What's in a name? For many people, a name is a link to a proud lineage, a tethering to the past, a solid reinforcement of identity. The key character, Isaac, reminisces, "I had thirteen names. Each name was from a different generation, beginning with Father and going back from him. I was the first one in our village to have thirteen names. Our family was considered blessed to have such a history."
All Our Names - surely Dinaw Mengestu's most assured book to date - explores what happens when names become interchangeable, when lives become alienated, when love becomes synonymous with danger. It is a devastating book and it is a must-read.
The story is told through two parallel narratives. The chapters entitled Isaac are actually narrated by a friend of Isaac, a would-be writer who befriends the charismatic student. Times and dates are blurred: we suspect that the timeline is the late 1960s, we know the action takes place in Africa (but which country?). The more privileged students are all scornfully called "Alex" by Isaac, and we're never quite sure if "Isaac" is the protagonist's real name.
The second narrative is also told in first person by Helen, a white social worker, also living through tumultuous times (by U.S. standards) during the Civil Rights movement. Isaac - who arrives with only the sketchiest information - is her client, her lover, and most importantly, her love. She is struggling with smaller scale identity issues, trying to define herself against small time prejudices and an overly cautious mother.
How do you love a chimera? How do you love yourself? How do you even define yourself? In one plaintive scene, Isaac tells Helen, "I was no one when I arrived in Kampala: it was exactly what I wanted."
Dinaw Mengestu masterfully describes a world where "seeing was power, nostalgia meant nothing" and where people - and the battles they fight - ultimately become blurred. At times, this book took my breath away.
on April 21, 2014
The book is set in the early ‘70s and has two first-person narrators: Isaac and Helen. Isaac is Ethiopian; Helen is from the Midwest United States and white.
Helen is a young, disheartened social worker (“It wasn’t until an entire year had passed and I was asked to make a list of all my successes that my faith began to give. I only had vague memories of the 154 people who had been assigned to me. . . . I gradually gave up trying to change anyone’s life.”). She was born and raised in small-town Laurel (the book never specifies a state). She is in her mid-twenties but still lives with her mom in her childhood home (her parents are divorced).
When Isaac was born he had thirteen names (“Each name was from a different generation, beginning with my father and going back from him. I was the first one in our village to have thirteen names. Our family was considered blessed to have such a history.”), but Isaac was not one of them. His real name is never revealed; he gave up all his names when he traveled from Ethiopia to Uganda with dreams of becoming a writer. In Uganda, on the college campus (where he is not actually a student, because he is too poor), he meets his best friend, the original Isaac. Original Isaac is a political activist with dreams of becoming a revolutionary. Uganda is independent but struggling to find its identity. Power struggles abound as the government attempts to maintain power in the face of revolution. The Isaacs activism is peripheral at the beginning, but when Original Isaac meets some powerful people, that changes quickly. And, as things get more and more dangerous, Original Isaac sends his friend off to the United States to escape, giving him his name, his passport, and his visa.
When Isaac arrives in Laurel, Helen is assigned as his caseworker. His file contains only one sheet of paper, nearly devoid of information. Helen knows next to nothing about him. She doesn’t know where he’s from, what he’s been through, or why he’s in Laurel. But there’s something about him to which she is drawn, and, before long, they are in a passionate relationship. Helen genuinely loves Isaac (or, at least, her idea of Isaac), but she also sees their relationship as a statement. She keeps a tally of the places they’ve been in public together (the post office, the grocery store). She attempts to prove that their love is real and acceptable and sustainable . . . but she is naïve and idealistic. She takes Isaac to a diner for lunch (“The diner was never officially segregated, but I couldn’t remember anyone who wasn’t white eating there, either.”). When the waitress first asks if they would like to take their food to go, and then serves Isaac’s lunch on paper plates (Helen gets the normal dishes), Helen gets embarrassed and wants to leave. But Isaac refuses, “Not until we both finish our lunch . . . That’s what you wanted, isn’t it?” After they finish eating, Helen attempts to put a positive spin on their lunch, telling herself that their eating at the diner proves their love and the sacrifices they are willing to make. But Isaac brings her back to Earth: “Now you know. This is how they break you, slowly, in pieces.”
This is a book about both love and war. The touching, loving moments are balanced with moments of graphic violence. The writing is good (with moments of greatness on one hand and slow, draggy passages on the other), and the ending is beautiful.
The book bounces back and forth between Isaac’s story of his time in Uganda with Original Isaac and Helen’s story of her relationship with Isaac after he arrives in the States, both of which are told in first person. This is a book about identity and how others can shape and change that identity. Intentionally, thus, there is a great disparity between their two stories (not just in setting, but in intensity and action), which serves to highlight Helen’s and Isaac’s vastly different perspectives.
It also serves to make the book as a whole feel somewhat disjointed. It’s hard to jump back and forth seamlessly between small-town Laurel where nothing much is going on (but an interracial love story subjected to small-town racism) to Uganda, where police brutality and violent revolutions are the order of the day.
Books about interracial couples have a tendency to be a little grating for me (being both in one and the product of one). They are often either too statement-y or too quaint. This book is neither. The book highlights the challenges we face and sacrifices we make for love (both platonic and romantic). The Isaac/Helen relationship is genuine, with distinct highs and lows. There is a big difference between how Helen and Isaac act together, in the privacy of Isaac’s apartment, and how they act and interact in public. And, although we only see the relationship through Helen’s rose-colored glasses, it is clear that Isaac is more pragmatic and realistic about the societal pressures stacked against them.
One of the rewarding aspects of reviewing books for the Amazon Vine program is the depth and variety that has resulted in my reading experience. There is certainly nothing cliché about Mengestu's novel; indeed, nothing in my previous experience really helps me to categorize it. Actually, in a way, it almost seems to be two parallel "autobiographies", rendered in alternating chapters. However, Isaac's chapters all deal with his previous life in Africa, especially centering around his relationship with the "real" Isaac, whose passport brought him to the small town of Laurel. Helen's chapters deal with the present, and her struggles to define the parameters of her risky cross cultural and interracial relationship with Isaac.
One aspect of this narrative that I found difficult was the lack of real place and time markers. Again, I'm thankful for Google, which provided background information on African independence, giving dates in the 1960's and `70's. That does correspond with the time of maximum racial tension in the US, during which a couple like Isaac and Helen would indeed have been met with the kind of ostracism they experienced even in the Midwest. Given that understanding, I found the way in which the author handles the difficult "dance" his two lovers go through extremely accurate. It is, in fact, refreshing to have a love story in which the difficulties are genuine and cultural, not the psychological conflicts resulting from stereotypical "battles of the sexes".
Without in any way overstating his case, Mengestu manages to give a vivid and harrowing sense of the pointless destruction of the "revolution/liberation" chaos that followed the withdrawal of European domination from the African continent. Juxtaposing it with the bland pettiness of Midwestern American life produces a mosaic that develops depth and complexity as the story progresses. This is, I believe, a novel requiring a willingness to allow the author to "name it as he sees it", which is perhaps the point of the book's title.
In the middle of this exquisite book is a perfect metaphor. It is the story of a town that existed as long as one person dreamed of it night. "In the beginning, everyone kept some part of the city alive in their dreams." But one day people grew tired of the burden and wished to dream of other lands or hopes for the future. A young man announces he will take the burden and dream of the city each night. However as the citizens relinquish their pictures of the city, the young man changes the scene little by little. Finally people begin to disappear and the dreamers become aware of what they had lost, but the city of memory was lost.
That story is as precise a summary of this book as any other, mostly the realities are different. Mengestu paints that murky world bordering on distrust in which one's true name is unlikely to be known. The story of Isaac and his friend takes place in the nightmare of Amin's Uganda and concerns the young men who try to rebel. In alternating chapters, we meet a young American woman, Helen, who has befriended Isaac some unknown time after the strife. She is a social worker, now numbed by the world's misery. The African man and the white woman make a threatening pair to many in their claustrophobic town. To add to her misery, Helen is sure she knows little of truth about her lover.
The imagery of the novel is precise and unhurried. Violence is almost under reported in a tone that accepts that such is the way of that world. The relationships of the young rebels and later the lovers are marked by tests of trust based on the merest of evidence. The unease and the ill defined threat are created almost as afterthoughts as the characters struggle to define themselves and the people they love.
Like Helen, I often feel that African struggles are horrors not understood by those of us who take belonging for granted. THis book invites the reader into that queasy world in which the true name is granted only after trial.
When I finished Dinaw Mengestu's third novel ALL OUR NAMES, the last line literally blew me away. And I'm wondering if he chose the ending first and wrote the entire novel to build up to it-- not that it matters-- but some authors say they write novels that way. However Mr. Mengestu got there, it's a brilliantly perfect last line. Isaac, who has many names-- thus the title-- is a young African in the U. S. on a year's visa who meets Helen, a Caucasian social worker in a small Midwestern town named Laurel. He has left the war-torn Uganda. The author tells the story through these two characters in alternating chapters.
Born in 1978, Mr. Mengestu is certainly a rising star in American literature. Although from Addis Ababa, he came to this country when he was only two so surely that makes him an American novelist. He certainly gets the racism of small town American pitch perfect as Helen and Isaac carry on their affair, for the most part trying to avoid running into the local bigots. There is one brilliant scene, however, when Helen takes Isaac to a local restaurant where she is well-known. An embarrassed waitress brings Isaac's food to him-- after he refuses to leave-- on a paper plate but serves Helen's lunch on china. Mr. Mengestu gets loneliness just right too: the loneliness of old age but also that of a life that is stuck in a rut as Helen's is before she meets Isaac. Is there a more apt and beautiful description of being in love I ask as Helen reminisces : "What I didn't know until then was that loving someone and feeling loved in return was the best exercise for the heart, the strength training needed to do more than simply make it through life." (Helen in many ways reminds me of the older woman character in A WALK IN THE SPRING RAIN where nothing else was going to happen to her dull life until suddenly she falls in love with a stranger.) There is also what Walt Whitman would call the love of comrades for there is certainly another love story of equal importance here, that of Isaac and his friend in Uganda.
Besides Isaac and Helen and Isaac's friend --when you finish the novel you will know why it is difficult to get the names of these two men separated-- Mr. Mengestu's secondary characters are just as richly drawn-Thomas and Henry in Uganda, Helen mother and client Rose in Laurel. These characters come alive. There are no cardboard figures here.
To use a sports metaphor, this author is batting three for three. I am reminded of what Jimmy Carter once said that life isn't fair. No writer who is only 36 should be so talented. I still remember a passage indelibly etched in my brain from his second novel HOW TO READ THE AIR. Mr. Mengestu in describing an Ethiopian immigrant taking her child to school totally captures my own mother who never lived outside of Tennessee.
on April 12, 2014
Too disjointed for me to follow what's going on with the various characters, male or female. Can't recommend the book my friends.
on May 15, 2014
I just finished reading this book, and I wanted to like it. I had put it down in disappointment and then picked it up again. Most of the reviews of "All Our Names" that I have read have talked about abstractions that one can ponder and reflect upon and universalize. This novel is one of them, but in the actual reading power and character are lacking. The Helen character and story line are thin; her social-workerness is painfully all there is to her. Isaac 1 and Isaac 2 are undeveloped and for me unreal. The illusiveness of names is an appealing topic, but imbedded in this novel the theme really does not take off. Unfulfilled promise.
on November 3, 2014
All Our Names is set in two places -- One is the 1970s, in an African country undergoing both a cultural and political revolution. Two young men meet on a college campus -- both pretending to be students, in order to feel important -- and form a friendship that both sense will be life lasting. One of the men is named Issac, and the other is referred to as The Professor.
The second setting is a mid-western college town in the United States. Here we meet Helen, a white social worker tasked with meeting an African exchange student named Isaac. She knows nothing about him, except he speaks English and that's it her job to help him to acclimate to the U. S., and make sure he registers in school.
The book chapters alternate between the two setting -- And we see the friendship and loyalty that develops between the Professor and the enigmatic Isaac, as they struggle to help each other fulfill vague aspirations while surviving the violence going on around them. But we also see the the loving relationship that develops between Isaac and Helen -- in a place where interracial relationships are not just forbidden, but also downright dangerous.
The reader is forced by the depth of the writing, to immediately bond with all the characters, and wonder what events brought Isaac to the United States, and what happened to his best friend, the Professor.
Whoever Isaac is, or wherever he is, the reader can't help but try to reach into the pages of the book and stroke his face to ensure him it's okay to let go . . . that he is safe, he can trust, he can exhale.
I literally cried as I read the last few pages of the wonderful book.
on March 26, 2014
Since the country won its independence from Britain in the 1960s, Uganda has suffered seemingly endless violence and conflict. The activities of Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army have led to Kony being branded a global terrorist and to worldwide actions intended to disarm his group. Two weeks ago, longtime president Yoweni Museveni signed a bill that criminalizes homosexual behavior. For most observers, if only because of the portrait of him in films such as The Last King of Scotland, the most famous symbol of the country’s oppression is Idi Amin, who ruled the country as a military dictatorship during his presidency in the 1970s until he was deposed and sent into exile in 1979.
The brilliant novelist Dinaw Mengestu never mentions Amin by name in ALL OUR NAMES, his third novel, but the influence of Amin is one of the driving forces in this story of resistance fighters and their recruits, and of exiles whose attempts to assimilate in America are complicated by the memory of the horrors they witnessed in their homeland.
The novel alternates between two linked stories, both set in the 1970s. In one, a narrator who never tells us his real name journeys from his home in Ethiopia to study at a university in Kampala, Uganda. There the narrator, an aspiring writer, befriends a charismatic fellow student named Isaac Mabira. Isaac calls the narrator by different names, among them Professor and Langston, the latter name adopted in honor of Langston Hughes after Isaac tells him that the name of a poet would better suit a man with literary pretensions.
At first, Isaac and the narrator are content with their outsider status. They secretly make fun of the rich boys on campus. Isaac taunts them by asking if there’s enough room in their father’s cars for everyone. Then Isaac becomes more active in the political protests taking place on campus. He begins a “paper revolution” by posting sarcastic fliers that list supposed Crimes Against the Country. One such flier reads, “It is a Crime Against the Country to ask what is a Crime Against the Country.”
But the protests become more violent. After someone tosses tires around the necks of Ugandan soldiers and sets the men afire, campus guards brandishing nightsticks approach Isaac and other students. “Seconds later,” Mengestu writes, “came the crack of wood meeting bone.” Soon, the prominent owner of a café enlists Isaac and the narrator in his liberation army, and the former campus protesters are “sitting on a large cache of weapons, enough to wipe out our neighborhood [or] our village.”
The book’s other narrative is told from the point of view of Helen, a social worker for Lutheran Relief Services. She lives in Laurel, a college town in the U.S. Midwest. When a Ugandan refugee whom we believe to be Isaac moves to Laurel on a one-year student visa, Helen’s boss David assigns her to be Isaac’s chaperone, “his personal tour guide of our town’s shopping malls, grocery stores, banks, and bureaucracies.” Within a month, Helen and Isaac, whom she and her colleagues call Dickens because of his “funny way of speaking” English, are sleeping with one another. But as close as they become --- “I am dependent on you for everything,” Isaac says --- Helen can’t get him to open up about his experiences in Uganda. Only gradually does she learn of the circumstances that led to his arrival in the U.S.
Part of the brilliance of ALL OUR NAMES is Mengestu’s ability to make scenes of prejudice and struggle in the U.S. as devastating as the depictions of horrific acts of violence in Uganda. A scene in which Helen and Isaac have lunch in a local diner that, although not officially segregated, never receives black patrons is as chilling as later scenes of revolutionaries partying inside a hotel while military men are rounded up and gunned down outside. A plot twist halfway through the novel is dropped into the narrative so casually, almost as an afterthought, that the surprise resonates far more than it would have in the hands of a showier writer. The novel loses some of its dramatic tension in its final third, but, as is Mengestu’s earlier work, it is still a riveting and important commentary on the rootlessness of immigrants from war-ravaged countries and the challenges of assimilation in Western lands. This is a powerful novel from one of America’s best young writers.
Reviewed by Michael Magras
Mengestu’s third novel—another about the immigrant experience—is his most accomplished and soulful, in my opinion. He returns again to the pain of exile and the quest for identity, as well as the need for a foreigner from a poor and developing country to reinvent himself. In addition, he alternates the landscape of post-colonial Uganda with the racially tense Midwest of the 1970s, and demonstrates that the feeling of exile can also exist in an American living in her own hometown. The cultural contrast of both countries, with a narrative that alternates back and forth, intensifies the sense of tenuous hope mixed with shattered illusions.
“I gave up all the names my parents gave me,” says the young African man, who moves to Kampala in order to be around literary university students. He has left his family in one country to seek his idealism in another. He meets a young revolutionary, an anti-government charismatic young man, who starts a “paper revolution” at the university. Neither is a student; both seek to realize their ideals. They become friends, and eventually, cross the line into danger and confusion.
The alternating chapters concern Helen, a white social worker in Missouri, who has never traveled far, not even to Chicago. One of the young African men, named Isaac on his passport, travels to the US, allegedly as an exchange student. Helen is his caseworker. Isaac’s file is thin, and Helen knows nothing about his history. They embark on a relationship that becomes more intimate, but yet creates an elusive distance. Mengestu explores the hurdles they face, as well as examining how these obstacles relate to Isaac’s past.
The restrained, artless prose penetrates with its somber tone, and the emotional weight of the story and characters surge from the spaces between the words. Mengestu’s talent for nuance was evident when, days after I finished the book, it continued to move me.
4.5 rounded up