Wednesday, October 22, 2014

[Memphis Reads 2014] Fresh Reads Top Ten Winner Saehymn Oh

Fresh Reads Essay Contest Winner Saehymn Oh
Throughout the novel The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu, the theme of displacement is explored, as Sepha Stephanos tries to find his identity in his new home in the United States while being mentally stuck in Ethiopia. As Sepha makes an effort to settle into his community in Logan Circle, forget about his homeland, and find love, the conflict of displacement follows him. The novel frequently flashes back to several months before and his life back in Ethiopia to further readers’ understanding of the theme and the character of Sepha.
In his 17 years of living in the United States, Sepha only makes two fellow African friends, who share his sour nostalgia of Africa. Whenever they get together, they discuss their lives back home, the politics, and events that had happened in Africa. Sepha makes it his lifestyle to relate everything he sees to his memories of Ethiopia. He and his friends speak in “broken English of Africa’s tyrannies,” as they create a fantasy world revolving around their reminiscence of their lives back in Africa. Sepha lives in this fantasy world while simultaneously trying to survive in the harsh reality of running his indigent grocery store in the corner of Logan Circle. Although his life is in Logan Circle, he never feels like he belongs there, and imagines himself moving back home. He lives his life in isolation and loneliness until Judith and Naomi, a Caucasian lady and her biracial daughter move in next door.
As Sepha’s relationship with Judith and Naomi deepens, he tries to play the role of a father to Naomi as he remembers his own father. As Sepha read stories to Naomi, he slips into the characters just as his “father would have done had he had been the one reading.” He attempts to identify himself with his father who had sacrificed himself for his family to his relationship with Naomi. At night he “relieved old fantasies and memories” of Ethiopia and imagine his father remembering the way he “cried at funerals, baptisms, and weddings.” Although Sepha is developing a relationship with Naomi, it revolves around his reminiscence of his father, hindering him from making a fresh start.
Some aspects of Sepha’s life are applicable to my life, because I had also moved to the United States. Although the circumstances and reasoning behind my journey here is much different than Sepha’s, moving to a different country is difficult and often stressful. I moved from South Korea when I was six and lived in Minnesota ever since. My memories of Korea have become snippets of images, so far and distant that sometimes I wonder if they were fabricated in my mind.  As Sepha had forgotten how his brother looked, I began to forget the faces of my cousins and aunts and uncles back home. My fondest childhood memories are in my backyard of my suburban neighborhood in Minnesota, playing ghost in the graveyard with the neighborhood kids during the summer and making snow forts during the endless winter. For the longest time I had a difficult time figuring out whether I was Korean or American. The documents tell me that I’m American, but my blood tells me I’m Korean. Like Sepha, identification was something that was confusing and I was stuck between two nationalities. When I was younger, I tried to hide the Korean side of me. I only wanted to blend in with my friends. But as I got older, I could feel the Korean side being more and more neglected. There is no one way solution and answer to this struggle. I only just matured, and the more I thought about who I am as a Korean American, the prouder I became. How awesome is it that I get to say I understand and am part of two cultures? I started embracing my Korean side, becoming more interested in the history and language. This, something that I had once considered embarrassing and shameful, is now a prized and valuable part of me that I will forever cherish and continue to cultivate.
As people transition from one phase of their life to another, it’s easy to get behind mentally and live in the past. By the end of the novel when Sepha leaves the store, Mengestu decides to leave out Sepha’s definitive future. Despite this frustrating and confusing ending, it only reemphasizes the uncertain and unpredictable thing that is life. As incoming freshmen in college, this is where many of us are--the fork road ahead of us of either living in the past glory or condemnation of high school days or taking advantage of college to renovate ourselves and pave our futures. As Sepha’s father’s wise words resonate within us-- “ a bird stuck between two branches gets bitten on both wings--”  as one door closes, we must walk through the other door in order to break through the uncertainties.
--Saehymn Oh

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