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‘All Our Names’ tells story of war, love and identity across two continents

May 14, 2014 at 6:46 PM EDT
Dinaw Mengestu talks to Jeffrey Brown about his new novel "All Our Names," which narrates the story of a young black man -- who came of age in post-colonial Africa -- and a young white woman who meets and falls in love with him in a small Midwestern American town during the civil rights era.

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight: a fictional take on war, love and identity.

Jeffrey Brown has our book conversation.

JEFFREY BROWN: A young black man narrates his story of friendship and war in post-colonial Africa. A young white woman narrates her story of meeting and coming to love that man in a small Midwestern American town.

The new novel “All Our Names” explores lost and found identities and a collision of worlds. Its author, Dinaw Mengestu, was born in Ethiopia, but has lived most of his life in the U.S. He’s a 2012 MacArthur fellow and now professor of English at Georgetown University. And this is his third novel.

And welcome to you.

DINAW MENGESTU, Author, “All Our Names”: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: I’m curious, did this start for you with the Africa part of the story or the Midwest America story, or was it always intended to be together?

DINAW MENGESTU: It began very much with the scenes in Kampala.

And from there, it slowly began to grow and include the narrative that happens in to the Midwest. But my initial idea was to see if I could tell a story deeply rooted in a particular moment of Africa’s history that I hadn’t had a chance to explore yet in my work.

JEFFREY BROWN: Why that particular moment? Explain. It is in the ’60s or so, when there was hope after the colonial period, but things fell apart.


And that was the sort of interesting idea, was that here was a great — here’s a moment of great optimism and great sort of potential. You have the end of colonialism. You have the end of birth of all these independent countries. And I wanted to explore the possibility that there are all these young men drawn to these capital cities, out of the idea that perhaps they can make something better for themselves, for their countries.

And, of course, at the same time, we know now looking back that there was sort of the rise of tyranny sort of lurking in the shadows. And so a lot of those great revolutionary leaders went on to become autocrats and dictators. But, before that, there was a lot of hope and optimism that I really thought was important to get out into fiction.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, one of part of the book captures the disintegration there and its effect on two young men, and one in particular who comes to the U.S. But the other part is this Midwest America, and it’s one that you actually grew up in, Peoria, Illinois.


And that part of the story’s set in an imaginary Midwestern town named Laurel, but it’s very much rooted to my own experiences here in the U.S. of coming from Ethiopia, being raised in a Midwestern, and knowing a lot of really December people who helped nurture and raise me, and wanting to see if I could tell the story of immigration not just from the point of view of the people who come to America, but from the story of the people who are actually here and have to welcome these new people into their towns, into their homes, into their communities.

JEFFREY BROWN: But the setting of this story is before that time.


JEFFREY BROWN: It’s at a slightly earlier period where just after segregation, but where the white woman and the black African man really cannot have a relationship.

DINAW MENGESTU: Yes. And that was the sort of ways in which you can see these narratives as echoing one another.

So we oftentimes tend to think of sort of the post-colonial period in Africa as somehow very distinct from what happened in the U.S. But when I began to put those narratives side by side, I thought, well, after this sort of end of colonialism, we had something similar in America. We had the end of the civil rights era. We had all this sort of optimism and hope that came with the ’60s, and then at the same time the realization that, for all those gains, for all the civil rights benefits, there is still the problem of race that continued to persist and linger, especially when you look at a couple.

JEFFREY BROWN: The name, “All Our Names,” the title of the book, it’s almost literally about one’s name, one’s identification, but losing one’s identity and reinventing oneself.


And that was — oftentimes, we tend to think of our identities as being very monolithic. You’re sort of born and raised with one perfect identity, but in fact I think we all experience multiple identities over the course of our lives.

We leave our countries. We move to new places. We become fathers, we become husbands, we become wives, we become mothers. And with every adaptation of that, we expand our possibilities of who we are and what we can become.

And so the characters in this novel, they are shifting their names, they’re taking on new names. And, sometimes, they’re forced to abandon the names that they were born with.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what did that mean for you as the author of these creators, as the creator of these characters? Were you rethinking them as you went to, who are they really, what is their real name, or did you have this all from the beginning?


No, no. They were the sort of scattered wreck at the beginning of the novel.

JEFFREY BROWN: Scattered wreck?

DINAW MENGESTU: I definitely think so, because I didn’t know exactly how they were going to be affected by all the different politics, by all the different movements that happened in their lives. So, with each new change, with each new upheaval, they are forced to reconsider exactly who they are.

They are forced to reexamine their relationships as not just sort of solid, stable things, but as things that are very much fractured by the politics in which they live in.

JEFFREY BROWN: And another thing that you do very well here is weave different stories, but also these different places and different times. Is that hard to do?

DINAW MENGESTU: Yes, it’s not hard, because it’s such an essential part of who I am.

I think part of what I have always been curious about is how you can merge these different landscapes and these different narratives. And having been born in Ethiopia, having been raised in the Midwest, and sort of feeling essentially that I’m both African and American at the same time…

JEFFREY BROWN: You feel — that’s how you feel?

DINAW MENGESTU: Completely. Yes.

I feel like that’s one of the great sort of benefits of being an American, is you can sort of merge these two identities and feel like neither one has to compete with the other, that you can claim a certain ownership over both places, and that by writing about both places, you can bring both of them into existence at the same time.

You can say, well, here are people like me out there and we’re not just American, and we’re not just African, but we are sort of hybrid, complex characters made out of both places.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mentioned earlier this tradition. I don’t know if you used the word tradition, but the immigrant — writing about the immigrant experience.

And every review that I read sort of tries to frame this a little bit.


JEFFREY BROWN: It’s — inevitably, right?


JEFFREY BROWN: But what is it that you see yourself as bringing to that tradition, which I’m assume you’re well aware of from your own…

DINAW MENGESTU: Yes. I think we oftentimes like to think of the immigrant narrative in very singular terms. We think of the person who comes to America and automatically wants to sort of succeed and get great wealth and have a job and have a house.

But I’m always curious about the people who come here not because they have chosen to, but because they have to. And I think you approach your new country with a radically different perspective when you have been forced to flee because of violence, when you have been forced out of your home, rather than have chosen to leave.

And so that is a part of the immigrant narrative, but it’s a part of the narrative that oftentimes gets sort of cast to the side in favor of a more populist story perhaps.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the new novel is “All Our Names.”

Dinaw Mengestu, thank you very much.

DINAW MENGESTU: Thank you very much.