I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the amazing opportunities that I get to experience each day thanks to my career continuously amazes me. Honestly if you’d have told me that one day I’d get to interview an author that was named one of the New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 (Fiction Issue), I wouldn’t have believed you. Last Thursday, I got the opportunity to interview bestselling author Dinaw Mengestu, author of the new book All Our Names. This book left me amazed at what an outstanding story teller Dinaw is, but also his ability to tap into the human connection and why it’s so important. Here’s a description of the book for those of you that have yet to read the book,
All Our Names is the story of a young man who comes of age during an African revolution, drawn from the hushed halls of his university into the intensifying clamour of the streets outside. But as the line between idealism and violence becomes increasingly blurred, and the path of revolution leads to almost certain destruction, he leaves behind his country and friends for America. There, pretending to be an exchange student, he falls in love with a social worker and settles into the routines of small-town life. Yet this idyll is inescapably darkened by the secrets of his past: the acts he committed and the work he left unfinished. Most of all, he is haunted by the charismatic leader who first guided him to revolution and then sacrificed everything to ensure his freedom.
Subtle, intelligent, and quietly devastating, All Our Names is a novel about identity, about the names we are given and the names we earn. The emotional power of Mengestu’s work is indelible.
… and now onto the interview portion of this post:
L.Reeder (LR) One of the ideas that you explore in All Our Names is the immigrant experience. To quote Mark Twain, you should “write what you know”. doe your past and immigrant experience influence your writing?
Dinaw Mengestu (DM) Yes, of course, but at the same time, no. Because I came to the US when I was two, so yes, I’m an immigrant technically, but also I have no memories of the country that I left. I didn’t go back to Ethiopia for twenty-five years, so in some ways I grew up feeling very American. It was really my parents who had that typical “immigrant experience”. I do think though, that I inherited their nostalgia and that’s the thing that I’ve taken into my work. I’m often times telling the story that they weren’t able to tell. So my first novel was really writing their lives, much more than my own and the second novel was closer to my own experiences definitely. And this one is a mix between those two, some of the things I’ve witnessed as a journalist (which doesn’t necessarily fall into the immigrant category) but it’s very conscious of the way people are when they come into a new country, so watching Isaac arrive in the US and realizing that he becomes a migrate for very different reasons. He doesn’t plan on ever going to America, that really was never his dream, but he goes there, because he has to.
LR “Isaac” struggles with identity long before he leaves Africa (with a total of thirteen different names), but it continues to haunt him as the novel progresses. Why did you decide to tackle the idea of identity so closely?
DM Well I tend to believe that we have multiple identities, all of us do, you don’t have to leave home to take on a new name in order to see that, that we’re really complex people. I was with a group of students once and a student asked me how I answer the question, “where are you from”, probably because I’m not really from one particular place. But it’s hard to know what people mean by that question sometimes, so you can say I’m from the mid-west, or you could say I’m from New York, or Paris, because I lived there for many years. So when people ask me that question, I don’t know if they’re asking me about Africa, the United States or what city I live in, so then you realize that all of our identities have a series of layers to them. Even if you’ve lived in one city your whole life, you evolve, you become a Mother, you become a Father, you become all these different roles. You even take on a different identity when you lose a parent. So Isaac, identity and the changes that he goes through may seem more dramatic than most people’s experiences, but I do think it’s a story that we all experience in one way or another.
LR Being known and heard was so important for Isaac and Helen, both in loud and subtle ways. How did you decide to explore the idea of rebellion in the book – not only in Uganda (Isaac’s world), but in Helen’s world too (diner scene)?
DM Well you know it was interesting, because one of the things that happened when writing this novel with Isaac’s voice and incorporating Helen’s story and they really quickly they began to echo one another. In the scenes in Kupala, the two friends go to a cafe and they’re discriminated against because the fact that they’re poor and they don’t have the means to be where all the rich kids are and then you come to the United States, you see Isaac and Helen being discriminated against because of their interracial relationship. You realize that there are these forms of protest that are happening across multiple places when you stop thinking of them as, those are the experiences of those people or the experiences of these people. When you sort of let them sit, side by side, then you begin to see how closely they are to one another.
LR While reading, I felt a range of emotion; hope, fear, love. Is that something you set out to do when you started writing? Or did that start to come together as you got to “know” these characters?
DM You always hope to get out all of those feelings out of your characters. They are the ones that have to dictate that, so the premise of the book came from wanting to write from a sense of hope and optimism, but as soon as you begin to do that, you can’t tell a whole story about hope and optimism, something has to happen. So knowing that the novel began in a moment in history that was followed by something much darker, much more violent, hope seemed like a good place to begin. But I knew I’d have to work my way towards tragedy eventually. But then the question is, whether or not you want to stay there. For me, it was figuring out how to rescue my characters from that tragedy through all these forms of love that they got to experience. Then that hopefully brings the reader out of that dark space and maybe back to hope again.
LR Helen and Isaac share a different, yet similar story, which made it a complex and beautiful novel. Can you share why you found it important to explore the idea of love, war and identity in two different voices?
DM To some degree, they both have different approaches. Helen’s voice was a much needed add on, so you can see the young men going through war and violence, but Helen comes at those topics through a different point of view. She has an anxiety of knowing that story, of how Isaac came to be Isaac and how he came to America. For me, it was a way to say that we’re all familiar of the stories of a person traveling to a different country, but having Helen’s voice gave it a chance flip that conversation and see who’s on the other side of Isaac’s story. And watching to see how she accepts that person into her home, and ultimately, into her heart, as she does.
*And there you have it friends, my interview with the fabulous Dinaw Mengestu. If you’re looking for a book will not only make you think, but will ignite feelings of love, passion and endurance, I suggest picking All Our Names.
My thanks to Scott Seller’s for allowing me the opportunity to conduct this interview.