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Lost and found identities in Dinaw Mengestu’s ‘All Our Names’

Dinaw Mengestu talks about his new novel “All Our Names,” which narrates the story of a young black man who comes of age in post-colonial Africa and the young white woman who meets and falls in love with him in a small Midwest American town. Mengestu spoke to chief arts correspondent Jeffrey Brown about lost and found identities and a collision of worlds.

Life in post-colonial Africa and the civil rights era in the United States aren’t typically compared, but Dinaw Mengestu, author of the new novel “All Our Names,” saw those moments in history as an echo of each other.

“We tend to think of what happens in post-colonial Africa as very distinct from what happens in the U.S., but when I began to put those narratives side by side, I thought, well, after the end of colonialism we had something similar in America,” Mengetsu told chief arts correspondent Jeffrey Brown.

“Here was a moment of great optimism and great potential. You have the end of colonialism, you have the birth of all these independent countries … Of course, at the same time, we know now looking back that there was the rise of tyranny lurking in the shadows so a lot of those great revolutionary leaders grew up to be autocrats and dictators.”

In America, that moment was also about an expectant change that means something different in hindsight.

“We had the civil rights era, we had all the hope and optimism 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 was still the problem of race that continued to persist and linger.”

“All Our Names” tells the story of a young black man who leaves African for a small Midwest American town and the story of a young white woman who meets and falls in love with that man.

While the story takes places in the made-up place of Laurel, it comes from Mengestu’s own experience leaving Ethiopia for Peoria, Illinois, where he was inspired by “knowing a lot of really decent 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.”

As the title of the book suggests, Mengestu’s third novel is about the nature of names and identities, which he sees adapting and changing over the course of a person’s life.

“We leave our countries, we move to new places, we become fathers, we become husbands, we become wives, we become mothers. With every adaptation of that, we expand our possibilities of who we are and what we can become. So the characters in this novel, they are shifting their names, they are taking on new names, and sometimes they are forced to abandon the names that they were born with.”