Dinaw Mengestu’s The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears provides a springboard to meditate upon contemporary structures of feeling as the frontier effects of migration and gentrification, inclusion and exclusion. Along colonial and postcolonial sites of shame, the affect is produced in contexts of revolution, violence, and tyranny. In the USA, the affect is produced through the experience of racial difference, disempowerment, and the denial of the American dream. A spur for this meditation is Donald Trump’s public drama of narcissism and humiliation — of winners and losers. The novel’s important intertextual moments — involving The Brothers Karamazov — draw our attention to the more private, intimate practice of reading, that precious, if declining art.
Rita Barnard is Professor of English and director of the undergraduate program in Comparative Literature at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of Apartheid and Beyond (2006) and The Great Depression and the Culture of Abundance (1995) and the editor of the Cambridge Companion to Nelson Mandela (2014). The collection South African Writing in Transition, co-edited with Andrew van der Vlies has just been published.