By Dinaw Mengestu
At first glance, “All Our Names” seems to be a straightforward immigrant story. A young man, carrying the name of Isaac on his passport, has come from Uganda to Laurel, a small Midwestern town, on a one-year student visa. His case is assigned to Helen, with Lutheran Relief Services. Chapters segue between those in Uganda narrated by Isaac, and those in America, narrated by Helen.
The novel partially takes place in Uganda in the early 1970s, after it has won independence. This is a time of Pan-African idealism, and also ruthless power struggles, corruption and oppression.
Isaac arrives in a town that only a decade earlier had desegregated its public bathrooms, schools and buses. Helen isn’t to be so much his social worker as his guide through heartland America, “his personal tour guide of our town’s shopping malls, grocery stores, banks and bureaucracies.”
Isaac raises doubts in Helen ― his single-page case file that reveals nothing about him, his abrupt trips, his spotless apartment ― but they embark on a secretive love affair in a place where appearing in public together raises not only eyebrows but hackles. Helen, living with her mother, is a restrained person who harbors a rebellious side.
“We weren’t divided like the South and had nothing to do with any of the large cities in the North,” observes Helen. “We were exactly what geography had made us: the middle of the road, never bitterly segregated, but with lines dividing black from white all over town.”
“All Our Names” is an emotionally wrenching novel about exile and loss, and its greatest power emerges less from the Helen-Isaac romance than from Isaac’s relationships in Africa. It emerges that Isaac, who was known as Langston, Professor and Ali in Africa, was given the name by his best friend in Africa before coming to America. The original Isaac had left his Ethiopian village for Uganda, where he joins the resistance movement and draws Langston into the struggle.
These two young men, at first outsiders, develop a profound friendship born of their idealism.
Mengestu left Ethiopia as a young child and was raised in Peoria, Ill., and Forest Park. He received a “5 under 35” Award from the National Book Foundation and a “20 under 40” Award from The New Yorker, and received a MacArthur Foundation genius grant in 2012. With “All Our Names,” his third novel, he has fulfilled that early promise with this novel about idealism and violence, identity and loneliness, and most important, friendship. (MCT)