From Dinaw Mengestu, “How to Read the Air”

From Dinaw Mengestu, “How to Read the Air” March 17, 2014

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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