The Important Difference
By Dinaw Mengestu
“Liars and frauds.” That is how the two young African men at the heart of Dinaw Mengestu’s most recent novel, All Our Names, describe themselves. And they are not wrong. Indeed, this is a reasonable — if unsympathetic — description of many of Mengestu’s characters.
It is true of Jonas, the narrator of Mengestu’s 2010 novel, How to Read the Air. While working in a refugee resettlement center, Jonas helps his clients by falsifying the personal narratives at the heart of their refugee claims: told of a rock thrown through a window, he spins a story about soldiers storming a house; told of a woman’s fear of sexual assault, he records the story of her rape. A co-worker justifies this practice by arguing, “It’s all really the same story. All we’re doing is just changing around the names of the countries…but after that there’s not much difference.” Whatever the speaker’s good intentions, his argument is ugly and ultimately dehumanizing. It is also familiar, because the idea that “there’s not much difference” among similarly persecuted peoples is a sentiment that undergirds most visual and written representations of displaced peoples as a nameless, undifferentiated mass, an unsolvable problem often called “Africa.” All Our Names is also about forcibly displaced Africans. But here Mengestu responds to the suggestion that all stories of persecution are “really the same story” with a powerful and provocative meditation on the importance of leaving “speakers in control of their story.”
“I won’t ask what brought you here,” says one character in All Our Names: “You can tell me as little or as much as you want.” In a book about forced migration, these words evoke the refugee claim process, wherein asylum seekers are required to produce coherent and verifiable accounts of past trauma for an audience with the power to decide their fates. But this character’s statement can also be read as a sly comment on the tendency to appreciate immigrant literature for its truth value rather than its literary merit — to read it as a record of events, an autoethnography, and to reward the writer who renders the exotic accessible and represents third-world suffering for the sake of first-world catharsis.
These constraining expectations faced by immigrant and ethnic minority fiction writers are highlighted by Rohinton Mistry in his short story “Swimming Lessons.” Towards the end of the story, the protagonist’s parents reflect that their son will be a successful writer if he continues to focus on his recent experience as an Indian immigrant in Canada: they “are interested there in reading about life through the eyes of an immigrant.” The only danger they foresee “is if he changes and becomes so much like them that he will write like one of them and lose the important difference.” Mistry’s story is funny but his concern that immigrant writers are expected to write confessional stories that explain their “important difference” is serious, and it is shared by Mengestu. Following his receipt of the 2012 MacArthur “Genius” award, Mengestu described himself as deeply interested in “adding to the complexity” of “the immigrant narrative in America.” And All Our Names most certainly does that, but, intriguingly, its complexity is largely a product of what it omits, including key names, dates, and places. “I can tell you as little as I want,” Mengestu seems to say. And only occasionally does he leave me wanting more.
The central character goes by the name Isaac, but, at the end of the novel, he explains that “D____ is the name my father had given me when I was born.” The novel tells the story of how he came to be called Isaac Mabira, a name that first belonged to his best friend, who bequeathed it to him as a “last and most precious gift.” So, we learn about the deep friendship between two poor young men who meet in the late 1960s on a Ugandan university campus where both spend their days posing as the students they dream of becoming. After partaking in a few student protests, they become seduced by the “ecstatic promises of a socialist, Pan-African dream” and then increasingly embroiled in the ugly, violent realities of revolutionary politics. Dates and locations are left hazy, as are the young men’s politics: we aren’t sure whether their goals are primarily Marxist, nationalist, or pan-Africanist, and neither, it seems, are they. The effect is to underscore their naïveté, and, perhaps, our own.
In the context of the story, this makes good sense. All Our Names is a book about people who are violently uprooted and who “dream of belonging to a place that will never have them,” so the decision to leave key features of their landscapes and their revolutions unnamed reinforces Mengestu’s interest in the idea — and the privilege — of being “grounded,” of knowing oneself in relation to a place and a community that are relatively stable. But the effect is also frustrating, and it sometimes blunts the story’s emotional force. For example, a loving three-page description of an empty house emphasizes the studied vagueness with which its surrounding are described, and so the bloody coup that is being fought less than a mile from that house feels regrettably unreal, even symbolic. While the refusal to locate this story and to identify its central narrator makes Mengestu’s story intellectually exciting, the missing details sometimes hamper our ability to engage with the plights of his characters. This is doubly disappointing because, like Charles Dickens, who is identified as one of Isaac’s favourite writers, Mengestu has a fantastic eye for the idiosyncratic and heartrending details that bring a character to life.
But this is only half the story. In alternating chapters, All Our Names also explores Isaac’s arrival in the American Midwest in the early 1970s and his romantic relationship with Helen, a white social worker assigned to help him acclimate to life in a small town that “only a decade earlier had stopped segregating its public bathrooms, buses, schools, and restaurants and still didn’t look too kindly upon seeing its races mix.” As she becomes increasingly enamored of Isaac, Helen — a stolid, cautious woman — also becomes taken with the idea of herself as newly bold, even brazen. She thrills at the idea of inviting Isaac to join her for lunch in a local diner and she fantasizes that their entrance will cause a small stir that is triumphantly overcome in the face of their “abundance of affection.” The reality is decidedly more grim and is exquisitely rendered. Helen’s lunch is served on a china plate, but Isaac is given his lunch “to go”:
The same waitress brought it, although this time she didn’t look at
either of us. Her embarrassment was evident. Isaac’s omelet was
on a stack of thin paper plates barely large enough to hold the food.
A plastic fork and knife had been wrapped in a napkin and placed on
top, a strangely delicate touch that she must have been responsible for.
He unwrapped the knife and fork and placed the palm-sized napkin on
“Do you mind if I start? I hate eggs when they’re cold.”
Mortified, Helen rises to leave, but Isaac insists that they finish their meals, saying, “That’s what you wanted, isn’t it?” Not yet able to articulate what she wants from the lunch or from Isaac, Helen thinks she sees “something slightly cruel” in his face, but the reader, who knows more of Isaac’s past than she does, recognizes his resolve and understands the suffering in which it was forged.
Helen is both naïve and thoughtful. Consider this description of race politics in her hometown:
We were exactly what geography had made us: middle of the road, never bitterly segregated, but with lines dividing black from white all over town, whether in neighborhoods, churches, schools or parks. We lived semi-peacefully apart, like a married couple in separate wings of a large house.
That final simile is both ugly and brilliant: while it underestimates the brutality of carefully-coded, quotidian racism, it also offers a devastatingly apt articulation of complacency writ large. It exemplifies the complexity of Mengestu’s characters and the intelligence and compassion with which they are imagined. But this representation of Helen’s hometown is also important because it alerts us to Mengestu’s interest in the intimate connection between identity and place, and, more particularly, the lasting consequences of displacement. Later, Helen remarks, “My whole life is here, and if I left I’d probably always think of myself as Helen from Laurel.” Isaac’s response is moving and bitterly ironic. He explains that, like Helen, he had once known what it was to be “of” a place, but that he had chafed against the weight of the family names that tied him to a place and a people:
When I was born, I had thirteen names. Each name was from a different generation, beginning with Father and going back from him… Our family was considered blessed to have such a history. Everyone in our family had been born and died on that land. We fed it with our bodies longer than any other, and it was assumed I would do the same, and so would my children. I knew from a very young age, though, that I would never want that.
Intent on “making a name” for himself, Isaac leaves his family and his country, travelling from Ethiopia to Uganda, where he dreams of studying literature at university. And here’s the rub: he gets a student visa to the US, but accepting it requires him to take on someone else’s identity.
Names do not constitute or guarantee identities, of course, but identities are stabilized through the mutual recognition and reiteration of names. This is significant because Isaac’s experience in the US is so lonely, so meagre, that he has very few opportunities to develop or affirm his fragile sense of self. But it also matters because so many names are withheld in this book. Isaac keeps his real name from Helen, but he also refuses to tell her his mother’s name, saying it “doesn’t matter.” He is wrong, though. Because we tend to hold on to names as signs or tokens of identity, they matter enormously. So, Helen is understandably angry when Isaac responds with silence to her request for the name of his Ugandan friend, the other Isaac Mabira: “minutes passed. I counted to twenty and back. I began to imagine what I would do if he refused to acknowledge me.” What Helen doesn’t yet know is that her silent lover is not refusing to acknowledge her so much as struggling to articulate his debt to the person who gave him his new identity and to reckon with what he lost when he gave up his own name. As Mengestu writes, “Being occasionally called ‘boy’ or ‘nigger’, as he was, didn’t compare to having no one who knew him before he had come here, who could remind him, simply by being there, that he was someone else entirely.”
a single loose leaf of paper…There was no month or date of birth, only a year. His place of birth was listed only as Africa, with no country or city. The only solid fact was his name, Isaac Mabira, but even that was no longer substantial.
Initially, she finds his secretiveness alluring, and thinks, with some frisson, that he might be a spy. But her exhilaration wanes and is tinged with sadness, as when she compares him to “a sketch of man I was trying hard to fill in.” My response was similar: I delighted in Isaac’s humor; I was moved by enormous loneliness; and I was frustrated that, despite my knowledge of his time spent in Uganda and his harrowing experience on the fringes of a revolutionary army, I, too, was unable to “fill in” the many gaps in his narrative. But that is the point. This is a book about the forces that stymie Isaac’s desire for self-invention, that leave him desperate to assert some small control over his story. Mengestu asks his readers to accept that that control means withholding the confessional narrative that we did not, perhaps, know we wanted. The omissions and occlusions at the heart of this book “ad[d] to the complexity and levels of the immigrant narrative” by making us aware of the expectations that we bring to it. For all that it leaves out, then, this book is terrifically smart and consistently provocative, if not always satisfying.
Carrie Dawson teaches contemporary Canadian literature at Dalhousie University.