You might think, from its table of contents, that Meron Hadero’s observant debut, A Down Home Meal for These Difficult Times, is a collection of 15 pieces of short fiction. Its pages, however, come nested with many more stories than that. Throughout the book, characters recount their sagas or hide them as they find themselves trying to make rough sense of unfamiliar narratives. A poor street sweeper in Addis Ababa exaggerates his connection with an American. A stranger tells a passerby about a woman to whom he was once attracted, although he still betrayed her to the Derg, the military junta that ruled Ethiopia from 1974 to 1991.
Hadero, who lives in the Bay Area, makes use of Ethiopian and Ethiopian American experience in A Down Home Meal for These Difficult Times, which received the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing and the AKO Caine Prize for African Writing. But her stories obliterate any descriptive, geographic, or temporal borders with which language might attempt to cordon them. The result is work that’s wistful, grief-stricken, telling of strivers and survivors, packed with chatty intimacy.
When the world is coming undone, in other words, refugees and immigrants—so often cast as outsiders—find their lives especially precarious.
The opening story, “The Suitcase,” sets the terms for the collection with its notion that narratives are carried across borders of all kinds. The plot is simple: On the last day of a young Ethiopian American woman’s first trip to Addis Ababa, her relatives gather to fill her suitcase with gifts and food. As these relatives discuss the grandchildren they’ve never seen, their difficult pregnancies, and their squabbles, tensions mount. Who should get to fill the suitcase once it’s overweight with all these longings?
In “The Wall,” a 10-year-old Ethiopian refugee befriends an older German professor in Iowa. The two share an intimacy born of their awareness of just how quickly social bonds can be broken by larger political forces. Both understand that the nature of a wall, a hard boundary, is that “no matter which side you’re on, its shadow is cast on you.”
Empathy requires a willingness to bear complexity, to hold the possibility that your story says something different than mine does and yet both may be true. Hadero’s exceptional collection, very much in conversation with our post-Trump moment, draws the drama of that difficulty to the fore. In “Mekonnen aka Mack aka Huey Freakin’ Newton,” the title character, an Ethiopian boy whose family has landed in Brooklyn, explains that “it wasn’t until they arrived in the U.S. that my parents knew they were Black, and even then, they didn’t know how to understand it.”
His parents had thought in terms of ethnicity, ancestry, skin tone, but merely to fill out immigration forms requires a different identification.
Hadero’s stories frequently deploy misinterpreted gestures as a means of producing tension. A dance transforms into a punch. A search for a flashlight becomes swordplay. A gesture might seem to express one thing while concealing another, contradictory story inside it. Such is the case with “Swearing In, January 20, 2009,” the brief, concentrated account of Barack Obama’s inauguration that closes the collection. As the immigrant narrator experiences the ceremony, she holds fast to the faith that has gotten her through all the times America has told her she doesn’t belong: the racist comments about food, the assertion that she is an outsider, the nasty jokes about her accent. She is swept up in the swearing-in because Obama’s father comes from the same part of the world that she does, “perhaps charmed by the same pledge.”
At the same time, the story is painful, particularly in hindsight, when we think about the years that followed Obama’s presidency. From the perspective of the present, the narrator understands the strife already germinating in the ascendancy of America’s first Black president. She wants the feeling that suffused the inauguration to last, she acknowledges, but “what I didn’t see then was that while a great hope sprung up in me on that January afternoon, a great fear arose in others.” The tulips referenced in the story’s final line suggest the persistence of hope in the cold air of midwinter, but there’s deep sadness there as well.
If the danger faced by those who live on the anxious edge of societies, whether in Ethiopia or Germany or the United States, is not always—or even often—recognized, Hadero suggests, the signs are present long before they’re understood. In A Down Home Meal for These Difficult Times, she has crafted a profound collection that identifies this sensibility while also, in its overflow of stories, signaling the hope of a teller that a good listener will be ready to receive them.•