Migration is a prism. Land is a lens. Identity has no one truth, and fewer answers. A taxi token, a suitcase, a vanished prime minister, a slur on a chalkboard, a sack-lunch meal. All these appear distilled by Ethiopian American (by way of Europe) writer and lawyer Meron Hadero in her short story collection, “A Down Home Meal for These Difficult Times,” published June 28 by Restless Books.
Across a dozen-odd windows, Hadero peers across both distance and the psyche, in all the shapes it can take; no story escapes the weight of yearning — for comfort, for belonging, for any compass to contentment. Children rack their brains for the languages needed to fit in; young men learn the fragility of dreams when drawn against reality; women cook and write their way out of the bleakness of circumstance. These sound heavy, dour even, and you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in the book who could be described as happy-go-lucky. But Hadero has sidestepped acute trauma and suffering for a veil of melancholy rather than any abject darkness.
The opener, “The Suitcase” serves as a sort of table of contents for what the rest of the book will excavate. Saba, born in Ethiopia but raised in the U.S., is about to return home after a trip that has only reinforced how cleaved she is from her family and her birthplace. The central dilemma is what to keep and what to discard of all the gifts her Ethiopian family have piled into her suitcase, which far exceeds the airline weight limits.
The stakes, unseen, apply pressure. She is, as the protagonists that follow, “looking for a way out and a way in, but she realized there really were no shortcuts here.”
The acceptance of this distance often proves the deepest tension throughout, sometimes at the expense of fleshing out characters.
“The Street Sweep,” which won the 2021 AKO Caine Prize for African Writing, follows a night of both humiliation and political dexterity for Getu, a young Ethiopian street sweep who has been assisting a white American NGO worker in the hopes of parlaying his efforts into a job. He will do anything to make himself into “an exception to the rule that he’d seen proven over and over again that someone like him could be so easily swept aside.” But Getu, alongside many of Hadero’s characters, must sweep parts of himself away to survive.
This gets mirrored in “Medallion,” about an Ethiopian student whose perception of a promising future via his enrollment in an American university curdles when faced with the burdens of capitalism; he finds his most formative education in driving a cab. What happens is less important than how Hadero’s characters choose to remold themselves.
Story to story, most characters are Ethiopian or Ethiopian American, be they American-born, long-term residents of America or recent arrivals. Race, because its rules and orders shift and coagulate across sea and land, becomes like another language to learn. “Mekonnen aka Mack aka Huey Freakin’ Newton,” a recently immigrated boy must adapt not only to being American, but also to being Black, the tribal histories and ontologies of Ethiopian identity be damned.
One of the most compelling stories, structure-wise, is “The Case of the Missing Prime Minister,” which fictionalizes the initial coverup and media speculation on the death of Ethiopian prime minister Meles Zenawi, told in the story through a series of blog posts from an online publication called The Exile Gazeta. Hadero has inverted the timeline, beginning at 100 days since the PM’s last appearance and working backward into conspiracy, nationality, speculation and the craving of a media spectacle over substance.
The jarring organization underscores what it’s like to be a news reader in a nation without a free press.
Another version of this reflection shows up in “The Life and Times of the Little Manuscript & Anonymous,” which tracks the repercussions of an anonymous writer’s manuscript on the harsh realities of Ethiopian politics and media suppression, as well as its rippling impact on a partisan political writer. While the structure doesn’t always fluidly blend the two narratives, both portend the consequences of committing truth to writing, a truth that “found itself in the middle of a tug-of-war as political interests tried to take control of the story, tried to interpret history to their own benefit.”
This is not a collection of chaos or mystery; the tailoring, bones and architectural blueprints make themselves known from the start. Hadero writes with surety, inhabiting the voices of children, young adults and elders with ease as they navigate how their geography and its norms impact them. Her characters inhabit many corners: Some are in Ethiopia, some in New York, Iowa, Los Angeles, with mentions of Germany. But curiously, none of them set foot in the Bay Area, where Hadero currently lives. Is it fair to assume this is because the Bay, for all its faults, may not elicit these discarded yearnings?
The first half stands bolder than the second, with an admixture of narrative choices that join epistolary, reverse chronology and tempered yet striving voices. The themes — of displacement, of family, of land, are clearer — and the characters who inhabit them more distinct; the earlier stories largely follow individuals with textured interiors. As the collection wanes, a lack of backstory furnishing leaves some characters muddling together and ideas too buried in subtlety. Hadero pokes at history, at media, at how people — particularly refugees — process their identities when they have been forcibly shifted. Even when the stories don’t dazzle, they beget examination.
The collection’s eponymous story concerns two Ethiopian women refugees who unwittingly begin chasing an American dream, not necessarily theirs, via a food truck business. What began as a coping mechanism to sharpen their cooking skills becomes a tenuous clearance into a country that often obscures its pain with work and productivity. The success is thorny, and Hadero shines when wielding denuded realization with understated prose:
“What has been this hobby — this habit, this salvation, not even a passion, but a custom they very much came to need — became their work.”
Many of us, immigrant or not, refugee or not, are living through that now, believing we can commodify what gives us peace without having to reexamine our relationships to it. There is no pandemic in Hadero’s work, but these imagined lives — many pockmarked by geopolitical decisions that dictate their safety, their senses of selves — feel perpetually braced for the worst. If Hadero has one takeaway, it’s that we can achieve nothing of our dreams, our goals, without first looking hard and long at them.