Central figure and narrator of the novel, Sepha Stepahnos is an Ethiopian immigrant running a shabby convenience store off of Logan Circle in Washington D.C. After having fled his home country in the wake of a military coup seventeen years prior, Stephanos finds himself isolated in America, condemned to sit alone in his failing store and reminisce about the neighborhood, his position and his past; his only solace comes in the form of two friends, fellow immigrants Kenneth and Joe, as well as Judith and Naomi who have recently moved into Logan Circle. Being an immigrant, Stephanos finds himself caught between the worlds of Ethiopia and America, causing the man to struggle with a sense of identity and placement.
Judith’s eleven-year-old daughter, Naomi is biracial and perceptively intelligent for her age. At times unruly and prone to fits and running away from her single mother, Naomi and her quirky ways befriend Stephanos through frequent visits to his store where they read books together. Bonded through their mutual loss of fathers, Naomi is comforted by this friendship just as much as Stephanos. Naomi’s arrival with her mother to Logan Circle as well as her Caucasian and African background serve to highlight the gentrification and cultural conflicts of the neighborhood.
Judith is a single mother, having separated from Naomi’s Mauritanian father, who moves into Logan Circle and renovates a rundown Townhouse adjacent to Stephanos’s apartment. Judith was a “professor of American political history” (Mengestu 54) who often found herself moving around the country with Naomi. Over the course of Judith’s stay in Logan Circle she finds herself in a tentative romantic situation with Stephanos. Judith’s position as a well to do white woman with a biracial daughter entering a poorer neighborhood further the ideas of gentrification within the novel.
“Congo Joe” as he is referred to, is one of Stephanos’s two friends at the advent of the novel. A fellow immigrant, he worked with Stephanos and Kenneth in a hotel during their first months in America and bonded over their mutual status as African immigrants. Now working at a well known restaurant, Joe often writes and reads poetry and fancies himself an intellectual, representing the effects and misconceptions of the American Dream on those arriving to America.
“Ken the Kenyan” is Stephanos’s only other friend, having met together with Joe during their first jobs. Now holding a position as an engineer, Ken is hopeful yet practical of his status and his prospects. Despite his moderate success he finds himself just as out of place as Joe and Sepha, strengthening their bonded friendship.
Berhane is Sepha’s uncle and only relative in the United States. After being forced to flee his affluent lifestyle in Ethiopia, Berhane winds up coming to America forced to work for low wages and hold a second job as a cab driver. Living in a heavily Ethiopian apartment complex, he is extremely nostalgic as evident by the collection of letters he keeps carefully tucked away and his reminiscing of the past.
Mrs. Davis is the long time neighbor of Stephanos who can often be found around Logan Circle and sweeping the streets. Her judgmental focus on Judith’s presence in the neighborhood as well as her other actions is indicative of stasis and the community’s resistance to change.