From Dinaw Mengestu, “How to Read the Air”

While it was common even among the most disciplined teachers to allow for small fabrications, from the beginning the stories I told my students existed on a more ambitious plane. Now when asked for details about my life, I indulged myself. When one of my students wanted to know what I did before I began teaching at the academy, I told him that I had spent years working in a coal mine and had the blackened lungs to prove it. To another I was the captain of a Japanese trawler, and then a few days later a pimp and hustler. The more outlandish my responses were, the more my students wanted to know the truth, which had been the point all along.

Not only was I good at these inventions, I was grateful for them; only in fiction could I step outside of myself long enough to feel fully at ease. The stories all came naturally, just as I had shown myself more than capable of coming up with last-minute narrative filler for the asylum applications I once worked on. I thought of this as a distinctly American trait–this ability to unwind whatever ties supposedly bind you to the past and to invent new ones as you went along.

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