Dinaw Mengestu’s “An Honest Exit”

Please address at least one of the following questions in your response.  Remember to keep this brief–about a paragraph or so in length.

1) Do you trust this narrator?  Why or why not?

2) What expectations are set in the first paragraph of the story?

3) How do the narrator’s feelings towards his students and his father develop throughout the piece?  Support your position with evidence from the story.

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23 responses to “Dinaw Mengestu’s “An Honest Exit”

  1. 1) No, I do not trust the narrator. I perceived the narrator to be an insensitive jerk right away. He obviously does not respect his father or his classmates. Towards the end of the story, the narrator admits to the dean that the story about the father’s hardship was made up. In the beginning, he obviously does not care about his class. For example: “The had always been just bodies to me, a prescribed number that came and went each day.” (page 2).

    2) First, we are introduced to the narrator admitting that he or she did not converse with the father during his lifetime. I was taken back by that at first. I, personally, want to know why the father and the narrator did not talk much. Did the father betray his child before he died? I expect the narrator to reflect on his relationship with his father more as the story progresses. The theme of a deteriating father and child relationship will make for good suspense.

    3) Throughout the story, the narrator did not care about his or her class. This was made apparent when he informed the reader that he views his students as bodies and nothing else. He also admits that the story he told his class was a lie.
    In reference to the father, I was under the impression that he had a lot of respect and concern for his father. Through his stories, the narrator describes his dad as hard working despite the unsettling environment: “My father carried boxes from dawn until midday, when it got too hot to work.”
    In the end, the narrator obviously has no remorse for his father’s passing. There is a quote on page nine that backs it up: “There were no rewards in life for such stupidity, and he promised himself never to fall victim to that kind of blind, wishful thinking. Anyone who did deserved whatever kind of suffering he was bound to meet.” By reading the previous quote, the narrator obviously comes across as insensitive and heartless.

    • Thanks, Klaus. Good point that the narrator does come across as insensitive at the outset of the story–but I wonder if/how the readers’ perception of him might change over the course of the piece.

  2. 1. The narrator tells us early on that he “needed a history more complete than the strangled bits” his father had told him, so he continued with his father’s story, “knowing that [he] could make up the missing details as [he] went.” Even though the author states this in the beginning I am still compelled to believe there is truth in the version he gives us. I don’t distrust the narrator but I do wonder how much is real. The fact the he continues talking to us when the class isn’t present leads me to believe those parts of the story.

    2. The expectations set in the first few paragraphs tell us that the author didn’t have a great relationship with his father while he was living and felt distant from him. The author mentions that he doesn’t actually know the details of how his dad got to America but we see that he needs something to hold onto after having lost him. The distance he feels with his father is present in the relationships he has with his students and coworkers. The first few paragraphs led me to think that the story would reveal the real reasons he and his father were so disconnected and show us how this carried over into the author’s life.

    3. In the beginning of the story, the author’s relationship with his father and students is distant. He knows them but at the same time is uncertain of who they really are. But as he starts to tell his class about his father, we see his attitude towards both of them change. At one point he says of his students: “for a few seconds, though, I saw them clearly—the deliberately rumpled hair of the boys and the neat, tidy composure of the girls in opposition.” Later he talks about how he felt “comforted” and “embraced” by the thought of the students telling their friends and talking about his father’s story. The author starts without much to say about his father but as the story of his father develops, so does his father’s character. It’s as though the telling of the story brings to life and fleshes out his bony sunken-cheeked father, making him more real to the author.

    • Hi Julia,
      I just wanted you to know that, in particular, I thought the reference to the description of the father as bony being fleshed out was really well-put. I love that it’s visual and straight out of the text simultaneously!

      • Indeed–and great points, Julia. I’m inclined to trust the narrator as well, especially since he *admits* that he’s making up most of the story. And very perceptive to notice that the made-up story functions as a way for the narrator to “get to know” his father, while simultaneously telling other people about him. Others, it might be interesting to consider what, if anything, Mengestu is saying about the act of storytelling here.

  3. 1. I have mixed feelings about my trust towards the narrator. Even though that the narrator tells us that he is making up the stories of his father’s adventure, and lying to all of the students, I do not distrust him. I agree with Julia about parts of the story possibly being real. I think that some of those details and escapades are too close to the truth to come from the imagination. With that being said, I would not say I particularly trust the narrator though considering he did say that he was lying to his entire class. He also states in the first paragraph that he never spoke to his father much when he was alive, so this brings up the question in my head as to where he came up with all of those realistic details if they never talked. The narrator confuses me.

    2. In the first paragraph, I felt that the most important information that is given to the reader is about the communication between the narrator and his father. Like Klaus said above, we learned that the narrator did not speak much with his father when he was alive. We also learn that the narrator has a conversation with his father after his death. This personally set up expectations that the narrator is going to explore the relationship he had with his father before and after his death. Also, I had expectations that the father must have still made an impact in the narrator’s life, although they didn’t speak, because he was talking to him after his death.

    3. I feel that the narrator’s feelings towards his students and his father develop and strengthen throughout the story. I think that in the beginning, he was using the mechanism of exaggerating the story as a way to deal with his father’s death. I think that he was being selfish and since he had power and opportunity to let out his feelings and stories to his students, he did so. Eventually, he realized that they were extremely attached to him and his story; they were not even wanting to leave the class after the bell rang. He saw that the dean was proud of him that he was helping the students talk about important things rather than silly gossip. Through this, he gained more respect for his students because he saw that they respected and admired him.

    • Thanks, Elyse, and yes–I think that the narrator, too, is confused about his motivations, particularly at the beginning of the story. I wonder if it’s “respect” he feels for his students–and his students feel for him–at the end, or if it’s something else. It might be useful to unpack the concept of “respect” a little bit . . .

  4. 1. I agree with Klaus, I don’t trust this author. I didn’t trust him beginning with the statement, “I’m the only one who calls it the Academy. That’s not its real name. I stole it from a short story.” If he would steal the name of the Academy, it seems just as likely that he stole this story as well. I also don’t trust the author because he said that he barely spoke to his father and now he is telling his life story in great detail. Plus, the author admits to the dean that he made up most of the story about his father. I couldn’t sort out fact from fiction in this story and that’s why I do not trust this author.

    2. From the first paragraph we know that we will be learning about the hardships of the authors father. He says where he was born and where he died, from this I get the feeling that we will learn about what happened in between these events. I agree with everyone else in that we also learn that there was little to no communication between the author and his father. The expectations set up are that we will find out why there was a communication issue. I also expect the author to explain more about why he considers his students so “privileged” and how this will play into the story.

    3. The narrators feelings toward his father seems to grow in both admiration and anger as the story progresses. He admires how hard his father worked to save his money. He respected him as a hard worker, I saw this when he described carrying the stones on a tray. “If the stones moved he knew he had failed and would try again, until eventually he probably could have walked several miles without spilling a drop of tea or shifting a single stone.” This shows the author’s admiration for his father because he works at something until he accomplishes it, also he says that he ‘probably could have walked several miles,’ The author does not know this, but since he admires his father he believes he accomplished his goal. On the other hand, I think the author also becomes angered with his father for obeying Abrahim so easily and so faithfully. I see this when the author describes how he would end the story by saying, “He arrived in Europe just as Abrahim promised, but an important part of him died during the journey.” The author is mad at both the author his father because a part of him died during that journey and he would never be the same.

    • Michelle, thanks for bringing up some great points. Interesting that the narrator “steals” his facetious name for the high school from a short story at the beginning. With this in mind, another interesting question might be to think about how the narrator’s relationship with stories changes throughout this piece. And yes, the first paragraph also establishes that the narrator considers his students to be “privileged,” and that he’s positioning himself opposite them in this way.

  5. 1. I would not say I fully trust the narrator, but I do commend him in his efforts to retell his father’s story. Obviously he has been affected from his father’s death, so I think that sharing his thoughts is a type of stress-reliever for him. There was a section when the narrator mentions that he will fill in the gaps of the story, which led me to believe that he did not have a strong relationship with his father. So for me the question really is not about whether I trust the narrator, but instead whether the narrator’s actions truly reflect his feelings towards his father.

    2. The first paragraph starts off with giving a general overview of the story. I sensed a feeling of straightforwardness from the author, Mengestu, especially when the narrator openly admits that his relationship with his father is better now than when he was alive. I really expected the remainder of the story to be pretty interesting, because I wanted to find out how the narrator has developed over the time with the loss. In general, I was left with a sense of curiousity, which was done so by Mengestu’s language and introductory paragraph.

    3. In the beginning I could tell that the narrator did care too much for his father, before he passed, as well as his students at the Academy. Although he was not very close to his father, I would have to agree with Michelle who says that he respected him for his work (refer back to the rocks and tea). As the story unravels, the narrator begins to develop a new found view of his father. His student’s were there to listen and I think they were an important role in the development of the main character. After telling his father’s story, the narrator’s attitude towards students significantly changed. For example, the narrator describes the students giving him “huge tides of sympathy…when they saw him in the hallway”, which brought the students in a while other light.

  6. Hey, sorry Im so late with this, I for some reason cant access the story from black board, i will post responses as soon as I can ready it, just wanted to check in while its (technically still) sunday night

  7. 1.) I do trust the author. I understand his reason behind inventing the voids in what he knows of the story of his father as being a way to connecting them together to create a history that his “privileged freshmen” will be interested in. He has no personal gain in his invention but that he may reach an audience that would have a tendency to look down on an Ethiopian “as a monkey trying to teach their language back to them”. That he deviates from the syllabus to teach an important lesson in “Early American literature” is actually telling us a story of a contemporary “early American literature,” the difference being early to whom? To and American immigrant, “early” American takes on a whole new meaning. And it’s spoken rather than read. All family stories are handed from one generation to another and are changed over time. Probably unintentionally. I think that his point in making his narrative as an Early American literature teacher is calling into question what “early” means in the context of Americanism.

    2.) In the first paragraph of the story, I expect that the narrator has very little real converstaion with his father but didn’t realize that there was a limit on the amount of time he had to do so. The broken sentences where the father rejects the American English and speaks in staccato seem to be the what provokes the narrator to study the language itself. I’d say that that was the reason that he had to tell his story in the classroom . The telling in speech of the story is a lesson in itself.

    3.) The narrator’s connection with his father and his student audience seems to advance simultaneously. As he tells the story, his ideas of both change. As he tells his father’s story, he learns to include what could have and, most likely from his father’s limited dialogue, did happen. He also learns that it is important to share it with an audience because “…that was all that it came down to: I had given my students something to think about, and whether what they hear from me had any relationship in reality hardly mattered; real or not, it was all imaginary for them. That death was involved only made the story more compelling.” What is the point of teaching if you are speaking to an audience that you have not engaged?

  8. Thanks, Kris. I like your point about “early American literature”–very perceptive.

  9. I do not trust the narrator in this story due to the fact that he clearly states, “needed a history more complete than the strangled bits” that his father had told him, implying that the narrator would be making up details of the story in his retelling. I agree with Julia in her analysis of this passage. Also the part when the narrator is conversing with the Dean and, the narrator makes a mental confession that the story had parts that were not real, adds to my distrust in the narration. As a reader I felt myself guessing which parts were real and which parts were false, leading to a lot of speculation resulting in distrust. I agree with Paul in that I respect the narrator paying a tribute to his father in the retelling of his story to an audience of “privileged students.” I could sense a feeling of admiration of the narrator toward his father, and an element of compassion and love. But it was very difficult to decipher which parts were real and which were made up.

    • Thanks, Colin. It might be useful to distinguish between trusting what the narrator is telling his *students,* and trusting the narrator. I found his honesty about his dishonesty (if that makes sense) to make him an even more trustworthy character.

  10. 1) No, I don’t really trust the author. On page 1 he says that “knowing that I could make up the missing details as I went” that was the first red flag as far as trusting the narrator is concerned.
    I am also concerned because the narrator not only doesn’t have a strong bond with his father but it seems that he didn’t really like his father. Another thing I noted is the bitterness of the narrator at some points while he is telling the story about his father.
    Another thing that leads me to not trust the narrator is the joy he finds in being “the thing” to talk about among his students.
    2) I haven’t read the story yet, only the first paragraph and what I expect from the story now is that the story will answer the questions that the first paragraph has me thinking about. For example, I’m curious as to why the father and the narrator barely talked while the father was alive. I also want to know whether this distance between the narrator and the father has anything to do with the fathers’ background as an Ethiopian. Also, I expect the story to explore the human nature and to help me understand why the son has a change of heart and is talking to his father… now that the father is dead.
    3) I feel that the narrator doesn’t have a bond with his students in the beginning of the story. But when he shares the death of his father with them, he seems to make a “connection” with them. This allows him to see them as more than “just bodies” but as individuals whom he can share his loss with. Another place where I saw that he had come to like his students was towards the end on page 8 when he says “My students, for all their considerable wealth and privilege, were still at an age where they believed that the world was a fascinating, remarkable place, worthy of curious inquiry and close scrutiny, and I’d like to think that I had reminded them of that.”

    I think that as the narrator tells his students about his father, the students aren’t the only ones learning about his father! I feel that the narrator himself comes to realize certain things about his father that he knew already but perhaps he wasn’t so aware of before. I think the narrator comes to respect his father a little more when he recounts the struggles his father might have went through, but I don’t think that he liked him any more at the end than he did in the beginning.

  11. 1. I agree with Julia that I trust the narrator in his admittance that he is not telling the truth, or at least, the whole truth. That he shares that he is “making up the missing details as [he] went” makes me doubt the specifics of the story itself, but not the narrator who is telling it. And I think there’s a difference there, a distinction. I love what Kris said, that “All family stories are handed from one generation to another and are changed over time.” That’s EXACTLY how I felt about this story. Does it really matter if the details are added in? I think sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish fact from fiction in stories, especially stories that are told and retold, these collective histories we pass down through generations. Sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish between the memory of hearing about something and actually remembering that something, and I think that’s part of Mengestu’s point. The story the narrator tells us isn’t accurate, by his own admittance, but I don’t think it changes the meaning of the story, the conveyance of the narrator’s attempts to create the life story for the father he was too distanced from to know. He sort of “brings his father to life” in a way that authors do their characters.

    2. The first paragraph left me asking all the same questions as my classmates; what happened in the father’s lifetime? Why did the father and narrator never speak much in his lifetime? I felt the same way as Kris in that I also had the sense that the narrator “didn’t realize that there was a limit on the amount of time he had to” speak with his father. It felt, even just reading the opening lines, that there was some sense of regret there, not necessarily guilt, but missed opportunity. It seemed to me that the narrator felt a little surprised at having this “conversation” with his dead father, as though it had begun organically and unexpectedly, as though he had suddenly noticed he was telling his father about his life without any preconceived notion of doing so. I also found the use of the phrase “privileged freshmen” interesting here, as Michelle pointed out. It set up the expectation of seeing more of the dichotomy between his father who “died in a boarding house in Peoria, Illinois” which sounds like a quiet and somehow lonely death, to these privileged freshmen who potentially couldn’t understand such a thing.

    3. I’m with Kris in that I LOVED Julia’s line – “It’s as though the telling of the story brings to life and fleshes out his bony sunken-cheeked father, making him more real to the author.” I thought that was really perceptive. I think, like so many of my classmates have pointed out, as the story continues, the distance between the narrator and his father, and the narrator and his students, becomes less and less. I like the way the students begin telling their own versions of the story, as is the way with storytelling, and the “gossip” aspect of them relaying his narrative in the halls makes the story grow and change in ways that respond back to my answer for number one. The truth of it doesn’t seem to matter as much as the effect of it, and I think in understanding this through his creation of the story and his witnessing the students response to it, and in turn, the narrator’s response to their response, helps him feel more connected to them. It helps him feel like a teacher with something real to offer his students, something beyond “a monkey trying to teach their language back to them.”

    • Very nice analysis, Frankie, and very well put. I especially like the notion that the “truth of [the narrator’s story] doesn’t seem to matter as much as the effect of it.” I think you’re right about that. It might be interesting to connect that idea to a larger point about storytelling.

  12. 1) I trust the narrator as far as the important lessons of the story are concerned, but the actual content of the story is, under his own admittance, made up. The narrator tells the story beautifully and imparts a profound sense of the world around them on the young students which is always, always a good thing. As he states in the story though, the narrator is making most of the story up. He is also very contradictory almost from the beginning. He states he and his father had never talked much, but when he refers to Abrahim having a real history to draw on, he says “My father had mentioned him regularly, not as a part of normal conversation but as a casual aside that could come up at any time without warning.” This implies that he and his father have spoken regularly, contradictory to the statement made in the opening of the story.

    2) The opening paragraph makes it seem that he is either talking to the ghost of his father, perhaps a sort of surreal experience where he encounters his fathers “ghost” in his mind and has the long, revealing conversations he wished he could have had with him in order to move forward with his life. It was confusing at first glance because I originally thought he was remembering a conversation he had with his father in the past, but almost immediately after this thought he said it was “after he died,” which was confusing initially.

    3) I’m not really certain how his relationship with his father changes, as it’s difficult to discern if the last portion of the story is made up or not, and besides the short breaks in between telling the story of his father we never really get a clear view of the narrators thoughts. His feelings for the students, thought, grew fond near the middle when he realized that they were all thinking about him and wishing him well. At the end, however, he realizes that the enlightened view on the world he had briefly given them would shrink, and they would “they would grow out of that and concern themselves with the things that were most immediately relevant to their own lives.”

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