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.
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