Books

Review: Story collection navigates the lives of newcomers caught between two worlds

Meron Hadero is the author of “A Down Home Meal for These Difficult Times.” Photo: Restless Books

The lights have given way to darkness in the rain-soaked Costa Rican villa where I read Meron Hadero’s debut collection, “A Down Home Meal for These Difficult Times.” I don’t like reading short story collections in order, yet, as I crack open this one midway and begin “Sinkholes” about an Ethiopian boy in the midst of a standoff with his small-town Florida teacher over the use of the n- word, it occurs to me that I better start at the beginning. This remarkably tense story wasn’t at all what I expected. In fact, Hadero’s collection is full of surprises. With stories set in Berlin and Iowa, Los Angeles and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Hadero establishes her willingness to be an insider for the outsiders.

In the collection’s first story, “Suitcase,” Saba is on her last day in Addis. We meet her at an impossibly difficult traffic circle, unable to navigate a home that is no longer quite a home. Back at her uncle’s, aging aunties quietly remind her how much she owes them, forcing her to choose which of their gifts for stateside relatives she will add to her suitcase. Reading it, there is that familiar sense of both belonging and not belonging to a place, but Hadero doesn’t belabor this point. People must land somewhere, and she shows us how her characters negotiate impermanence, how people find a way.

In these stories, there are refugees and more privileged immigrants; There is murder, humor and a multiplicity of voices that highlight Hadero’s talent to inhabit and translate. But most noticeably, there is Hadero’s unusual and remarkable tenderness. She is gentle with her characters’ lives.

“A Down Home Meal for These Difficult Times” by Meron Hadero. Photo: Restless Books

We see this in “Mekonnen aka Mack aka Huey Freakin’ Newton,” where a young Ethiopian refugee in Brooklyn, NY, joins an African American stepping crew where the boys teach him to navigate life as Black in America. It is perhaps an oft-told story of trying to fit in, and Hadero doesn’t give us easy answers about the division between immigrant Blacks and African Americans. Rather, through a deft history lesson of the 1990s racial unrest in the Bensonhurst and Crown Heights neighborhoods, she leads us to the universal desire for dignity. “Next time, Newton,” one of the boys tells Mekonnen after learning that a store owner has mistreated him, “You walk away … Like this: ’About face,” he cried… “Left goes,” step, “right, ” step, “left,” step, “right,” step. “Pick it up, y’all! Left right, light and tight. Now right, left, swift and deft.”

It is the dignity that makes this collection a stunner.

Who can forget the formerly well-to-do who survives new hardships by preparing “down home meals” from a Good Housekeeping cookbook? As in all collections there are stories that don’t quite fit, but what is fiction if not an imperfect light reflecting the complexities of humanity? And as I sit in the darkness of a rain forest, feeling transported and far less alone, I am reminded that a little light goes a long way.

A Down Home Meal for These Difficult Times
By Meron Hadero
(Restless Books; 224 pages; $26)

Booksmith presents Meron Hadero with Ingrid Rojas Contreras: In person. 7 pm Tuesday, June 28. Free. Proof of vaccination and masks required. RSVP is recommended. 1727 Haight St., SF www.booksmith.com




  • Lauren Francis-Sharma

    Lauren Francis-Sharma is an award-winning author based in Maryland. Her latest novel, “Book of the Little Ax,” a finalist for the Hurston Wright Award in Fiction, was published in May 2020.

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