Commentary on All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu
Helen and Isaac, the alternating narrators of Dinaw Mengestu’s latest novel, All Our Names, have something in common. They are both searching for a self; a sense of who they really are. As Isaac tells us, at age twenty-five on the bus from his home town to the university in Kampala, Uganda, he has shed all the names his parents had given him. He compares himself at that age to “the capital” itself. “Like me it belonged to no one, and anyone could claim it.” Jump ahead a chapter to meet Helen, a white social worker still living with her mother in a quaint Midwestern college town in the U.S. We soon learn of her relationship to Issac: as he is a recent emigré to the states she is assigned to show him around and acquaint him with both the routine and vagaries of rural American life.
Mengestu, proclaimed by the New Yorker magazine as one of the so-called “20 under 40” prospective new writers, aims with this novel to further his themes of self renewal during times of great upheaval, which he had advanced in his earlier work, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears and How to Read the Air. Both of those novels dealt with the assimilation of post-war Ethiopian families in America. In this book the author presents an additional perspective, that of the insider looking out. Helen sees Isaac as her way out of a banal, lonely existence.
In Kampala, at the university our narrator, Isaac, meets up with an enigmatic activist who happens to be named Isaac. Soon, through this Isaac’s influence our narrator becomes enmeshed with an unnamed rebel faction. Ultimately, he is deployed by the rebels to aid in their cause; a cause which he embraces as his own. Mengestu knots these characters together until they form one Isaac: a single representation of African Resistance — until one is reborn into a new world and the other is abandoned like an umbilical to wither.
Even so, the new Isaac’s prospects are not without obstacles. Once in America, he inherits a whole new set of challenges. Let’s just say, 1970’s Illinois was not exactly the time and place to test tolerance for miscegenation. Mengestu, himself an emigré of Ethiopia, therefore both American and Ethiopian, has said in a recent interview that he seeks in this novel to portray through both narratives the search for one’s identity. Who are we, how do we define ourselves, who will we become? At age twenty five the possibilities are endless, there is much hope, open-mindedness, and curiosity. At that age, most have not yet faced the brutal truths of life. All Our Names reveals some of those truths, while unmasking the difficult choices one must make to overcome them.