Author of Of Beetles and Angels: A True Story of the American Dream
December 2001/January 2002
by Bella Stander
Sometimes you meet the best people-and read the best books-by accident. Of course, there's a greater probability of such accidents happening if you attend the publishing industry's enormous trade show, BookExpo America. At the end of a long day last June, I was crammed into a ballroom with hundreds of other weary conventioneers, and fell into conversation with a slim young man standing next to me. His name was Mawi Asgedom, he said, and he was at BEA for the first time because he'd written and self-published a memoir, Of Beetles and Angels: A True Story of the American Dream. I smiled politely but inwardly rolled my eyes. Almost every self-published book I'd seen (and there were plenty at the show) was poorly written and amateurishly produced. Sure, the kid was personable and well-spoken, but what had he done that would justify writing a memoir?
Plenty, as it turns out. Here's a brief synopsis: At age three, Asgedom, his five-year old brother Tewolde and their young mother, with baby girl in her arms, walked across Ethiopia to a refugee camp in Sudan to rejoin his father, who had fled for his life. After three years, the family was resettled in Wheaton, Ill. Despite grinding poverty, by high school the boys became high-achieving students and model citizens. Then Tewolde was killed by a drunk driver. After that, Asgedom (whose full first name, Selamawi, means "peaceful") strove even harder, becoming a track star as well as a straight-A student. He won a full-tuition scholarship to Harvard and was studying in Spain his junior year when his ailing father was also killed by a drunk driver. Even after this second crushing loss, Asgedom graduated on time with a degree in American History and delivered the commencement address in 1999. Since then he has become a professional speaker, making appearances at schools, community groups and corporations.
"I don't look back on my past and say I was amazing, or different from other kids," says Asgedom, 24, an avid Chicago Cubs fan and "eligible bachelor" who lives near Wrigley Field. "Sometimes people think that the American dream isn't true, but I think it's still possible," he affirms. "If you work really, really hard and have that burning desire in your heart, you can do well in this country, regardless of your background."
"One thing I learned is that if you don't share enough of your life with people, whether written or spoken, it doesn't affect them. It's hard for me to get up there and tell people about these horrible things that happened to me, but if I make myself vulnerable it has a lot more power for the audience." Asgedom, now an American citizen, is involved with a local chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and speaks at some of their events. "When you're 15 years old, you don't really understand what death is," he says. "After you've survived so much, you can't believe that drunk driving would happen to you. If I can spare one family the pain that mine went through, then it's worth it."
Audiences told Asgedom that he should write a book about his experiences. In just six months last year he did, and a fine one at that-beautifully written, well edited and elegantly packaged. "There aren't many books about the Third World refugee experience in this country, especially that of blacks," he notes. "I thought there was a gap there; our history was important too. At Harvard I learned that history is power. When you interpret the past, you're laying the foundation for the future."
He also wrote the book because "there are certain people who really inspired me, such as my father and brother. I thought that others could benefit from hearing about them too."
Evidently they have. After Asgedom spoke at a middle school in Naperville, Ill., the students "stormed" the local bookstore, which has gone on to sell more than 500 copies of his book. Of Beetles and Angels made the Book Sense 76 bestseller list (compiled by independent bookstores)-the first self-published title to do so. Now "real" publishers are calling, and Asgedom is working on a proposal for another book. He's also adapting his memoir for the screen. "I'm excited about finding ways to deliver more to my audiences," he says. Horatio Alger would be proud.
© 2001 Bella Stander