 2014

What's Your Flavor, the Memphis Public Library's reader's advisory presentations, are back! What's Your Flavor is a great way to learn history, characteristics, and trends in different book genres. 

The first session is about Teen Fiction but you don't have to be a teen to read and enjoy this genre. Join us at the Central Library on Wednesday October 1 at 2:00 p.m. to find out why. 

YA! RA! Hooray
Teen Fiction
Wednesday, October 1
2:00 - 5:00 p.m.

Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library
3030 Poplar Ave.
Room L-56

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Monday, September 29, 2014

[Memphis Reads 2014] Fresh Reads Top Ten Winner Caye Caparas

Fresh Reads Essay Contest Winner Caye Caparas
In Dinaw Mengestu’s book, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, the main character, Sepha Stephanos deals with the struggle of finding his own identity. The reader meets a teenage Sepha Stephanos, who is forced to migrate to the United States, because his home country Ethiopia is devastated by war. Although Sepha’s family back in Ethiopia believes that life in the United States will be better for him, he questions this new life and never really settles in, even after seventeen years. He lives his life in the United States, never fully awake and accepting or appreciative of his new life, because he never saw it that way. He says, “I did not come to America to find a better life… I came here running and screaming with the ghosts of an old one firmly attached to my back,” and from then on, he remains longing for his home country, trying to live a simple and unnoticeable life in the United States.
Sepha’s identity, he believes, lies within geography. As the old saying goes, “Home is where the heart is,” and Sepha’s heart is clearly in Ethiopia. After years and years of only half-heartedly living in the United States and meeting Judith and Naomi, a mother and daughter who have similar cultural conflicts, Sepha questions living this half-hearted life, but remains resistant of assimilating to any sort of American culture. What Sepha does not realize is that the world he left in Africa no longer exists like he thought it would. Time does not stand still there, or anywhere, for that matter. Continuing to live his life only yearning for the past and refusing to move forward will ultimately hold him back him from having a fulfilling life. His identity cannot grow, because he refuses to allow himself the treasures around him, and to create a story for himself in his new home. He finally realizes that what his uncle said was true, that nothing in his life was his in the beginning. It was only with his work could he call something his own.
I come from a family of immigrants; my parents and their siblings came from the Philippines and immigrated to the United States during the 1980s and early 1990s. I am the first one in my immediate family to be born in America and as a first generation Filipino-American, I have always had difficulties combining my American and Filipino cultures together. Growing up, I was confused as to what I should and should not do. In one culture it would be perfectly fine to do something, but in the other culture, that “something” would be classified as a strange habit and would be frowned upon by my peers, because they could not understand any of it. I felt stuck in a position of trying to please everybody whether they were American or Filipino.
Growing up in the Filipino community, I was an outcast. I was different from the other Filipino-American children my age, because I did not know much about the Philippines. Moreover, other children in the community were able to fluently speak the native language Tagalog, while I could only understand every other word in a sentence and speak a few conversational phrases. Not being able to understand Tagalog clearly set me apart from the other first generation Filipino-American children. The adults would somewhat look down on me as a spoiled American child with no respect for “our culture.” It made me feel awful, so I tried really hard to please them and to show to them that I was not an ignorant brat. On month-long family trips to the Philippines during the summer, it became much harder to please relatives, because the language barrier was blatantly apparent. My parents came from poor parts of the Philippines, so the assumption that I was a rude American proved to be true when I had only packed “fancy” American style clothes and video game handhelds in my suitcase.
In America, many of my peers in school thought that being Filipino was weird. For lunch, I would bring leftover Filipino food and eat traditional Filipino snacks during recess. They thought that whenever I spoke in Tagalog, I was practically an alien. A lot of my American peers dismissed my ethnicity and that made me feel insignificant. They would immediately write me off as Japanese, Chinese, or some other type of East Asian. To many of them, it was all the same thing. I was stuck in a position of trying to please both cultures. Like Sepha, I battle with finding my own identity, but my struggle is between my two cultures. I have come to terms with the fact that my two cultures might never be entirely integrated and that I need to appreciate them for what they are.

--Caye Caparas

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Thursday, September 25, 2014

[Library Events and Programs] Memphis Reads 2014 Presents Dinaw Mengestu

The Memphis Reads city-wide book selection is The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears

About the author Dinaw Mengestu:

Dinaw Mengestu was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and immigrated to the United States as a small child with his mother and sister, joining his father, who had fled Ethiopia during the Red Terror. Mengestu is a graduate of Georgetown University and of Columbia University’s MFA program in fiction. He has been the recipient of a fellowship in fiction from the New York Foundation for the Arts, a 5 Under 35 Award from the National Book Foundation, The New Yorker’s 20 under 40 Award, and a Lannan Literary Fellowship. In 2012, he was a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship recipient and was one of 23 to be awarded a genius grant from the foundation. He is currently serving as Lannan Foundation Chair of Poetics at Georgetown University.

Upcoming events: 
Tuesday, November 4, 2014
Reading at the Memphis Public Library
5:30 p.m.
Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library

Talk at CBU University Theater
8:00 p.m.
Christian Brothers University

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Wednesday, September 24, 2014

[Memphis Reads 2014] Fresh Reads Top Ten Winner Barbara (Rosie) Schmitz

Fresh Reads Essay Contest Winner Rosie Schmitz 

Home Is Where The Fridge Is
       In Dinaw Mengestu's critically acclaimed novel, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, the concept of “home” should be questioned by the reader. When most people think of home, they tend to think of a physical place. However, home and location are not synonymous. The protagonist, Sepha Stephanos seems to be stuck in between Ethiopia and America despite having lived in America for seventeen years. In retrospect, it seems he never makes the initiative to have a home on either continent.
       The phrase “home is where the heart is” is cliché for a reason. Home is a conglomerate of love, security, and expression. Stephanos never establishes a home in America or Ethiopia. One night on the bus, he muses, “...I couldn't remember at which point I understood that I had left home for good,” thus acknowledging after many years that his reality is not home (177). Later, he concludes, “The two are connected … that everything went with you,” in reference to his father, who was assaulted before him (177). In that powerful sentiment, it is assumed his father made him feel at home. In America, he referenced having conversations with his father in his head (176). Once his father had passed, his sense of home passed as well. His current living situation in Logan Circle encompasses a strong sense of community, which he admits he had only used for the cheap rent and has never felt a part of Logan Circle (189).
       Frustratingly enough, Stephanos never makes the initiative to make America his home. When he first came to America, for the first three weeks, he did not engage with people; he seldom left his apartment. Not wanting anything to do with America, he ate his uncle's food and slept on his couch until his uncle intervened, forcing Stephanos to get a job (140). He did not seem to want to be comfortable or express himself. The poignant part of this behavior is that it continues for seventeen years. In Stephanos' present reality, his store receives a notice about not paying four months’ worth of rent. His friends Joseph and Kenneth are more disappointed than Stephanos is and ask, “Isn't this what you wanted?” (69). Stephanos does not seem to be dismayed about his store; he does not seem to feel anything. He lets his store crumble by watching kids steal candy bars from his store, never cleaning it, or taking pride in it whatsoever. It is as though he feels like a stranger in his own store. Again, the sense his home had never been established in America.
       For the first time in seventeen years, Stephanos has the potential and chance of having a partner with whom he can share his life and create a sense of home with. Unfortunately, he never expresses interest in Judith or initiates a date. It is Judith who makes plans with him. When she moved out of Logan Circle, he does not chase after her or even bother keeping in contact with her (228). Judith most likely feels dejected and gives up on the potential partnership with Stephanos. She constantly expresses her interest in him with no expression of interest in return, such as when she pretends to lose her keys while secretly waiting for Stephanos to acknowledge her (85). Even on a personal level, Stephanos lets opportunity and anything that might be long term walk out on him. The worst part about his life is he simply lets the pitfalls and apathy continue throughout the book.
       On a personal note, there are times when I have felt isolated by the phenomena of my body being in one state and my mind another much like Stephanos. Being adopted from a different culture provides an interesting insight regarding identity and home. Many white people assume I'm either a first or second generation Chinese American. Also, they would assume my parents force me to study math and science more than the average teenager, that I eat rice at nearly every meal, and that I'm not westernized. Conversely, Asian folk see me as being “white washed,” slang for westernized. They see how unpredictable and unruly my work ethic is. They do not put me in their academically elite rank, nor do they see me as being Chinese. In essence, Asian people see me as too white to be truly Asian, and white people see me as too Asian to be white, despite being raised in a white, western, and forward thinking family. I suppose my sense of identity is a social construct defined by the individual. My home is among the culture I feel most comfortable with, but most importantly, those people I feel most secure and able to freely express myself with.
--Rosie Schmitz

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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

[News and Notes] Banned Books Week: Dav Pilkey, Creator of Captain Underpants, on Banning Books

Author Dav Pilkey, author of children's book series Captain Underpants, shares his thoughts about banning books. Click to watch the video. 

(Originally uploaded to the Banned Books Week YouTube channel)

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Monday, September 22, 2014

[Memphis Reads 2014] Fresh Reads Top Ten Winner Abraham Hsuan-Hsin Lin

Below is the first of ten winning essays from CBU's Fresh Reads essay contest. All ten essays were inspired by events and themes from Dinaw Mengestu's novel, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, which is also the city-wide Memphis Reads 2014 book selection.  A new essay will post every Monday and Wednesday until the November 4th finale.  

Fresh Reads Essay Contest Winner Abraham Hsuan-Hsin Lin

“Home is where the heart is” is a famous saying by Gaius Plinius Secundus, a Roman philosopher. This idiom expresses the idea that a person’s real home is where their love, memories, and culture reside. However, not everyone’s heart truly belongs to their physical location. For example, in The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu, Sepha Stephanos, an immigrant, experiences the dilemma of being stuck between his home country Ethiopia and America, the country he escaped to. Like Stephanos, many immigrants, such as myself, have experienced the hardships of moving away from home to a new location and life. Due to Stephanos’ inability to find a true home in America, he ultimately struggles to find his identity.
Although Stephanos has been living in the U.S. for seventeen years, he still cannot forget his family that lives in Ethiopia, an unstable country wracked by a terrible civil war. Kenneth, one of his friends, asks Stephanos, “Don’t you worry you will forget [your father] someday?” to which Stephanos replies, “No. I don’t. I still see him everywhere I go” (10). Although he has left his father to come to America, he is still emotionally stuck in Ethiopia with his family, his true home. Throughout his stay in America, different people close to Stephanos show concern for his homesickness and wonder about his identity.
For example, Stephanos and Naomi, the biracial daughter of Stephanos’ neighbor Judith, are conversing about Ethiopia with the old map. Naomi then asks about his family in Ethiopia. “Don’t you miss them?” Stephanos answers, “Yes, I do, [but] I try not to” (27). Whenever he misses his family, he realizes that it is pointless to miss them because he cannot just give up everything in America to go back to Ethiopia. Ultimately, he is trapped between his “home” in Ethiopia and his home in America.
Because he feels guilty for not being able to visit his family, he sends “them money once every few months when [he] can afford to, even though” they do not need his money at all. To him, it is a “consolation prize for not being home” (41). Besides sending money home, he also hopes his “mother and brother would forgive [him] for [his] years of neglect and distance” when they receive his Christmas cards and presents (154). He does everything he can to tell himself that he cannot go back to Ethiopia. He recollects and rephrases a phrase his father used to say: a “man stuck between two worlds lives and dies alone.” Stephanos is identified as the man in the saying. While he struggles to belong in America, he cannot return to Ethiopia either. Despite his attempt at finding a home in America, he fails to free himself from his fragile but enduring relationship with his family.
Like Stephanos, I also personally experience the dilemma of being stuck between two places, Taiwan and the United States. Many immigrants experience culture shock when they arrive to a new country due to the differences between two places. One of the big differences between Taiwan and the U.S. is language. English acted as a huge barrier to me at first. I came to the U.S. with my parents and younger sister three years ago. Before I arrived in America, I prepared myself to face the language. I knew I was not good at the language. The school placed me in English classes meant for foreign nationals. At the time, my Taiwanese “patriotism” made me feel ashamed and reluctant to abandon Chinese. Therefore, it was hard for me to learn and use English in everyday life. I preferred to speak in my primary language, Mandarin Chinese.
Some people use extreme ways to learn English. They ignore Chinese-speaking students and force themselves to make friends with non-Chinese people. When I realized the drastic measures they were using to learn English and abandon their native language, I felt heartbroken. However, my parents reiterated that English is important for my future. Unfortunately, my high school was comprised of primarily Chinese people. Surrounded by Chinese immigrants, I did not learn English quickly. Even though I made friends with Chinese students, we were able to face English together. We never gave up. We encouraged and reminded one another to use English every day. Although it was hard for us in the beginning, we still improved eventually. After three years, I can now listen to, speak, read, and write English with the same proficiency as Chinese. Meanwhile, I did not forget Chinese. I realized that valuing the American language and identity was just as important as my Taiwanese roots.
Both Sepha Stephanos and I face the same feelings and situations. Stephanos misses his family in Ethiopia and I miss the time when I used Chinese every day. While Stephanos has African friends in America, I have Chinese and Taiwanese friends in America. Stephanos cannot go back to Ethiopia and reunite with his family; I cannot go back to Taiwan and reconnect with my friends. Despite these similarities, there is one difference between Stephanos and me. While he struggles to find his identity, I do not. I belong to neither the U.S.A. nor Taiwan. I belong to God.

--Abraham Hsuan-Hsin Lin

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