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Hadero's stories feature immigrants, refugees and others struggling to belong

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Writer Meron Hadero has a new book out. It's called "A Down Home Meal For These Difficult Times," and she says she was intentional about the format.

MERON HADERO: Short stories allow you to peek into an idea from different angles - told through the eyes of different characters, set in different locations, using different points of view, with different styles - and really take an idea apart.

MARTIN: That idea, the one at the heart of Hadero's work, is displacement. Hadero was born in Ethiopia and raised in the U.S. She shares this with some of the characters in her stories. Though her protagonists exist in different parts of the world and at different points in history, they too share the experience of being outsiders in places that should feel like home. Hadero told our co-host Leila Fadel that short stories can give fresh perspectives to these themes.

HADERO: You can layer these different voices on top of one another and hopefully come to an understanding that's more complex. From the point of view of the writer, it was a way for me to do that for myself, to kind of deconstruct this idea of displacement and think about it through the lens of different voices and through the lens of different experiences. And I can only hope that, for a reader, they also have the opportunity to do that, and a reader would be able to see this as an idea with many different points of entry, and hopefully some speak to them.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Yeah. You open with this story, "The Suitcase." And I loved this story 'cause it - you know, as somebody who's the daughter of an immigrant going back to Lebanon, ultimately there are these cultural tests of are you really from this place? And here's this American girl who was born in Ethiopia. She's back in her parents' homeland, in the place that she was born, and she discovers that she sticks out. She doesn't belong. She doesn't know how to cross the street like people from here. And as she's leaving, her relatives ultimately put her to a cultural test.

HADERO: The suitcase connotes movement. It connotes leaving and coming and returning. And it has its own constraints. And in this story, those constraints kind of put pressure on the main character, Saba, who has to decide what can be taken back with her on this journey. And she's put on the spot, understanding that these items that she's really empowered and tasked with bringing back, - they mean so much more than they seem. So she's there kind of deliberating about the value of these items that relatives and friends are asking her to bring back.

You know, it really - it is this kind of tension between here and there and where does she belong and how does she make this judgment and what is the value? And there's something about these very kind of mundane items, perhaps - you know, books or bread - you know, that she has to bring back. But what the story, I hope, reveals is that in the mundane, there is the profound. So what is a loaf of bread is actually a relative missing, those that she hasn't seen in decades, and wanting to show her love and cross a very hard-to-bridge divide. And that's a loaf of bread, you know?

FADEL: I mean, so many of the stories end on an uncertainty about...

HADERO: Yes.

FADEL: ...What might come next, right? And I'm thinking of "The Street Sweeper" (ph), which was one of my favorites as well. And this is a story that's grounded in Ethiopia. It's a young man who meets this white NGO worker, Jefferson Johnson, and he starts to get his hopes up about a possible future and saving his family home if this guy can employ him, and he helps him. And there's this dynamic between them. Jefferson Johnson lives in a very different world, in the same city as Getu but a mile away. Can you talk about what you're doing with this story?

HADERO: Getu is trying to go to a party that he hopes will turn his life around. He is at risk of losing his home, but he has befriended Jefferson Johnson. And he's put a lot of hope in this actually junior NGO staffer. And so they've kind of developed what Getu sees as an important friendship. At the same time, he's invested quite a bit of hope in this dynamic. And I wanted the story to also be complicated in that there's nothing outwardly malicious about Mr. Jeff, as Getu calls him. But at the same time, you know, Getu's position is so precarious. It's so precarious. He's really quite close to losing everything.

FADEL: But also, you write about the exploitative nature of these democracy-building organizations, these NGOs that come into countries and, as Getu's mother says, remake and remake the neighborhoods and then kind of leave them behind and change their lives and just leave.

HADERO: The mother character is an important voice in the story, for sure. She's trying to impart a skepticism in Getu, but Getu has a really strong sense of belief and hope, and he hasn't experienced what she's experienced. However, Getu is incredibly resilient, so he learns kind of on the job or on the spot, and he's able to navigate to the point where I think the story to me ends on a hopeful note for Getu or a cynical - you know, it depends on your reading. I'd say, like, there's several different readings, but I hope that if you read the story twice, you would see it differently.

FADEL: I think that's what's so interesting about every story in this book, that it leaves us all in a place where we kind of decide where the story goes, where the story might go.

HADERO: I want these stories to raise the questions, but I don't want them to answer them. And I think that what's great about fiction is that it can create this landscape where these kinds of explorations can happen in a liberated and creative way. But, you know, it's not for me to even take that away from a reader. I want a reader to come to their own understanding. And I've had people say, like, oh, I think this happens to Getu or, you know, kind of imagine the next page. And I love to hear a reader imagine the next page of any story because it means to me that the stories carried on, that the characters maybe live off the page, that this story might be writing itself for a reader's mind into the future. And that's all you can really hope for.

FADEL: Meron Hadero on her new book of short stories "A Down Home Meal For These Difficult Times." Thank you so much.

HADERO: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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