Over the past decade, novelist Dinaw Mengestu has emerged as one of the brightest young chroniclers of the African diaspora. In his previous books, including "The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears" (2007) and "How to Read the Air" (2010), Mengestu explored the lives of Ethiopians forced by violent political upheaval to relocate in the United States — a migration mirrored by his own family, which fled war-torn Ethiopia when he was 2 and settled in Peoria and, later, Forest Park.
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In his beautifully written new novel, "All Our Names," the author returns to his main themes of dislocation and self-reinvention with the story of a young man who leaves Ethiopia and gets caught up with revolutionary violence in Uganda in the early 1970s. Through the sacrifice of a charismatic friend who gives him his name and his passport, Isaac, as he becomes known, escapes to the United States. In a small town called Laurel, Isaac begins a new life and a passionate (though largely secret) love affair with a young social worker named Helen, which proves problematic both because of its interracial aspect and because Isaac is still wrestling with the demons of his past.
It's a powerful new addition to a growing list of accomplishments for Mengestu, one of The New Yorker magazine's "20 under 40" gifted young writers. He also received one of the National Book Award Foundation's "5 under 35" awards and, in 2012, a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant. Printers Row Journal caught up with Mengestu, 35, for a phone interview from his home in New York. (He commutes to Washington, D.C., one day a week to teach at his alma mater, Georgetown University.) Here's an edited transcript of our chat.
Q: What was the genesis of "All Our Names"?
A: I was living in Paris, and I suddenly had this idea of creating a group of close, young friends on a college campus somewhere in Africa. My first two novels had been around how the aftereffects of conflict and politics had forced people into migration. This one came out of an almost opposite desire: to see if I could create characters who had a sense of optimism, who were reinventing themselves because suddenly they were free to do so in the aftermath of independence. And from there, over the course of 51/2 years or so, it evolved and took on another voice.
Q: So let's set the scene. This book is set in Uganda in the decade after it had won its independence from Great Britain in the early 1960s. It wasn't clear at first what the government in Uganda was going to look like, so there was a sense of possibility.
A: That's right. There was a sense of optimism that was born out of not knowing what was going to happen. A lot of the leaders who came to power in Uganda and other African countries at the time were promising a shift to socialism, and Pan-African idealism was a large part of that. But less than 10 years later, there was a great series of power struggles. In Uganda, the first president, Milton Obote, was overthrown by Idi Amin. The people who came to power began to assume total control over the government and eliminate other political parties, freedom of expression and so on, and of course there was corruption. At the same time, in the United States, the civil rights movement was unfolding, so you had different forms of liberation materializing in different places in the world.
Q: In Uganda, as it became clear to young people that the promises of the revolution were not going to be fulfilled, there was a great deal of violence that began to occur.
A: Yes, there was a lot of violence, much of it quite extreme. People began to disappear for no apparent reason. I didn't intend a real depiction of that historical moment, but my story is very much informed by it.
Q: So Isaac — or the person known as Isaac — escapes to the United States, and settles in a small Midwestern town. But as you say, the civil rights movement was still going on at the time, so it was a case of out of the frying pan, into the fire.
A: Yeah. The civil rights legislation had been passed by that time, the Voting Rights Act had been passed, and yet on the day-to-day level of people's lives, not much had actually changed. There were still endemic forms of discrimination and racism, social and economic divisions between black and white. So for Isaac, even though he's escaped from the violence in Africa, he's now witnessing a form of the same thing — a sort of post-revolutionary depression, maybe.
Q: Of course, you could have had Isaac come to the South — Birmingham, say, or someplace in Mississippi. But even in the Midwest at that time, it wasn't easy to be a person of color dating a white woman, as happens when Isaac and Helen get together.
A: Sure. Race relations in the Midwest were not like they would have been in Birmingham, where discrimination was much more completely antagonistic. It was much more subtle in the Midwest, at least until you force it into the pressure cooker of an interracial relationship. Miscegenation laws were still in effect, or had been until recently, in a lot of states at that time.
Q: Early on, Helen makes an interesting observation about the way Isaac speaks. She says he talks like people do in a Dickens novel, perhaps because he has read a lot of Victorian novels. Does the book or its form — I'm talking about the dual narrators, which reminds me of "Bleak House" — relate to pre-existing literature at all?
A: The text I was thinking of the most, probably, is a post-colonial novel by a Sudanese writer, Tayeb Salih, called "Season of Migration to the North." That book informed my novel more than anything, and it was itself a kind of a response to Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," inverting the racial exaggerations in that novel by passing them through the eyes of a Sudanese man.
I think what Helen is talking about is the fact that Isaac, before ever having experience of the West, has constructed his identity through narratives that he doesn't have any formal relationship with except through Dickens and authors like him. His identity is so grossly malleable that he begins to formulate himself through those forms of narratives. He thinks the same way when he comes to Uganda, and it happens again in America, when he reinvents himself with a new name and a new cultural history.
Q: You were born in Ethiopia but your family moved to the U.S. when you were 2. You grew up in Peoria, and later moved to Forest Park when you were 9 and attended high school in Oak Park. What was it like being the child of Ethiopian immigrants growing up there?
A: You know, when I was growing up, Forest Park was full of integrated families. It was amazing. One my best friends was Vietnamese. Another one was half-Mexican, half-black. Another one was from Colombia. Another one was born in the U.S. but his mom was from Germany and spoke with a German accent. So we all had multiple identities. None of us were just one thing or another. We were all of us aware that if you went to one person's house, you had Vietnamese food, or if you went to another person's house, you had tortillas. At my house you had Ethiopian food. It was a remarkably eclectic childhood.
Later, in high school in Oak Park, things were more clearly delineated. It was overwhelmingly white, and the minorities who were there were mostly African-American. I was neither white nor "African-American" in that sense, which was more problematic. You were reacting to kids who were sometimes openly racist, but on the other side, you were different from the black kids as well because of your name and your cultural history. That's when I started thinking of myself as being more than "black" or "American," but as being a product of Ethiopia.