Happy Birthday, Dinaw Mengestu, born 30 June 1978
- Don’t think about how your characters sound, but how they see. Watch the world through their eyes – study the extraordinary and the mundane through their particular perspective. Walk around the block with them, stroll the rooms they live in, figure out what objects on the cluttered dining room table they would inevitably stare at the longest, and then learn why.
- History does influence our lives – every moment. We never sort of live our lives in a linear fashion. We always have these memories and these images from our past that sometimes were not even aware of, and they sort of shape who we are.
- Believe that a good writing day can be one passed entirely in silence, with hours spent staring at a blank screen, or glaring at a single word or paragraph, knowing there is nothing you can add or change at that particular moment.
- As a writer, it’s a great narrative tool to have that character who is slightly detached but at the same time observant of his reality, because I think that’s pretty much what being a writer is – being there, watching and internalising.
- Ghosts are common to the life of any child: mine just happened to come to dinner more often than most.
- Be generous to your characters: kill them, save them, break their hearts and then heal them. Stuff them with life, emotions, histories, objects and people they love, and once you’ve done that, once they are bursting at the seams, strip them bare. Find out what they look like—how they stand, talk move, when they have nothing left. Now put them back together, fill them once more with life, except now leave enough room for the reader to squeeze their own heart and imagination inside.
- As for most writers, language is vital for me: a writer’s ability to render a fictional world – characters, landscape, emotions – into something original that alters or deepens my understanding of both literature and life.
- Listening is writing’s occasionally overlooked and undervalued companion, and when not clacking away at the keyboard, comes the chance to sit in sometimes awkward, sometimes painful silence with the characters and world you’ve struggled to create. Even if not a single word is written, you have shown up, you’ve affirmed the simple fact that you care and have the patience to endure.
- And in case it’s possible to forget—remember the world does not need your book. The world will go on just fine without it. There are plenty of wonderful novels, poems, stories, essays for many lifetimes of extraordinary reading, and so write out of necessity, out of personal privation, because you, and perhaps only you, needs to read those words.
Dinaw Mengestu is an Ethiopian-American novelist and writer. In addition to three novels, he has written for Rolling Stone on the war in Darfur, and for Jane Magazine on the conflict in northern Uganda. All Our Names was longlisted for The Folio Prize.
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