All Our Names by Dinaw Mengetsu – A Review
Two very different stories converge in All in our Names, the latest novel by Ethopian-American author Dinaw Mengestu. It is the early 1970’s, and the stories are of a black man who has fled to the American Midwest from violence on the continent of Africa and a white woman, Helen, who grew up in the American Midwest and has never left.
Helen is a lonely and passionate woman who still lives in her family home, a place where women’s voices were silenced. Her mother, whom she calls “a whisperer,” is still living with her, and the back yard is overgrown. This was the very same yard that she retreated to as a child so she could read her books out loud, and where, later in life, she screamed in frustration.
Helen is also the social worker assigned to help Isaac, a newly arrived immigrant, adjust to a new country. Isaac was raised in Ethiopia and went to school in Uganda. While in Uganda, his world became one of violence and revolution. The intense bloodshed led him to seek safety in America. But before he left, he changed his name.
Information about Isaac’s past is revealed painfully slowly as Helen tries to fill in the blanks both because of her work, and because she wants and needs (or thinks she does) to know. (As different on the surface as two people can be, the two still begin a secret affair.) She herself knows little of the world, and even less about what might be going on in places like Uganda. She doesn’t truly grasp it when Isaac tries to explain that even her little corner of the world is not safe for an interracial couple.
When he came to America discards all of the 13 names he was born with, and takes the name of a friend who had been a fellow student, and victim of the Ugandan violence. Isaac (the original) was an idealist, passionate about change.
Helen doesn’t think there is racism in her world, in her town. She sincerely believes that her people are middle of the road, and is blind to the dividing lines between black and white right in front of her as she walks through different sections of town.
That changes when they visit a local diner. This is a favorite spot, one of many places on Helen’s list of things to show Isaac. (She doesn’t have much to show him, after all, since her experience of the world is so different from his.)
When they order, and the waitress asks if they want the order “to go,” Helen’s eyes start to open. Then, when Isaac’s food comes, it is served on thin paper plates and with plastic utensils, unlike everyone else. (Helen’s meal comes on china.) Helen desperately wants to leave, but Isaac insists on finishing the meal.
This book tells a difficult story about race, but that isn’t the central theme. It is a magnificent love story, with all the complexities that befall any couple who find themselves in that state.