My quest to read more literary fiction by writers of color has led me to many African War/ American Immigration books lately, putting me in a decent position to comment on a jacket-quote on All Our Names, by Dinaw Mengestu, which says that “This is not an immigrant story we already know.”
Eh, yes and no.
It is a version of the same African War/Immigration story we already know, and the title is unfortunately almost exactly the same as another recent book in the genre, NoViolet Bulaweyo’s We Need New Names, but it’s nonetheless a refined and intense book told in alternating perspectives, and I enjoyed reading it.
The chapters labeled “Isaac,” are about a poor young man from an unidentified African countryside who spends time hanging around the university in Kampala, Uganda just before war against Idi Amin breaks out in the 1970s. “Back then, all the boys our age wanted to be revolutionaries” he says, or at least dress like them. He comes to the capital for reasons more personal than political, ready to shed his name and create himself, but soon falls under the spell of another young striver named Isaac who has better revolutionary credentials.
The chapters labeled “Helen” are about an aimless and depressed young white social worker in the American midwest who is assigned to Isaac, who has arrived in America under mysterious circumstances. The two embark on a romance under furiously segregated conditions, and it’s true that I’ve never read anything quite like it. It’s easy at this distance to gloss over the details and fail to imagine how oppressive and impossible it would have been for a black man and a white woman to date in a small town in the ’70s. After a humiliating and possibly dangerous meal together in a restaurant, Helen writes about the toxic effect prejudice has on the relationship:
“It seemed impossible now for us to move forward, and I assumed after that lunch that if there was any relationship left it would live on in the strictest privacy, late at night and exclusively in his apartment, with all the blinds closed and the lights off.”
And here is the simple but powerful passage when she and Isaac first hold hands in public (and they had to go to Chicago to do it):
“We hesitated, looking at our hands, not each other, then gathered our strength and moved forward. We walked. It didn’t feel like a victory over anything, but I was proud and, to an equal degree, scared. After walking one block like that I was grateful for the feeling of his hand in mine, and even for the anxiety that came with it. After two more blocks, the gratitude had turned to sorrow that we hadn’t had this sooner. All this time, I thought, we’ve been at best only half of what was possible.”
Mengestu’s writing is fast-paced, elegant and guarded. Notice how much distance and analysis there is, even in explosive moments like the passage above. The alternating chapters are short and feel honed-down to the bare essentials. There are a few major plot twists with large surprises, and the time-lapse intertwined stories complement each other, increasing the intensity of both climaxes…not a bad effect for a love story, come to think of it.