15. All Our Names, Dinaw Mengestu

5 Mar

Dinaw Mengestu All Our Names

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.



7 Responses to “15. All Our Names, Dinaw Mengestu”

  1. Daniel Casey March 5, 2015 at 3:30 am #

    Reblogged this on Gently Read Literature.

    • Valerie Stivers-Isakova March 5, 2015 at 11:41 am #

      Hi so pleased you’re reblogging my post. Thank you!

      • Daniel Casey March 6, 2015 at 12:49 am #

        thank you for taking the time to write a review of an author that deserves much more attention. I really enjoyed Mengestu’s debut The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears & How to Read the Air. Looking forward to reading this one

        • Valerie Stivers-Isakova March 8, 2015 at 2:45 am #

          Cool! Glad you liked. I was thinking I’d like to read more of him, too.

  2. rennydiokno2015 March 5, 2015 at 8:18 am #

    Reblogged this on rennydioknodotcom.

  3. shadowoperator March 5, 2015 at 2:21 pm #

    This sounds like a very powerful literary experience, and it reminds me of another fictional enterprise about prejudice and revolution, though of course what it reminds me of is a movie which does not have a happy ending with anyone holding hands (I’ve just now seen your book review and so don’t yet know if your book ends happily or not, I’m just saying….). It’s “The Last King of Scotland,” and it tore my heart out. It takes place actually in Africa, and I’m almost sure it was supposed to be about the reign of Idi Amin, or someone very like him. Anyway, it too had a black/white romantic pairing, only the lovers were star-crossed in a much more emphatic way. Sorry to bore on about it. Where do you hear about the books you read? I mean, is there a particular review of books you would recommend, maybe an Internet one? I’m stuck at the moment because the weather is too bad to get to the physical library, and my browser is too old for my online library book thingy to work anymore. But the things you read and review really appeal to me by the sound of them, and I would like to be better informed.

    • Valerie Stivers-Isakova March 8, 2015 at 3:28 am #

      I wanted to see that Last King of Scotland movie, and can’t remember why I didn’t.

      I get my books from a variety of places, one major one being that I read for a literary magazine and they get sent all kinds of advance proofs, so I always go through those. And now people send me things. And I go to the annual AWP conference and talk to publishers and get new books from small presses. Also, my twitter feed. And friends. I read Book Forum and the L.A. Review of Books. The L.A. Review of Books is the only one of those that has a good Internet presence though, so I’m not sure it helps you.

      I don’t know anything about library software, I wish I had something smart to recommend. But if your blog is any indication, you seem to be not lacking in reading material.

      And don’t be sorry! I get so few comments I’m *delighted* to reply to every one. What else is a blog for?

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