The Chicago author and speaker Mawi Asgedom spoke about his memoir at 57th Street Books Monday night. His memoir, Of Beetles and Angels : A Boy's Remarkable Journey from a Refugee Camp to Harvard, follows Asgedom from his early life in a Sudanese Refugee camp through his family's immigration to Wheaton, Illinois and his graduation from Harvard University.
"The title plays out through the book," said Asgedom, 25, referring to a saying of his late father that "even if someone looks like a beetle on the outside they can be an angel." According to Asgedom, the book is as much about fulfilling goals in life as it is about his own struggles.
"A lot of memoirs are 'my life is hard.' There are some parts here that are sad, but there are also parts that will make you laugh," said Asgedom before reading a chapter, "Days of Mischief," that compared a traditional holiday celebrated in the refugee camps with the excitement of his first Halloween in America at age seven. Asgedom lightened the serious mood of his autobiography with songs and jokes throughout the night.
After graduating from Harvard in 1999 with a degree in history, Asgedom began giving speeches to local high schools about his own life. After becoming a popular speaker, Asgedom decided to write his memoir.
"I hadn't seen a memoir of the black refugee experience in the past," said Asgedom, who cited writing influences as varied as Richard Wright and John Irving. He originally self-published the books through his own company, Magadee Books. Magadee means "the path of the journey." The popularity of the books at his speaking engagements, coupled with an appearance on Oprah, led Asgedom to a two-book publishing deal with Little, Brown and Company. His second book, slated to come out next year, will be a guide for how to be a successful teenager.
Asgedom's book is meant both for young adults and adults, and the audience at the reading reflected both of those demographics. Audience questions pushed Asgedom to talk about how he relates to the African-American community, how long it took him to learn English (seven or eight years, according to the speaker) and where one might find a good Ethiopian restaurant in the Chicago area (Detroit).
Asgedom has a special relationship with Chicago. "The main thing that brought me back [after Harvard] was my relationship with the city, The people are nice," said Asgedom, who cites his family as one of the most important parts of his life. His brother passed away in a drunk driving accident when he was in high school.
"My entire school read it and I enjoyed it personally," Michael Boraz, a teacher at Cantor Middle School who attended the lecture, said about the memoir.
"We've all been through that. We're taking turns reading it," said Hanna Redleaf, a student at the University Laboratory School, who attended with her siblings. Like Asgedom, she is from Ethiopia but now lives in Chicago.
This audience interest pleases Asgedom, who sees his book as appealing to "people between two and 142, either white or black or Asian and any race that exists on the planetmales and females. Also, other refugees who have had the same struggles. It has really resonated with them," he said.