May 2014

Alison Barker

Cultural Crossroads

The Metaphor Room: Dinaw Mengestu's All Our Names

Picture a seamstress pressing a thin, transparent sewing pattern onto a thick fold of fabric as she pushes straight pins along the perimeter of the pattern outline, skewering the fabric at the precise points where she'd need the outline of her cut to hold as she uses scissors to slice into her material. The cut-out will necessarily be a bit bulkier and heavier than the curvature of the original pattern. This is the best image I can come up with to describe how people try to know and feel close to one another in Dinaw Mengestu's latest novel.

All Our Names is a super-subtle, super-delicate, and super-devastating story of two narrators' journeys in love and selfhood. On the one hand, it's a novel about an African named "Isaac," a young man from a small town in east interior Africa, compelled in his very bones to be a writer, or more accurately perhaps, to live the life of the mind. After his dreams of going to school don't materialize, he leaves home for Kampala, which, before he arrives, exists in his mind as a mythic place where his thirst for letters could be quenched. He's inspired by a legendary Pan-African writing conference that had happened a decade earlier -- he read about it in an outdated newspaper.

Impoverished and exceedingly curious, Isaac passes as a university student. He spends his days loitering in the campus yard and struggles to survive in the city that was "too small" for what he imagined. It "belonged to Uganda, but the capital, as long as it was nameless, had no such allegiances." The book is set in the time between independence from colonial rule and post-independence dictatorial regimes: a stretchy, elastic time in the early 1970s. It was a time of political vacuums as well as full possibilities. He meets another young man -- the original Isaac -- from rural Uganda doing much the same, but the first Isaac's approach to survival is based on his ability to perform, negotiate ruthlessly and, once the city is under siege, to act. In contrast, our narrator's strengths lay in detachment and the power of observation. Mengestu illustrates how both personalities are capable of turpitude.

There are several very specific markers to situate Isaac's narrative in Uganda, but more effort is given to illustrating that in-between time that has occurred in many places in the world, the time between independence from colonialism and post-colonial coups when authority, right-minded political thinking, the academy and political games of life and death were, for a moment, question marks instead of crackdowns. Likewise, who Isaac will be as a man is up for grabs. He says of Kampala, "Like me, it belonged to no one, and anyone could claim it."

Though Isaac's story is a story of displacement from war, it's also a story about someone who loves stories and inhabits them. He speaks English like the Victorian English in the books he has read; we learn early on that he has read Great Expectations so often he has it memorized. Eventually he recalls his father's nickname for him -- Bird -- because of the way he exists a bit removed from the world, and "high in the sky, far above everyone else."

The other story in All Our Names is that of an American woman named Helen. She is an unworldly social worker in a small Midwestern town, who, compelled in her very bones to be seen and be loved, takes the biggest journey of her life when she falls in love with Isaac, who had become her client. He arrives in America in a time right after the era of lunch counter sit-ins but before any actual social integration has been confronted -- and certainly not in her largely homogeneous town, where segregation has continued in a de facto manner -- passive, unspoken, and staunch.

I wince a little at my initial attempts to describe All Our Names in terms of a seamstress pressing a pattern against her medium, the fabric. In graduate school, I was often told the way I read and described writing wasn't the "right" way to talk about writing.

I have come to realize that I read a book and I run with it, and if I like it, I run all the way into the living room of my mind, where I am allowed to use images and amulets instead of text-based literary analysis. I keep a quotation attributed to Djuna Barnes close by for these moments: "An image is a stop the mind makes between uncertainties." I keep it handy because it forgives and reminds us that the work of our meaning-making will always be done with the tools we have -- the images we can put our fingers on.

A decade ago, on a warm afternoon before my first day teaching seventh grade English, a veteran teacher waltzed into my classroom, looked around, laughed, and quipped, "Oh, I get it. This is the metaphor room."

My behavior rules were posed as "keys to success" in a wide laminated banner, with, admittedly, old keys taped next to the rules. Stapled across the ten-foot-wide bulletin board on the facing wall was the largest paper cutout of a mountain I had or will ever construct, in an effort to starkly conceptualize the rising tension of narrative. Each "elevation" was labeled with a corresponding story structure element; the expanse at the foot of the mountain, for example, was "Exposition." As I recall, there were neon bursts at the peak of the thing, depicting the excitement of a story's climax. Middle school teachers, like most educators, tend to amplify the parts of their personalities that mirror their students' headspace, and throughout that first school year, several colleagues informed me that I had decorated what could only be interpreted as a hyper-color ejaculation across half of my classroom walls.

Back then, if I couldn't turn it into a picture, a diagram, or a pedagogical idiom of some succinctness, I didn't tackle it in my teaching. I never understood how one of the senior teachers, an opera singer in her past life, could tolerate so much mess in her classroom, so much chatter in the back of the room during partner work, and yet exhibited so much patience and connection with her students. I confess to being one of those new teachers who thought her progressive teaching methods could solve the noise and the clutter and the chaos next door in that older teacher's classroom. What I didn't understand was that my need to keep a tight grip on everything from the noise level to the shape of meaning-making in my own classroom originated in fear and insecurity typical for a new teacher. I papered over my fear of complexity with bold lines and icons, and I think Mengestu's love story illuminates the ways love attempts to overcome all these crutches we use in a sea of uncertainty. Love makes things messy and love wrenches our grip from a story line told simply, exposition, rising action and the rest, falling tidily.

It's not Mengestu's structure that's messy. His narration and the finely arranged details about character are placed just-so -- quietly, determinedly. The two narrators alternate chapters throughout -- Isaac tells the story of his young adulthood in Kampala just as the elasticity of post-independence tightens and is sewn taut into violent military coups. Being young and male is a liability in this atmosphere, and it's Isaac's friend who manages to keep them both alive, through his deep and growing involvement with the son of a former president and rebel leader. Isaac escapes Kampala on a student visa and settles temporarily in Helen's town. His silence and his lack of action in a war in his homeland forces you to think about who is implicated.

The mess is in the hard-to-pin-down relationships in the book. Who is Helen to Isaac, "on paper"? Who is Isaac to the first Isaac, "on paper"? That's not the authentic love, Mengestu seems to be telling us. It's the moments when care for another rises above circumstances and uncertainty about people and whether they tell the truth about themselves. I've read several reviewers refer to this and another of Mengestu's books as "elegiac." There is a mournful and bruised quality in how his characters reflect on their lives and each other.

All Our Names is a love story about more than two people. Isaac tells the love story between him and the first Isaac; Helen tells the love story between her and Isaac. In this way Mengestu prods at her conflicting feelings toward the foreigner Isaac, at once the object of love and someone whose buried personal secrets, exotic appearance and colonial English diction are filtered through Helen's preoccupation with her life, her career, and her fluctuating willingness to take on the dangers and discomfort of their tenuous interracial relationship.

By keeping the love story only in Helen's voice, Mengestu demonstrates the ways that concepts of the "other" shape intimacy in interpersonal relations. Just as Helen doesn't get all of Isaac's backstory, we don't get Isaac's take on his relationship with Helen, so in that way we as readers kind of have to perform the unknowingness that frustrates Helen about her mysterious "Dickens," the nickname she and her colleagues give him on account of his anachronistic -- to their ears -- English dialect. We also must go on the journey with her to act unselfishly and out of love for him, and to let him go -- at least for the time being.

Mengestu made a love story within a love story. See how I hinted at the first Isaac, who helped Isaac escape up there? He loved him so much he gave him his name. And this is a very deep wound of love and sacrifice that lies at the center of All Our Names, and I just don't think you can approach it without using and acknowledging those very personal images that come to mind when you try to make sense of uncertainty. Mengestu doesn't, so why should his reviewers? People trying to make sense of each other's foreign psychic emotional landscape press against each other and seek an outline that they can recognize and cut out, maybe save, or stitch into a permanent fixture in their minds. This reader feels that All Our Names catches the people in the act of trying and failing to be certain about one another, but loving in spite of the uncertainty.

Mengestu, born in Ethiopia and raised in Illinois, is a journalist who has covered sub-Saharan African conflict as well as a novelist. His other books are the acclaimed The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears and How to Read the Air. In a 2012 article in Warscapes, Mengestu criticized the western "activist" (his quotes applied) movement, Invisible Children, as testament to the western belief in an "unequivocal power to affect change as citizens of a privileged world," which simply becomes a celebration of that privilege. He suggests that this celebrity-studded campaign and the Kony 2012 film (aimed to raise awareness about the crimes of warlord Joseph Kony) is rooted in a belief that privileged westerners can affect social change "with the click of a button" in a conflict steeped in a complicated and long history. He says this is an outgrowth of the colonialist attitude toward African culture, history, and physical form: if we don't know about it, it doesn't exist. Change can't be wrought by wearing a campaign bracelet or adding a link to your Internet browser toolbar, he writes. "The doctrine of simplicity is always at war with reality." With All Our Names, he applies this wisdom, but he also applies compassion, and a hope that our hearts can triumph over doctrine.

All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu
Knopf
ISBN: 978-0385349987
272 pages