The Books Interview: Dinaw Mengestu

The American novelist talks about his voyage into the eastern Congo.

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The Ethiopian-born American novelist Dinaw Mengestu, whose second novel, How To Read the Air, was published at the turn of the year, has contributed a piece to the latest issue of Granta. "They Always Come in the Night" describes a journey Mengestu made into eastern Congo on the trail of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a Hutu militia comprising perpetrators of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. I spoke to Mengestu last week on the phone from his home in Paris.

What drew you to the Democratic Republic of Congo [DRC]?

I've had a lot of frustrations with the way the media has reported the situation in eastern Congo. In the States probably more so than elsewhere. It can often seem as if the main reason for the conflict is the fact that there are minerals and vast amounts of resources in Congo. In fact, the origins of the conflict are much more complicated. Minerals and resources are definitely a factor, but they're not the entire story. I was concerned that you end up with these stories of mass-rapes and violence and actually have no idea or understanding of who the men leading these organisations are. In this case, the leaders of the FDLR were living in Europe while conducting affairs in eastern Congo. This is a reminder of the fact that there strong characters who are behind these issues and until you can have an understanding of them you'll never understand what's happening on the ground.

You mention the emphasis often placed in the west on the fact that these conflicts are in some respects resource wars, but we're also often told that the slaughter taking place there is due to ancient ethnic hatreds.

They go hand in hand: either the conflicts occur because of natural resources or else because of these age-old ethnic divisions. This is not to say that ethnicity doesn't play a role in these conflicts, but ethnicity is a tool of politics. Ethnic divisions can definitely be exacerbated by a lack of natural resources, but those tensions become violent when people manipulate them for their own political gain.

And of course the racial ideologies that led to genocide in Rwanda and mass-murder in Congo are artefacts of colonialism, aren't they?

Artefacts that were manipulated by a handful of people, especially in Rwanda, in the years leading up to the genocide in 1994. In all those cases you have a handful of extremists who want a way of maintaining and strengthening their power, and one of the ways of doing that, of course, is to point to another group of people and say these are our enemies and we need to unify around that. There had been a colonial legacy that created the divide between Tutsis and Hutus, but that divide was also one that, as you can see now in Rwanda, was able to be eroded incredibly quickly. It's been 17 years since that genocide happened, and no one goes around talking about being Hutu or Tutsi. Those legacies have been removed.

But, as you say in your piece, the FDLR is doing all it can to keep that racial ideology alive in the neighbouring DRC.

It's very much to their benefit -- that tangled web of ethnic identity that's played out in the DRC, where you have Congolese Tutsis who are viewed with suspicion by some Congolese. They are able to manipulate that tension between the local population and the Tutsi population of eastern Congo.

One of the really striking things about the piece is the intense suspicion that you encountered from many of the people you met while you were in Congo. There's the usual suspicion that any foreign journalist, certainly any western journalist, attracts. But added to that was suspicion of your ethnicity.

Embarking on the trip, I was obviously aware of the fact that it was easy for people with my background to be considered Tutsi depending on their features. And I'd heard before that I looked Tutsian and that was in the back of my mind. It became apparent almost immediately when I got to Rwanda before moving to eastern Congo, and talked to some Tutsi journalists about trying to get closer to the FDLR. The unanimous response was to laugh out loud and to say how ridiculous and foolish it would be if I tried to actually find them in the bush.

You described the FDLR as an army of the diaspora and I get the impression that that's one of the things that really interests you about them.

One of the things that fascinates me the most about them is the way that this diaspora community can persist and remain for so long, so far from home. That and the way it allows them to secrete this fictional history in their minds. I was struck by the number of FDLR soldiers living in eastern Congo who have no memories of Rwanda at all, and no sense of the country's history, because they'd been raised in refugee camps. It's almost as if an alternative world has been created for them, with an entirely different version of history.

You met Jean Sayinzogo, head of Rwanda's demobilisation programme. For all your evident admiration for him, I sensed a deep scepticism about the "open arms" philosophy the Rwandan government adopts towards the genocidaires.

There is a scepticism there. The Rwandan policy of putting the genocide behind them is incredibly effective in many ways. But it's also incredibly frightening to think that this nation is being asked put this mass slaughter behind them.

Your encounter with Colonel Chuma of the Congolese army is interesting. You were almost seduced by him, weren't you? It's as if you wanted to believe that the FDLR were on the verge of defeat.

Completely. Of all the military men I've met in Africa, he was one of the more charming and in some ways a man of integrity. He was vastly more frank than anyone else would have been, especially in his position. Somebody will say they are fighting for their country and fighting for their people -- I've heard those phrases so many times from so many people. In this case, I think that he did want that to be true but that he didn't necessarily have the resources to make it true. There is this desire for the state to step up and provide the one thing that the population lacks, which is security.

The piece ends on a distinctly pessimistic note. Are you suggesting that the recent arrest of Callixte Mbarushimana, the last of the FDLR commandeers living in Europe, changes nothing?

It's still too hard to tell if it'll be nothing. If it's part of a series of movements that are not just humanitarian or purely military, then yes, it can become a death knell to the FDLR. But if it's purely of taking these guys out and allowing another group to take their place, then that'll really change nothing.

How do you see the relationship between long-form non-fiction like this and your fiction?

I tend to write longer narrative pieces after I've finished writing a novel - when the fiction's finished and put away, and I have a chance to take all the ideas that are buried inside of my novels and work with them directly. In my first novel, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, there was this large concern with political coups, military dictatorships and rebel armies. As soon as that novel was finished, I had the chance to meet with the head of a rebel army. So there is a dialogue between what I do in my fiction and non-fiction. There are moments in my work as a journalist that seep into my novels.

The preoccupation common to this piece and your second novel How To Read the Air is political violence.

Yes, political violence and the way it gets transmuted and manifests itself on a domestic scale.

Before the presidential election, you wrote a piece for the Granta website in which you described Barack Obama as a balm or a salve for at least some of America's racial wounds. Are you today as disappointed with him in office as many American liberals seem to be?

I'm not disappointed in him at all. I think there's a tendency with American liberals to be disappointed with him. There's also a tendency to drastically ignore the political reality - which is that a large part of the country is incredibly conservative and Obama is president of the United States and not just the liberal part of the United States. Even if he delivered world peace and a million new jobs to America tomorrow, 20 per cent of the population would still think of him as an African president who's come to steal their guns and take their bibles away from them. Nothing will change that.

You were named last year on the New Yorker's "20 Under 40 list". Is that kind of formal recognition important to you?

It's important in a very personal way, not very important to the work. What's going to matter with your work is how long it's going to survive and whether or not people are still reading your work a generation from now. Personally, it's a comfort and happiness to know that my work is taken seriously and is not marginalised and put in a box of ethnic immigrant writing in America.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.