Monday, October 13, 2014

[Memphis Reads 2014] Fresh Reads Top Ten Winner Luke Wade

Fresh Reads Essay Contest Winner Luke Wade
Dinaw Mengestu’s The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears is a story of a man with an identity crisis, though not so much in who he is as where he feels he should be.  Although the book’s protagonist, Sepha Stephanos, has left his home country of Ethiopia seventeen years prior, he is still conflicted as to whether the U.S. is really where he belongs.  Several times, he considers just packing up and going home, yet in the end he stays. The text serves to show how he comes to understand that he cannot go back, as well as the trials he must face to reach this understanding.
        Stephanos, at least for a good portion of the story, is a man who has left his home, but has not altogether “left.”  He is still reminded of his old life everywhere he goes, and even claims, “For at least the first two years that I was here, I was so busy passing my mother, brother, father, and friends…that at times it hardly felt as if I had really left….My hallucinations of home became standard” (175-176).  It is clear that though he has physically moved on, he is still stuck in the past mentally.  Yet he still tries to create his own identity as a store clerk chasing the American dream.  This exemplifies his struggle for a unified self in one country or the other, in that he strives for success in one while struggling to let go of the other.  Without making a choice, he remains stuck in a geographic limbo.  That is, until he meets Naomi and Judith, or rather, when he must say his last goodbye to them.
        When Sepha becomes closer to Judith, he often considers what a relationship with her would be like, but he always holds back.  Why? Even after seventeen years in the country, he still can’t see himself with an American woman, because he still hangs onto the possibility of returning to Ethiopia.  Time and time again, he skirts the edge of intimacy with her until it is too late to make his move.  It is at this point, as he walks away from her for the last time, that he truly accepts that he can never go back, and the fact that he should have been looking ahead in the first place.  “…a man stuck between two worlds lives and dies alone.  I have dangled and been suspended long enough…Right now, I’m convinced that my store looks more perfect than ever before” (228).  Here, he chooses his quaint little store, the life he leads in America, and the affirmation that he will not let another “Judith” slip through his fingers.
        While Sepha’s story may seem foreign (both figuratively and literally) to some, it is actually quite relatable to me.  Though I’ve never been out of the country (and have hardly left Tennessee, for that matter), I can understand being stuck between two conflicting “worlds,” and letting life pass me by in the process.  Not long ago, I was battling severe depression.  Every day felt like a tug of war between waking up and giving up.  I knew I should have been productive and involved, but I rarely felt the drive to be so.  I considered my thoughts bipolar, but never my actions; one minute I was ready to conquer the world, the next not even ready to get out of bed.  Regardless of what I was thinking, I hardly left my room save for going to school, because I was trapped by “what-ifs” and whether it was just easier not to try.  I wanted to be successful, though, so I finally made my choice and stuck to it.  I knew that I was depressed in part from an incredibly poor self-image.  I was overweight, had poor hygiene, and prior to making my decision, made next to no effort correct either.  However, I needed a starting point, and that proved to be it.  Over the course of about three months, I lost nearly sixty pounds, and, to the benefit of everyone around me I’m sure, began showering consistently.  My fourteen-hour long gaming marathons ended, and I eventually gained some confidence.  I was doing better than ever in school, and overall felt much better about who I was and who I could become.
        A year has now passed since I decided to make a change.  While I still have some kinks I need to work out, I feel I am in control of my life and have the support I need to keep moving ahead.  Now I’m just your average, somewhat awkward teenager going to college to take yet another big step forward in life.  To me, this reaffirms the idea that your development as a human being is never done.  The journey never ends, but you move a lot faster when you’re not trying to follow two separate paths.
---Luke Wade

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