Author Dinaw Mengestu is known for his stories about the African immigrant experience in America. Born in Ethiopia, Mengestu came to the U.S. as a toddler and grew up in Peoria, Ill. In a new novel, Mengestu juxtaposes the immigrant journey he knows so well with the perilous world of post-independence Uganda. It’s the story of a young African man who befriends a revolutionary in the capital, Kampala. And in America, a white, Midwestern woman falls in love with a mysterious African immigrant with a secret past.
- Dinaw Mengestu Author, "How to Read the Air" and "The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears." He is a 2012 MacArthur "genius" grant recipient.
Read An Excerpt
Excerpted from “All Our Names” by Dinaw Mengestu. Copyright © 2014 by Dinaw Mengestu. Excerpted by permission of Knopf. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. She's on vacation. Ethiopian-American author Dinaw Mengestu is known for his stories about African immigrants forging new lives in the United States. But in his new novel, Mengestu sets half the story in Kampala, Uganda, in the vanishing world of post-independence Africa. The other half takes place in America, where an unlikely love affair between an African immigrant and a Midwestern woman test the boundaries of the post-Civil Rights era. The book is titled "All Our Names."
MS. SUSAN PAGEAnd Dinaw Mengestu joins me in the studio. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MR. DINAW MENGESTUThank you very much, a pleasure to be here.
PAGEWe invite our listeners to join our conversation. You can call our toll-free number, 1 (800) 433-8850. Send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or find us on Facebook or Twitter. Now, in your previous two novels, they took place entirely in America. In this one, you have two parallel stories going on in Uganda and in the United States. Why the difference this time?
MENGESTUWell, it was partly based out of two ideas. I think, one, after my previous two novels traced the effects of migration and war on my characters -- what happens to these men after they've been forced to leave their homes and come to the United States and rebuild their lives and rebuild their friendships, and all the sort of accompanying loneliness and sadness that comes with that. And this novel kind of began out of the idea that it would be wonderful to write a story that began on a moment of optimism and hope. And so the novel really originated with a group of friends on a college campus somewhere in Africa in the sort of post-colonial moment.
MENGESTUAnd I thought this would be a great place to start a novel. But then, really quickly I realized, given my own background and my own personal experiences, that inevitably the narrative would have to find its way into America as well, because that's also very much a part of who I am both as a person and as a novelist. So once that began to happen, I realized; well, how can I keep these two seemingly disparate narratives working in tandem? How can I see how much of an echo we can actually find between the narratives of post-colonial Africa and the post-Civil Rights moment in America?
MENGESTUAnd as these voices began to merge, I began to realize, well, there's actually a lot of parallels here. These stories aren't as distinct, aren't as different as we oftentimes tend to think of them as.
PAGEYour new novel is called "All Our Names"; your previous ones, "How to Read the Air" and "The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears." And you've talked about these three novels as being kind of a trilogy.
MENGESTUNo. Yeah, they really are. And I tend to think that the first two novels are really occupied with this idea of rupture. You know, what happens with characters who are forced to leave home? What happens in those moments of migration? And again, this novel seemed to be borne more out of an idea of; how can we really think of our narratives as converging, once we reduce them to the very individual, particular levels, once you come down to the story of a single man and a single woman, even if that man has been born in Ethiopia and has gone through a revolutionary in Uganda?
MENGESTUOnce he comes to America, how can we see that history as actually being remarkably similar to history of this white woman in the Midwest? And together, you know, this is last of the three. But in many ways, it's also the first. It's the novel that actually takes place before a lot of the Civil Wars and politics and violence that erupted in Africa. And so these characters are -- they're almost the precursors to the characters of my other two novels.
PAGEAnd you have -- you alternate chapters: one in the voice of an African student in Uganda, and the second in the voice of the white American woman from the Midwest. Was one set of chapters easier for you to write -- one perspective easier...
PAGE...for you than the other?
MENGESTUYeah, strangely, Helen's voice was probably the easier of the two, even though her voice came later on in the narrative. It began with the voice of Isaac, with the voice of these young revolutionary figures. But really quickly, once Helen emerged, I found that I knew her quite well. She was automatically almost fully formed in my imagination. You know, and partly I think it's -- we left Ethiopia when I was really young and we came to the Midwest. And I grew up in a very small-knit community in Peoria, Ill. We went to a Southern Baptist church.
MENGESTUAnd there was -- there are a lot of women in my life who resembled Helen. You know, women who sort of took my family in when we first came to America, the women who watched me after school when my parents went to work. And in many ways, Helen is kind of a tribute or a reflection of them. You know, these women who had never encountered an Ethiopian family, much less a group of African immigrants, and yet automatically recognized that there were differences, but also at the same time that these were human beings who they could come to know and care about and love very intimately.
PAGESo you knew the American Midwest through your own lives. How much time have you spent in Uganda? Did you feel you knew that side of the story as well?
MENGESTUThat side -- that side was definitely a greater leap of the imagination. You know, I had spent time as a journalist reporting across different conflicts in Africa. And so, I'd been in northern Uganda and spent time in Kampala and Ido, so -- been, of course, back to Ethiopia and parts of Sudan. And why, I've never had a chance to actually know Uganda quite as intimately as I did -- I mean, I know its political history. And so, for me, the question wasn't about trying to represent a very factual version of, you know, post-independence Uganda, early 1970s Uganda, but the Uganda that would fit the needs of my characters.
MENGESTUAnd these are characters who are coming to Kampala the same way many young men did, because of this wonderful university, because of this great African-writers conference that had happened in the early 1960s. And so Uganda, like many other capitals across Africa, was filled with I think a moment of optimism and hope and great, sort of, intellectual vibrancy that draws these people in. And that's what attracted me most, above anything.
PAGEAnd your story is about, sort of, the end of that period of optimism and vibrancy, when some hard realities were taking place.
MENGESTUYeah, there's, you know, again, these two parallel moments, you know. You come -- you know, Uganda becomes independent in 1962. Martin Luther King gives his I Have A Dream Speech in 1963. Kenya becomes independent in 1963 as well. So you have these, again, these seemingly distinct moments of independence, of human rights and civil rights being gained, not only across Africa but across the United States as well. And so I was fascinated by that moment of optimism, not only because it was a great place to create characters from, but because there's a sort of converse to that.
MENGESTUYou know, that moment of optimism is greeted with I think, in the case of African countries, a sense of frustration and definite violence. You have men who were once revolutionary leaders become dictators, become autocrats, become very, sometimes violent figures. And at the same time, you have a frustration with what happens in the Civil Rights Movement, you know, post 1968, when a lot of the gains that people had hoped for hadn't fully materialized.
PAGEEven some of the settings were the same. One chapter, I remember, you have an important incident that takes place in Uganda in a cafe. And the next chapter, I think, in the United States, you have a big moment taking place in a diner.
PAGEWas that deliberate?
MENGESTUThat was deliberate. You know, and they're different problems, different sets of frustrations began to take place. So I think, you know, one of the frustrations in Africa was that you had people who were hoping I think for a greater form of economic mobility; that once you have independence, you would have the country sort of opening itself both democratically and economically. And instead you had wealth and power sort of concentrated in a handful of people's hands.
MENGESTUAnd at the same time in the United States, we have the Civil Rights Movement, we have the Civil Rights legislation, we have all the attending rights that were supposed to come with it. And yet, at the same time, if you take an interracial couple and you bring them into a coffee shop or a diner, you can see how those rights may be guaranteed on paper, but actually don't materialize on the individual level.
PAGEI wonder if you would read perhaps just a passage from early in the book? I'm thinking of the place where Isaac meets -- when the two key students in Uganda first meet.
MENGESTUYes. "When Isaac and I first met, at the University, we both pretended that the campus and the streets of the capital were as familiar to us as the dirt paths of the rural village we had grown up and lived in until only a few months earlier, even though neither of us had ever been to a city before and had no idea what it meant to live in such close proximity to so many people whose faces, much less names, we would never know.
MENGESTUThe capital in those days was booming with people, money, new cars and newer buildings, most of which had been thrown up quickly after independence, in a rush fueled by ecstatic promises of Socialist, Pan-African dream that, almost ten years later, was still supposedly just around the corner, that according to the president and the radio, was coming any day now. By the time Isaac and I arrived in the capital, many of the buildings had already begun to show signs of wear, having been neglected or completely forgotten.
MENGESTUBut there was still hope in the brighter future to come. And we were there, like everyone else, to claim our share. On the bus ride to the capital, I gave up all the names my parents had given me. I was almost 25, but by any measure, much younger. I said those names just as our bus crossed the border into Uganda. We were closing in on Lake Victoria. I knew Kampala was close, but even then, I had already committed myself to thinking of it only as the capital. Kampala was too small for what I imagined.
MENGESTUThat city belonged to Uganda, but the capital, as long as it was nameless, had no such allegiances. Like me, it belonged to no one and anyone could claim it. I spent my first few weeks in the capital trying to imitate the gangs of boys that lingered around the University in the cafes and bars that bordered it. Back then, all the boys our age wanted to be revolutionaries. On campus and in the poor quarters where Isaac and I lived, there were dozens of Lumumbas, Marleys, Malcolms, Cesaires, Kenyattas, Senghors, and Selassies, boys who woke up every morning and donned the black hats and olive green costumes of their heroes.
MENGESTUI couldn't match them, so I let the few strands of hair on my chin grow long. I bought a used pair of green pants that I wore daily, even after the knees had split open. I tried to think of myself as a revolutionary in the making, but I had come to the capital with other ambitions. A decade earlier, there had been an important gathering of African writers and scholars at the University. I read about it in a week old newspaper that had finally made its way to our village. That conference gave shape to my adolescent ambitions, which until then consisted solely of leaving.
MENGESTUI knew afterward where to go and what I wanted to be: a famous writer surrounded by like-minded men in the heart of what had to be the continent's greatest city. I arrived in the capital poorly prepared. I had read the same Victorian novels a dozen times and I assumed that was how proper English was spoken. I said, sir, constantly. No one I met believed I was a revolutionary and I didn't have the heart to claim I wanted to be a writer. Until I met Isaac, I hadn't made a single friend. With my long, skinny legs and narrow face, he said I looked more like a professor than a fighter.
MENGESTUAnd in the beginning, that was what he called me, Professor, or The Professor. The first, but not the last name he christened me. 'And what about you?' I asked him. I assumed that like others, he had another more public name that he wanted to be known by. He was shorter but wider than me, each of his arms tightly laced with muscles and veins that ran like scars the length of his forearms. He had the build but not the face and demeanor of a soldier. He smiled and laughed too often for me to imagine he could ever hurt someone. 'For now, Isaac,' is what he said."
PAGEThat was Dinaw Mengestu reading from his new novel, "All Our Names." We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation with the author. Please stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. With me in the studio, Dinaw Mengestu talking about his new book "All Our Names." And in a few moments we'll go to the phones and take some of your calls. Our toll-free number 1-800-433-8850, or send us an email at email@example.com. You know, this book is all about names, and even the cover of the -- the jacket of the book has "All Our Names," the title of the book written as though on a chalkboard, but then crossed out. Why?
MENGESTUI think part of it is I'm fascinated by the way people have to reinvent themselves. You know, there's a very American trope, a very familiar idea that people come to America and they have this amazing right by being here to recreate themselves. You can shed your last name, you can invent a new one for yourself. And by doing so you're also able to shed some of your history and become part of something else, something greater than you.
MENGESTUAnd I think part of what the characters are doing are, they're playing on that very sort of American idea. The narrator comes to Uganda, sheds this long list of names that he's inherited from his family because he wants to make something out of himself. And at the same time that same narrator comes to America with that same sense of possibility, that these names have been shed. These histories have been left behind. And by doing so we're able to come up with something new. We're able to create a new possible identify, a new more complex identity perhaps.
PAGEAnd so far -- I read the book last night and I don't think we ever find out what his real family-given names are.
PAGEThere's one moment when his friend calls him by his family name, but you don't -- you just say D and a dash, you don't tell us what it is.
MENGESTUYes. And I think, you know, I've always -- my name -- Dinaw is such a strange particular name in and of itself. It's not -- it's an Ethiopian name but most Ethiopians have never heard of it because it was also a name that my father invented because I was born in Ethiopia while he was already living in the United States. And he wanted to come up with this very particular name for his son who's going to be born in the middle of this revolution while he was far away.
MENGESTUAnd so my name itself doesn't really exist in any context. It doesn't exist in Ethiopia or really in America. And so I definitely have had this fascination with, well how can you create characters whose names and identities are much more elusive than we tend to think of them.
PAGEAnd he is so drawn to this friend you describe, whose name he eventually adopts, and they're so different.
MENGESTUYeah, and they both have this -- you know, if they meet on any common ground it's this desire to want to make something of themselves. You know, there's -- they have different competing interests. One of them is probably much more of a real revolutionary figure. He's very much deeply whetted to the history of Uganda, to the political struggles to that country, whereas the narrator's much more compelled with wanting to find his place in the world. He wants to be a writer. He wants to create a different narrative than the one he's been allowed to do so.
MENGESTUAnd yet, at the same time they converge on this very simple ground of young men wanting to make something better for themselves. You know, they come together the same way any two young men do on a college campus.
PAGEThe character who comes to the United States is, as you say, more introverted. You say his nickname is the professor. His friend is so much braver, bolder, more dramatic than he is. It's like he wants to be more like that.
MENGESTUYeah, he wants -- he definitely would like to be more like that, and yet at the same time his role, in some ways, also mirrors the role of the author. You know, you also need a character who's able to watch and observe closely this sort of unfolding series of violence and tragedies that follow these two characters around.
MENGESTUSo while one is actively engaged in making and shaping the world, the other one is somehow more victim to it. And yet at the same time by being more victim to it has this unique perspective. He's allowed to watch his friend mature and grow and become someone who is more complicated, more violent than he would've ever imagined him to be. But at the same time we have a sense of the complex human desires that underlie him because we have a narrator's who's been able to watch him so closely.
PAGEAnd are -- the characters that you write about, are any of them based on people you actually met during your time as a journalist working in Africa?
MENGESTUThere are. There's one character named Joseph who forms the -- he's sort of the head of this revolutionary movement that's happening in Uganda, the novel. And he is very much a compilation of, I'd say, maybe two or three different military rebel figures that I've met. There was a colonel that I met in Eastern Uganda a few years ago while covering the conflict there who was an incredibly charismatic and at the same time very aggressive man. And he gathered his troops around him in this sort of great display of force.
MENGESTUAnd yet at the same time I knew that he believed deeply in his country, that he believed deeply in the desire to want to make it a better place. But for him that better place involved a military solution. It involved sort of a continuation of a small scale war against these rebel armies, which may or may not have been the solution. But what compelled me the most was that desire to want to make something better for his country.
MENGESTUWe oftentimes tend to think of these men as being sort of wholly malevolent or just pure embodiments of violence or awfulness, when in fact, they oftentimes are born out of much more knowable and much more human desires which are oftentimes noble in their initial intent.
PAGEThe revolutionary figure, the Isaac who is a revolutionary figure also had a sense of humor. And he launched what he called a paper revolution on campus by posting a list of rules. What were his rules?
MENGESTUOh, he has -- you know, part of what happens oftentimes with autocratic governments as they struggle to hold power, they come up with seemingly more and more to absurd rules in which to maintain their forms of authority. And so one of those rules becomes, you can no longer deface the university walls. And so these friends, in order to mock that very weak and false sense of power, they come up with their own forms of revolutionary slogans, including ones that, you know, it's against the law to actually read these laws. It's against the law to say these laws don't exist. It's against the law to not know what these laws are.
MENGESTUAnd part of it is because you can sense that there's an absurdity that happens when power becomes so desperate to maintain itself, that it no longer is concerned with -- about its actual reality to the people who are forced to live underneath it. They just want to be able to assert their authority in whatever meaningless ways they can.
PAGELet's go to the phones and let some of our listeners join the conversation with their own questions or comments. Let's go first to Daniel who's calling us from Silver Spring, Md. Daniel, hi, you're on the air.
DANIELHi. Thanks for putting me on the line. I kind of felt that Haile Selassie as a revolutionary in this case, which for me is bizarre. And again, it sort of (unintelligible) you know, the revolutionaries show up when they're needed. And as an example, Haile Selassie left the country and went to England when the farmers were standing their ground and fighting against Italian occupation. And the other thing is in the peacetime, he just came back after peace was restored.
DANIELAnother thing is, he presided as a king in the country with half of the population, the entire south, disposes of their property land in their own life -- in their own land serving as tenants to the landlords that he has designated their entire livelihood, their land, their property and their possession. And I kind of find it hard to fathom designating Haile Selassie as a revolutionary. He is part of the establishment.
MENGESTUI'm sorry, but I'm not -- I was never actually referencing Haile Selassie in my work. And I agree with you, he is a complicated figure. But, you know, in this novel and its concerns were never representing about Haile Selassie. This story is set in post-colonial Uganda and touches very little on what happens in Ethiopia with Haile Selassie.
PAGEThanks so much for your call. Let's go to Twin Brook, Ohio and talk to Bonbon. Hi, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
BONBONOh, yeah, hello. Thank you for taking my call. I just want to find out from the writer A. this is one of the few novels that talks about a transition of people from Africa to the United States and how those -- the contrast between the two parts of the war.
BONBONI just wanted to find out if he knows -- if his experience involves the disappointments that most people, you know, even revolutionaries who are just street revolutionaries, they are not gun-carrying revolutionaries, had when they come to the United States. And they want to -- you know, they have big dreams for that and they get disappointed in the lifestyle. They finally end up leaving when they got here. I don't know if you get my question or not.
MENGESTUYeah, I do. And, you know, their frustration and their disappointment I think is not particular just to sort of African migrants who come here. You know, I think there's -- that same frustration was oftentimes experienced by many of the leaders of the civil rights movement in America who fought for decades and centuries in order to have equal rights for African Americans. And yet once the civil rights and legislations were enacted, there was still a very pragmatic divide between what happened to people's lives on the ground and what happens in the sort of halls of power in Washington, D.C.
PAGEThe American side of your story is this love story between Isaac and Helen. Why are they drawn to each other? They come from such different places.
MENGESTUYou know, I think part of what draws them together initially is a sense of shared loneliness. You know, that's sort of, I think, what brings them together in the very beginning is probably the most human sort of desire to want to find somebody else to hold onto. And Helen comes from a very small sequestered town and family. And she meets this stranger who comes to town. You know, in that regard it's probably the most classic love story possible. A stranger comes to town and automatically he searches for love and sometimes can find love.
PAGEIt's -- when you read about this, it does seem to resemble President Obama's parents. His father was Kenyan, his mother was from Kansas. Of course they were in Hawaii, a very different place than the Midwestern town that you were writing about. But was that deliberate?
MENGESTUIt was definitely very much in the back of my mind. You know, I was writing this novel -- I began writing it about 2007, 2008 while living in Paris. And I remember in 2008, when Obama gave his race on speech (sic) and I was just beginning to formulate the character of Helen. And this idea of -- well, there's a wonderful line where Obama says, only in America could this have happened, this sort of complex racial family, this amalgamation of an African man in Kenya and a white woman from Kansas.
MENGESTUAnd so right away I thought, well, great, I'm actually doing that story for you, Mr. Soon-to-be-president. And so it formed really quickly. You know, I never forgot the echoes of that storyline that perhaps there was a way in which that story is needed to be dramatized even more in this novel.
PAGEI’m Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Well, while we're talking about Helen and Isaac, why don't you read a short passage for us about -- telling us when they first meet?
MENGESTUThis is from Helen. "When I met Isaac, I was almost what my mother would've called a woman of a certain age. That, in her mind, made me vulnerable though I never felt that way, not even as a child growing up in a house where it would've been much easier to be a boy. My mother was a whisperer. She spoke in soft towns in case my father was upset or had entered one of his dark moods, a habit which she continued after he had left.
MENGESTUWe lived in a quiet semi-rural Midwestern town and decorum for her was everything. What mattered most was that the cracks that came with the family were neatly covered up so that no one knew when you were struggling to pay the mortgage or that your marriage was over long before the divorce papers were signed. I think she expected that I would speak like her, and maybe when I was very small I did. But my instincts tell me that, more likely than not, this was never the case. I could have never been a whisperer. I liked my voice too much.
MENGESTUI rarely read a book in silence. I wanted to hear every story out loud so I often read alone in our backyard, which was large enough that if I yelled the story at the top of my voice, no one in the house closest to us could hear me. I read out there in the winter when the tree branches sagged with ice and the few chickens we owned had to be brought into the basement so they wouldn't freeze to death. When I was older and the grace was almost knee high because no one bothered to tend to it anymore, I went back there with a book in my hands simply to scream.
MENGESTUThat Isaac said he didn't mind if I raise my voice was the first thing I liked about him. I'd driven nearly three hours across multiple county lines and one state line to pick him up as a favor to my boss David, who had explained to me earlier that morning that although, yes, tending to foreigners regardless of where they came from wasn't a normal part of our jobs. He had made an exception for Isaac as a favor to an old friend. And now it was my turn to do the same.
MENGESTUI was happy to take Isaac on. I had been a social worker for five years and was convinced I'd already spent all the goodwill I had for my country's poor, tired and dispossessed, Whether they were black, white, old, fresh from prison or just out of a shelter. Even the veterans, some of whom I'd gone to high school with, left me at the end of a routine 30-minute home visit desperate to leave, as if their anguish was contagious.
MENGESTUI'd lost too much of the heart and all of the faith needed to stay afloat in a job where every human encounter felt like an anvil strung around my neck just when I thought I was nearing the shore. We were, one our business cards and letterhead, the Lutheran Relief Services, but there hadn't been a religious affiliation, not since the last Lutheran church for 100 miles shut down at the start of World War II. And all of its parishioners were rechristened as Methodists.
MENGESTUIt was common among the four of us in the office to say that not only were we not Lutheran, but we really didn't provide any services either. We had always run on a shoestring budget and that string was nipped and inch or two each year as our government grants dried up leaving us with little more than a dwindling supply of good intentions and promises of better years to come. David said it first and most often, we should change our name to Relief. That way when someone asks what do you do you can say I work for Relief. And if they ask you relief from what, just tell them, does it really matter?
MENGESTUA mildly bit of sarcasm is David's preferred brand of humor. He claimed his countermeasure to the earnestness that supposedly came with our jobs."
PAGEShe is worried that she is becoming her mother. And Isaac helps rescue her from that being the case.
MENGESTUVery much so. You know, and Helen's voice was kind of created out of this desire to see what happens if -- oftentimes we think of the migrant story or the immigrant story as being the experience of somebody coming to America. And with Helen, I was curious to see, well, what happens when that gaze is inverted? What happens to the people who are at home and that stranger comes to town and they have to accept them into their homes and into their lives?
MENGESTUAnd so she became a way of thinking about, well the migrant story has two sides to it, right? It's not just the story of the immigrant but the people who also have to receive the immigrant into their community.
PAGEThe New York Times review of the book said that the first chapters reminded her of "Brideshead Revisited."
PAGEWhat did you think of that?
MENGESTUWell, it's always wonderful to be compared to Evelyn Waugh. It's never a bad thing. And that was a novel that I had read actually rather late in life and really loved. And part of why I loved that novel so much was its intimate depiction of a friendship between two men and the accompanying nostalgia that comes with that friendship sort of falling apart. And that novel, I think, deeply informed my imagination definitely.
PAGEIn a kind of sense of grief about a world that's vanishing.
MENGESTUVery much so. There's a sense in which this sort of -- that mythic time of youth, which I think everyone experiences when it's also conflated with the sort of politics of hope and optimism that are unique to these characters, is -- oftentimes gains a level of tragedy when it's gone because you're not only mourning the loss of a youth and a childhood and a friendship, but also of a period when you thought things were really possible.
PAGEWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll talk about the McArthur Genius Grant that our author received and what changes in his life. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page, of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. We're talking with Dinaw Mengestu about his new book. It's called, "All Our Names." His previous books were titled, "How to Read the Air," published in 2010, and "The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears," in 2007. You know, that first book was published just two years after you got your masters from Columbia. And I think a lot of authors who struggle to get their works published would say how did you manage to do that?
MENGESTUPart of it was writing a novel that failed miserably beforehand. And that first novel, I think, helped me set the ground work for really all three novels that have followed since then. The characters in this novel are -- actually their names are taken from the characters in that very first failed novel. And so in some degrees for me it was a question of figuring out how to get out these very large ideas of politics, of history, of love, of identity. And that first novel got those ideas out, but I didn't know how to create characters and how to create a story that people could actually immerse themselves in.
PAGESo the first novel was never published.
MENGESTUNo, thank God.
PAGEBut you still have it.
MENGESTUI think I have it. It's in a basement somewhere, but I'm not quite sure in what condition.
PAGETell us how you go about writing? Do you do in longhand? Do you do it on a laptop? How do you do it?
MENGESTUAt this point, you become fairly systematic about it. For me it's, you know, I wake up as early as I can. And I have two small children, so I have the privilege of being able to walk them to school in the morning. And then would sit down and work, just like anybody else. It became very much, you know, from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. was more my working hours. And then oftentimes you come home, you make dinner, and you go back to work at night.
PAGEIs it easy and fluid for you to write or is it torturous?
MENGESTUI always used to think that writers who talked about the torturous part were exaggerating. You know, how torturous can it be to sit at a desk? But actually it is pretty heartrending sometimes. It's a lot of, you know, you're in isolation to an abnormal degree, definitely. And you are focused on language and you're focused on characters who don't exist and you can't really share that with anybody else around you. So the isolation, in and of itself, becomes quite profound.
PAGEOne of the questions at the beginning of this novel is what will happen to these characters. Especially to Helen and Isaac, this unlikely love story. When you wrote page one did you know what would happen, where they would be by the end of the book?
MENGESTUOh, no. No. When I wrote page one I didn't even know there would be a Helen. I wrote page one really thinking that this was going to be my sort of great, optimistic, ambitious, multi-voiced, Pan-African Diasporic novel. I didn't really know what it would be beyond that. And then Helen emerged. And then Helen and Isaac fell in love. And then I was fascinated by what would happen with them. And I actually didn't know until the very end -- and even in the process of revising it -- whether their relationship would make it, whether or not their love was going to be strong enough to endure.
PAGEAnd we don't want to spoil the ending for people by saying how it ends, but did you try it one way and then the other? Did you experiment with different outcomes for them?
MENGESTUI did. I did. Because I tend to lean towards tragedy in my sentiment -- not out of any form of pessimism, but because I think it's important to engage the more honest challenges that we face in our life and definitely with the people that we love -- that my first instinct was to, of course, destroy their relationship really quickly. And then I thought, well, that can't always be the case, right? There has to be a way for these two couples to come together.
MENGESTUAnd then it was really interesting trying to find out can you actually make these two people, whose lives are seemingly so different and who are divided, not only by their different histories, but by this racism, by this prejudice, by where America was in the early 1970s when you brought all those prejudices and divides onto a couple. It becomes quite intense and quite magnified. And so how to figure out how these two people can overcome those -- and still maintain themselves without hating each other, without falling into a form of anxiety or depression, became its own challenge. And it became actually harder to do that than to just tear them apart.
PAGEThey're very different people, such different backgrounds, and yet they're really very similar in some big ways. They're both kind of lonely.
MENGESTUVery much so.
PAGEThey're both a little restless with where they are.
MENGESTUVery much so. And they're both, you know, I like to think of them as both being very kind-hearted characters. They are characters who are, at their core, willing to look beyond the surface of one another. Helen makes her mistakes in their relationship. She tries to make their relationship be symbolic of more than it actually can be. And at the same time, Isaac, as her partner, withholds a lot of information from her because he doesn't necessarily trust that she can understand where she came from.
MENGESTUAnd so within that mistrust you can also see that there is this desire to forgive one another. And that desire to forgive and to reconvene and to try once more is so essential to who they are that it makes their relationship seem, I hope, inevitable.
PAGEThey're both scarred and kind of exhausted by what they've gone through. Him with his life in Uganda and her with the work that she's chosen to do.
MENGESTUYeah, definitely so. I mean, you know, Isaac has come with a fairly traumatic background, with a sort of long history of having lost things and people that he loves. And Helen, as a social worker, has kind of poured her heart out into the sort of broken landscape of this American Midwestern town of people who have come back from the Vietnam War, of families who are struggling with poverty.
MENGESTUAnd at the same time I think -- there's a line in the book where she says falling in love is the sort of muscle training that your heart needs in order to do more than just endure in this world. And that's very much true. As the two of them begin to fall in love, I think you can see them gain strength and gain power. Helen becomes able to endure the job of a social worker. And Isaac becomes able to endure the isolation and loneliness of being a sort of African man in this small Midwestern town.
PAGELet's go back to the phones and talk to Vanessa. She's calling us from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. Hi, Vanessa.
VANESSAHi. It's so great to hear your voice standing in for Diane Rehm. And congratulations, Dinaw, on this new book, "All Our Names."
VANESSAAll your titles are so intriguing. I was struck when you said the Selassies and the Kenyattas. I am from Kenya. And Christine Kenyatta was a very good friend of mine. She lived in my parents' house when Jomo Kenyatta was in detention. So your whole story really resonates strongly with me. I did have a question about this new gentleman from Somalia, Abdi, Barkhad Abdi, who was nominated for the Oscar.
VANESSAAnd the contrast with his situation versus Lupita Nyong'o, who is from Kenya, who won for best supporting actress. What are your feelings about that young man and how he's going to try to evolve in this difficult situation where the spotlight is on him?
MENGESTUThat might almost be out of my range. I mean, you know, I think the drastic divide that separates those two is they both may come from Africa, but they come from radically different circumstances. I mean Lupita comes from an affluent, middle-class, well-educated family. She has been prepared to inherit and be successful in America. She went to the Yale drama school. Abdi has come to America, like so many immigrants, with very little. He's come fleeing conflict and he's been suddenly thrust into the spotlight.
MENGESTUWhether they come from Kenya or Somalia is irrelevant compared to the fact that what they've been braced with in life in order to meet these new challenges and opportunities that they come with. Lupita, to me, is emblematic of anyone who's come from privilege.
PAGEVanessa, anything else you'd like to say?
VANESSAJust such a sage comment. I'm going to go right out and get "All Our Names." Thank you so much, Dinaw.
MENGESTUWell, thank you very much, Vanessa.
VANESSAYou're so -- you know, I did love the way you said, "I love my voice," because your voice is lovely.
MENGESTUWell, thank you. That's very nice of you to say.
PAGEVanessa, thanks very much for your call. Here's a question from Tom, who's posted it on Facebook. He says, "After all these years can you believe how little actual progress has been made in Darfur?"
MENGESTUNo. Actually, I can believe it quite easily. I tend to think that what happens with our treatment with a lot of these conflicts is we impose a set of ideas or values onto them and we expect them to work and then we walk away. The Darfur Peace Agreement has fallen apart the same way the peace agreement in southern Sudan has fallen apart. The CPA, which created that peace agreement, is very much the model for the peace agreement that happened in Darfur.
MENGESTUSo I'm not that surprised at all. And I tend to think we'll always confront that problem so long as we tend to think of situations as being a product of the sort of conflicts of the other. When we sort of are unable to experience them as very much reflective of our -- the same similar democratic challenges that we face here in this country, the constant sort of imposition of ideas without trying to actually understand in closer degree what's happening in those places, I think inevitably leads to a series of failed peace resolutions.
PAGEAnd on another issue of kind of current events, you have in Uganda these very harsh anti-gay laws being enacted. And I wonder what you think about those and why this happening there.
MENGESTUYeah, and the characters in the novel -- there is a sort of couple in the novel that is a gay couple. And for me I was writing that very conscious of the fact that there was this sort of rise in legislating anti-homophobic behavior and practices. And by legislating it you're validating it. You're giving permission for these things to exist and persist. And part of it is one way of deflecting the problems that are really facing the country. So you have presidents who have been in power for way too long.
MENGESTUAnd so you can change the conversation by switching it to another form of evil, by saying well, here's another problem that we should think about it. It's the homosexual problem. When in fact, all you're doing is you're devaluing an entire part of your population. And any form of conversation around that, that doesn't treat it as a human rights problem, seems to sort of lack the necessary imagination.
PAGEIn 2012 you were awarded a MacArthur Foundation grant, what's become to be known as a genius grant. I'm not sure that the MacArthur Foundation actually calls them a genius grant.
PAGEBut everyone else does. How did you find out you were being awarded this?
MENGESTUI was actually in Kenya. I was doing a festival in Nairobi when a strange number appeared on my cell phone. And it seemed incredibly apt that I would be back in Nairobi, which was actually the first place that I lived after my family left Ethiopia, to receive that phone call.
PAGEI'm Susan Page, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." So you got this phone call and you had to keep it secret for a while, right?
MENGESTUFor almost two months, about a month and a half, yeah. The only person who knew was my wife.
PAGEAnd was that hard, not to tell other people?
MENGESTUIt was actually great not to tell other people because part of what you're trying to do is figure out what this means to you, what it means to your work, and how much -- and how to manage the responsibility that comes with it. And so keeping it private was actually a great luxury. I almost wish I could have always kept it private, in fact.
PAGESo what did you decide it meant to you?
MENGESTUThat's probably an ongoing work in progress. It means, you know, I think in the best possible light it shines a small flashlight on the work that you've been doing, on work that is oftentimes -- I wouldn't say that struggles for attention, but because you're trying to assert that this is part of an American narrative. And an award like this sort of highlights that. It says, well, this is part of our culture capital in this country. And it's not a product of the other. It doesn't sort of belong outside of America, but it is very much an American story that I'm writing.
PAGELet's talk to Marilyn. She's calling us from Wichita, Ks. Hi, Marilyn. Marilyn, are you with us? I'm sorry. There. Marilyn, are you there?
MARILYNYes, I am.
PAGEI'm sorry. We had some problems with the phones. Thank you for calling "The Diane Rehm Show." Did you have a question or comment?
MARILYNYes, I am. Yes, I am. Hello?
PAGEMarilyn, did you have a question or a comment for our author?
MARILYNYes. I don't believe you've gotten to that part yet. Hello?
PAGEOkay. I think that that caller is not going to work out. One thing that I think some authors have said about the MacArthur Foundation grants is that it gives them a kind of financial independence to do something that perhaps wouldn't have been possible without it. Is that going to be the case with you?
MENGESTUYou know, I think I always thought my work wouldn't have been possible to begin with. You know, I remember trying to publish my first novel, having people tell me that no one wants to read a novel about an Ethiopian immigrant in Washington, D.C. This story is not going to sell. It's not going to be published. So I think I always began with the idea that my work was sort of impossible anyway. So I don't know how much more impossible I would try to make it.
MENGESTUI think if anything it means that I should continue and hopefully deepen and expand upon the stories that I've been writing so far, and that people will pay attention to them. Hopefully, that people will continue to read them.
PAGEYou said you weren't sure that it was possible to write successful fiction that would be about an Ethiopian immigrant in America. But that's clearly been the case. Why has it been possible?
MENGESTUI think it's been possible because our readers have a much greater imagination than we gave them credit for. I think because people don't read the same way that our -- they don't read according to racial or ethnic lines. They read according to the values of literature. They read to see parts of themselves reflected in the characters. And whether that character comes from Russia or Poland or Bethesda, Md., or Ethiopia, they can find themselves in those stories.
PAGESo tell us, are you working on another novel now? Tell us what you're working on.
MENGESTUI'm such in the early phases of the next project, writing this novel, maybe more so than the other two, sort of took an enormous amount of energy out of me. And because this novel was so much the last chapter of these three books, it was the sort work that I think has engaged me for the past 10 years of my life. Seeing it come to a close means I think maybe now I need to pause for a little bit and figure out what my next story should be.
PAGEAnd you teach at Georgetown University. Aspiring authors you're teaching?
MENGESTUProbably more aspiring diplomats and politicians. Definitely a few aspiring authors in there. But the great thing about teaching there is you can begin to see how these conversations actually are in constant collusion. The sort of discourse of politics and history are very much fertile ground for the novel and for poetry, as well.
PAGEAnd what do you tell them? What's the core of what you try to teach your students?
MENGESTUI try to teach them that one of the great gifts of literature is that it's engages our active imagination. You know, that part of what happens when we read a poem or a short story is that we're able to step beyond the skin of our very thin lives and step into someone else's shoes. And that affirms this incredible possibility to engage one another on deeper levels than we oftentimes suspect we're capable of doing.
PAGEWe've spent this hour talking with Dinaw Mengestu about his new book, "All Our Names." His previous books, "How to Read the Air," and "The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears." As we mentioned, he's the recipient of a 2012 MacArthur Foundation grant, selected by The New Yorker as one of their 20 under 40 young writers central to their generation. Thanks so much for joining us on "The Diane Rehm Show."
MENGESTUThank you very much. It's been a pleasure.
PAGEI'm Susan Page, of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.