Monday, October 20, 2014

[Memphis Reads 2014] Fresh Reads Top Ten Winner Prakruthi Phaniraj

Fresh Reads Essay Contest Winner Prakruthi Phaniraj
A man who believes and lives with the mind and heart together lives a life well. However, if the same man's mind lives in one place but the heart belongs somewhere else, he lives in confusion and mystery. In Dinaw Mengestu's novel The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, Sepha Stephanos experiences this confusion as he searches for his identity and overcomes his displacement of living in a new country, America. He is stuck between the old memories and joyous family members of Ethiopia and the new adventures, as well as struggles, of America. As Stephanos tries to make a living in America by forgetting his homeland and finding love, the confusion of self-identity and displacement chase after him.

        Even though Stephanos has been living in the United States for seventeen years, he manages to make two African American friends, who, like him, share the longing of home. Through their similarities of homesickness, they all get together and discuss their lives back home, the politics and all the events that happened and are happening in Africa. They typically speak in "broken English of African tyrannies, what had yet to grow tedious," while they create a world of fantasy revolving around their recollections of their joyous lives back in Africa (48). Stephanos lives in this same fantasy world, reliving old memories and anecdotes while concurrently building a life and surviving through the life of the American society with the opening of his international grocery store on the corner of Logan Circle. While Stephanos dwells on the thought of living in isolation for a long period of time, Judith and Naomi, a Caucasian lady and her bi-racial daughter move in next door.    
        Stephano's relationship with the eleven-year-old Naomi deepens and he tries to play the role of a father to Naomi. He remembers his own father and his thoughtful and careful judgment; through this, he cares for Naomi with a stronger heart. As Stephanos reads stories to Naomi, he falls deep into the character's actions and thoughts just as his "father would have done had he been the one reading." He tries to recognize himself with his father, who sacrificed his life for Stephanos and the rest of his family in his own relationship with Naomi. After dusk, he "relived old fantasies and memories" of Ethiopia and pictures his father, recollecting the way he "cried at funerals, baptisms, and weddings."  Stephanos is developing a deeper relationship with Naomi, however the memories of his father are hindering him from making a new start and better relationship with Naomi.
"How was I supposed to live in America when I had never really left Ethiopia? I wasn't, I decided. I wasn't supposed to live here at all," Stephanos thinks as he uses his uncle's couch for two strenuous months (140). However, he soon realizes it is enough and with a little push from his uncle, he gets a small job and even attends the school his uncle picked out for him. Three years later he decides he can’t live like that anymore. "I couldn't believe that my father had died and I was spared in order to carry luggage in and out of a room. There was nothing special to death anymore. I had seen enough lifeless bodies by that point to know that," he thinks as he leans over an edge looking down at the sea (142). The next day he quits his job at Capitol Hotel and soon moves out of his uncle's apartment. With the help of his friends. he soon manages to learn how to "make lists, order supplies and goods and balance my budget" (143).  That's when his new life, along with his friends' new lives, starts.
        After many challenging endeavors and obstacles, he soon comes to a twist in his father's old saying: "A man stuck between two worlds lives and dies alone. I have dangled and been suspended long enough" (228). He is stuck between the two worlds and struggles to know where he truly belongs. Although those moments are inevitable to anyone, all they can do is sit back and look at the life they have made in the place they live. When Stephanos looks at his store, he sees that it could not be more perfect than it already was. He now has something he can truly claim as his own and this new claim is more than just property: it is his final destination and discovery of self-identity.
        Similar to Sepha Stephanos, I feel like I have been pulled between two places: my home country India and the United States. I entered the United States as a child, around eight years old. Although I was young enough to adapt to the culture and ways of the American society, something always seemed to pull me back from reaching out to the other American friends I had made. I didn't realize what it was since I was still so young, but a few years later I returned to India for a visit. Being back with my old friends and close relatives, I realized that my heart still belonged in India and the customs that I was so used to, I couldn't find in America. The Indian languages, Telugu and Kannada, were widely spoken and the food was known to everyone. However in America, I had to hide the Indian curries and rotis I brought to school and speak a language not spoken fluently every day. But soon enough, I taught myself to show the other side of me, the Indian side, to the other Americans around me. I had nothing to be embarrassed about and I although I was living in another country, my home country, mother India, will always be with me. As I found the courage to open up, I found that my peers were very interested in my food and language and even music. As I showed them the variety of Indian delicacies and different music selections, they showed me the different foods and musical artists in America. Then I didn't feel so stuck between where my heart was and the place I lived in. I live in a place where I can engage in the society and around me and live my Indian life as loud as I want.   

--Prakruthi Phaniraj

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