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Ethiopian-American Artists Make Their Mark

A generation of Ethiopian Americans is making its mark on the arts. They are part of a wave of young people whose families fled Ethiopia in the 1970s and who came of age in the United States. Their writing, music and art are adding a new chapter to the epic of American immigration.

Author Dinaw Mengestu's first novel, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears (Read an Excerpt), came out this month to warm reviews. At an Ethiopian restaurant near downtown Washington, D.C., Mengestu, 29, is thinking back on the journey that brought him here. Born in Addis Ababa, he left Ethiopia at the age of 2, then spent the next seven years in Peoria, Ill. Now Mengestu teaches at Georgetown University and lives in New York City.

Incongruous as this path may seem, Mengestu says it began with the bloody revolutions that followed the overthrow of Ethiopia's Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974. Tens of thousands of Ethiopians were imprisoned and executed.

Mengestu's novel follows a character who, after his father is killed, makes his way to the District of Columbia. Mengestu drew on family history to imagine the past of his main character. Sepha Stephanos eventually opens a grocery in a gentrifying D.C. neighborhood and begins a relationship with a white academic and her biracial child.

At least 22,000 Ethiopians call the District of Columbia home. About half a million live in the United States. Some survived the horrors of the 1970s and 1980, and now their children are trying to make sense both of that period, which they never experienced first hand, and being young and black and African and American here.

Gabriel Teodros, a hip-hop musician who lives in Seattle, is part of a rising movement of young writers, artists, and musicians who are figuring out how to explain the various worlds they traverse and the sometimes odd cultural interconnections they find.

Take, Teodros says, Jamaica's Rastafarian culture, the trappings of which are popular in the United States. It literally venerates Ethiopia's former emperor.

"What do Ethiopians think when they come to this country and they see all these people who really don't have too much knowledge about what's going on in Ethiopia, like [sporting] Haile Selassie on a shirt or wearing red, yellow and green [the Ethiopian flag colors]? I think for the most part, like when Ethiopians see that, they're either like flattered, like 'Wow, these people think Ethiopia's really cool...' Or they feel that it's cultural appropriation. Like, 'Why do you have the emperor's face on your shirt?'"

Teodros complains that most Americans just associate Ethiopia with famine. But this generation has the pride of being from a place that remained largely independent while other African countries endured decades of European colonization.

Born in Addis Ababa, painter Julie Mehretu is an art-world star. Her work is coveted by collectors and fetches hundreds of thousands of dollars. Mehretu, 36, was brought up in Kalamazoo, Mich., and has lived in New York and Senegal.

In her huge paintings, Mehretu layers together fragments of maps and architectural drawings into a shattered whole with shapes and markings that seem to have a meaning of their own, says Mik Awake, who covers arts and letters for an Ethiopian-American magazine called Tadias.

"There's a whole language she's invented that draws not just from one tradition or another, Ethiopian or American, but it's just this completely new and ambitious take on the world and the world as a kind of gathering place where all these different symbols divorced of any kind of direct direction meet, converge and separate," Awake says.

He says that like every first generation in America that's preceded them, this one has new answers to the question of who Americans are.

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Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.