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All Our Names


All Our Names

Since the country won its independence from Britain in the 1960s, Uganda has suffered seemingly endless violence and conflict. The activities of Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army have led to Kony being branded a global terrorist and to worldwide actions intended to disarm his group. Two weeks ago, longtime president Yoweni Museveni signed a bill that criminalizes homosexual behavior. For most observers, if only because of the portrait of him in films such as The Last King of Scotland, the most famous symbol of the country’s oppression is Idi Amin, who ruled the country as a military dictatorship during his presidency in the 1970s until he was deposed and sent into exile in 1979.

The brilliant novelist Dinaw Mengestu never mentions Amin by name in ALL OUR NAMES, his third novel, but the influence of Amin is one of the driving forces in this story of resistance fighters and their recruits, and of exiles whose attempts to assimilate in America are complicated by the memory of the horrors they witnessed in their homeland.

"...a riveting and important commentary on the rootlessness of immigrants from war-ravaged countries and the challenges of assimilation in Western lands."

The novel alternates between two linked stories, both set in the 1970s. In one, a narrator who never tells us his real name journeys from his home in Ethiopia to study at a university in Kampala, Uganda. There the narrator, an aspiring writer, befriends a charismatic fellow student named Isaac Mabira. Isaac calls the narrator by different names, among them Professor and Langston, the latter name adopted in honor of Langston Hughes after Isaac tells him that the name of a poet would better suit a man with literary pretensions.

At first, Isaac and the narrator are content with their outsider status. They secretly make fun of the rich boys on campus. Isaac taunts them by asking if there’s enough room in their father’s cars for everyone. Then Isaac becomes more active in the political protests taking place on campus. He begins a “paper revolution” by posting sarcastic fliers that list supposed Crimes Against the Country. One such flier reads, “It is a Crime Against the Country to ask what is a Crime Against the Country.”

But the protests become more violent. After someone tosses tires around the necks of Ugandan soldiers and sets the men afire, campus guards brandishing nightsticks approach Isaac and other students. “Seconds later,” Mengestu writes, “came the crack of wood meeting bone.” Soon, the prominent owner of a café enlists Isaac and the narrator in his liberation army, and the former campus protesters are “sitting on a large cache of weapons, enough to wipe out our neighborhood [or] our village.”

The book’s other narrative is told from the point of view of Helen, a social worker for Lutheran Relief Services. She lives in Laurel, a college town in the U.S. Midwest. When a Ugandan refugee whom we believe to be Isaac moves to Laurel on a one-year student visa, Helen’s boss David assigns her to be Isaac’s chaperone, “his personal tour guide of our town’s shopping malls, grocery stores, banks, and bureaucracies.” Within a month, Helen and Isaac, whom she and her colleagues call Dickens because of his “funny way of speaking” English, are sleeping with one another. But as close as they become --- “I am dependent on you for everything,” Isaac says --- Helen can’t get him to open up about his experiences in Uganda. Only gradually does she learn of the circumstances that led to his arrival in the U.S.

Part of the brilliance of ALL OUR NAMES is Mengestu’s ability to make scenes of prejudice and struggle in the U.S. as devastating as the depictions of horrific acts of violence in Uganda. A scene in which Helen and Isaac have lunch in a local diner that, although not officially segregated, never receives black patrons is as chilling as later scenes of revolutionaries partying inside a hotel while military men are rounded up and gunned down outside. A plot twist halfway through the novel is dropped into the narrative so casually, almost as an afterthought, that the surprise resonates far more than it would have in the hands of a showier writer. The novel loses some of its dramatic tension in its final third, but, as is Mengestu’s earlier work, it is still a riveting and important commentary on the rootlessness of immigrants from war-ravaged countries and the challenges of assimilation in Western lands. This is a powerful novel from one of America’s best young writers.

Reviewed by Michael Magras on March 14, 2014

All Our Names
by Dinaw Mengestu

  • Publication Date: March 4, 2014
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf
  • ISBN-10: 038534998X
  • ISBN-13: 9780385349987