Ethiopian-American writer Dinaw Mengestu knows firsthand the reality of displacement. He and his family fled Ethiopia for America when he was only two years old, to escape the 16-year-long civil war that dismantled the East African nation. In his new novel, the award-winning author writes comfortably from this fluid landscape, where one’s identity isn’t rooted to places but experience.
All Our Names tells two stories from two very different perspectives, which run parallel in chapters titled “Isaac” and “Helen.” In “Isaac,” a nameless narrator – who has thirteen names, but only goes so far as to reveal that one of them sounds like Daniel (and Daniel could very well be an Anglo-butchering of Dinaw) – recounts the story of his friend Isaac, a fearless revolutionary he meets on a university campus in Kampala, Uganda. In “Helen,” a sheltered American social worker, living in a small Midwestern town, tells her own story of Isaac, a mysterious new client, who she is meant to help adjust to a new life in America, but it is he who rouses her out of her quiet, monotonous life. While the novel’s dual narratives seem only to be connected by both narrators’ relationship with “Isaac” – who, despite the heavy impressions he leaves, can sometimes feel like a bodiless apparition – the clues leading to the identity of the two Isaacs are scattered evenly throughout the novel.
Our nameless narrator travels to Kampala after reading about the African Writers Conference, held in the city in 1962. His dream is to study literature and be a writer, while Isaac wants to study politics – the only thing that matters in Africa, he says. Yet the narrator wishes to remain detached from his story’s setting: “I knew Kampala was close, but even then I had already committed myself to thinking of it only as ‘the capital.’…That city belonged to Uganda, but the capital, as long as it was nameless, had no such allegiances.” I initially wondered if this disassociation was a cop-out, a way for Mengestu to distance himself from the realities of this volatile region. But as the story unfolds, the novel’s unwillingness to give heed to names allows the characters’ experiences a greater sense of universality. It doesn’t matter where this story takes place – “There are hundreds of places exactly like this” – this novel is about a stranger observing chaos from the margins.
Any post-independence African narrative is ultimately a narrative of failure – history and current events on the continent continue to confirm this. The nameless narrator is not a part of the post-revolution action like Isaac is; this distance is what keeps him safe. He would rather think of himself like a bird taking flight. Nothing makes him happier than looking down on the world because it is the details that strike him, even as he witnesses a gruesome massacre of refugees: “…I tried to write down what had happened. I thought of counting the dead, but I was too far away to do so.” Getting any closer is out of the question. It would require active involvement that no stranger is capable of.
For Helen, her love and lust for Isaac can only exist in a vacuum, safe from the rampant frictions of the day’s intolerance. In the 1970s in Midwestern America, a black man having a relationship with a white woman was still out of the question; such illicit intimacies had to remain behind closed doors. Helen and Isaac are not immune to the bigotries of the time: “Our fears and prejudices were engrained deep enough that we didn’t need an audience to enforce them.”
Helen’s life before Isaac was dulled by the unappeasable direness of her work: “…when I subtracted Isaac I realized that, until he came along, this was how I had always felt. Not invisible, but a natural part of the background, entitled to all the privileges that came with ownership.” There is something troubling, at least for me, about seeing Isaac through Helen’s privileged lens. Does Isaac’s status as a foreigner bar him from a perspective in America? Or perhaps, like his penchant for namelessness, this is another clever trick by Mengestu, because being with Isaac pushes Helen to the margins of society, allowing her for the first time to see the world beyond the safe certainty of Midwestern plains.
Mengestu’s elegiac tone can feel foreboding at times, as though everything is going to fall apart, and it is only a matter of when. Yet this feeling manages to add more humanity to the text because hardship and loss seem to be the only certainties in life. All Our Names injects a refreshing novelty to “the novel” as an artifact of experience. Two worlds and perspectives, severed by time and irreconcilable personal histories, are pitted side-by-side, revealing the fragile strands that together make up a life.
Safa Jinje is a writer and editor living in Toronto.