Boris Kachka of New York Magazine reports on newly released book titles and the world of publishing in The Book Reader.
Dinaw Mengestu belongs to a generation of African immigrant novelists who write not as exiles but as global citizens, traveling freely, in life and in fiction, between their ancestral lands and their adopted homes in the West.
Mengestu's family emigrated from Ethiopia to Peoria, Ill. when he was two, and his first two novels centered on families not too different from his. But his subtly powerful third novel, "All Our Names," moves boldly beyond his own immigrant story.
As it opens, a young, unnamed country boy describes his arrival in a city teeming with possibilities—not New York or London, but Kampala, the capital of Uganda. By the early '70s, Africa's colonizers have fled, and dictators like Idi Amin haven't yet stripped the continent clean of both its resources and its ideals. On the college campus where our narrator meets his best friend Isaac, students display portraits of Lenin and maps of a borderless Africa."We seemed innocent," our narrator says, "if not harmless."
It goes almost without saying that things don't end well. But in the second chapter, Mengestu cuts away to a nameless Midwestern town, where a young white social worker named Helen pines for a life less ordinary. She embarks on an affair with an African visitor named Isaac, who, it turns out, is our earlier narrator, now traveling under his old friend's name. In alternating chapters, we learn how it all came to be, and find out whether this new romance can survive the stubborn remnants of American segregation.
Toggling between these two worlds, you're bound to choose a favorite, and mine is Uganda. For me, Helen's fine rendering of a fragile relationship pales beside the refugee's sharp rendition of blood-soaked Africa and of the deep male friendship that saved his life. But we do need both sides of this story to get a fix on our slippery narrator, just as we need globe-straddlers like Mengestu to show us that love, like hate, respects no borders.
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