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All Our Names

Mengestu, Dinaw

Last Updated: Mar-30-2023
Annotated by:
Trachtman, Howard

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel


All Our Names is a novel built around two overlapping but non-parallel narratives. In one, Isaac, a young man, has recently arrived in the United States from Uganda where he had moved from his rural village to study literature at a university in Kampala. After a few complicated years in Kampala, he appears unannounced in the small town of Laurel in the Midwest with not much more than the shirt on his back. The explanation for his sudden arrival will emerge over time. Helen, a young social worker, is assigned to his case, and despite their cultural dissonance, they fall deeply in love. Their physical and social disparities serve as strong attractive forces, like the opposite poles of a magnet.  There are obstacles to their relationship -- their own inherent human weaknesses, the ingrained racism of the Laurel community, and the mystery surrounding the Isaac’s past. They are both smart but lonely people who are uncertain about how open they can be about their relationship, whether they can be seen holding hands while walking the streets or even sharing a cup of coffee in a café.

The second narrative details Isaac’s friendship formed in Africa with a fellow student at the university and their gradual but inevitable involvement in the armed rebellion against the corrupt regime governing their country. There is miscommunication and violence in both narratives. They end with separation of the partners – the social worker and the immigrant and the two African men, one who stays in Africa and meets his tragic end there and the other who comes to America

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