These were not the intended opening words to this post. Initially, there was a flowery introduction that basically said I have been reading some great books and others not so good. A little affirmation to convince myself more than anyone else that I am not a lazy reader/writer and I have actually been working. That even though I am supposed to be working on a collection of short stories, job searching, living life, serving people, and growing up all at the same time, I am still Nma. Or am I really? Who am I?
Before getting to All Our Names, allow a Les Miserables digression. If you haven’t seen Tom Hooper’s version of this classic, go see it! Be held spellbound by Hugh Jackman’s vocal range and when the song Who am I? begins, walk with Monsieur le maire through years of strife, hardship, and poverty. See him as Jean Valjean and be prepared for the final scream of 24601!!! Then, when you are done with the entire movie, watch Who am I? over and over again on Youtube. This time, you can sing along (you should have picked up a few of the lyrics) and hit all the high notes. Only then can you reflect on the person behind your name, your identity.
What is in a name? Helen and Isaac are common names, easy to pronounce and remember. Both are the narrators in Dinaw Mengestu’s latest book, All Our Names. Last summer, I listened as Dinaw read an excerpt from this book to an audience at the Free Library of Philadelphia. The setting was a diner in Mid-west USA, post- segregation. It was an awkward encounter. Isaac (African) and Helen (Caucasian) walk in and order food amidst stares, or rather a sort of pregnant silence that later results in Isaac being served food on paper plates as opposed to regular dinner ware. A message clearly sent that segregation may be over, but certainly not the raised eyebrows and covert glances dished out to a mixed couple sighted in public. What I heard was interesting, but not that captivating to be catapulted to the number 1 spot on my reading list. Then I saw the cover.
All Our Names written chalk on blackboard style, the black contrasting with the white, then neatly crossed out. How brilliant! I guess I am not the only one who loved the concept as All Our Names was among the New York Times best covers of 2014. I thought about those days in elementary/primary school when teachers wrote down names of noisemakers in the class on the blackboard with a piece of white chalk, and then crossed out each name after punishment had been meted out to that individual.
Isaac and Helen are offenders in their own ways, one running from a horrid past, the other escaping the mentality of a small town that clings to an ought-to-be forgotten past. The storytelling is alternated back and forth between the two and I pick my favorite narrator early on, eager to linger with him and hear more. Interestingly, it is not because of what he is saying, but who he is talking about. This character has swagger and you get that “I love you oh villain, I hate your oh villain” feeling. I am a little confused with this character’s name. He is also called Isaac, so I expect a switch. I read on to discover it and tell myself that I would stop reading when I do. Of course, Dinaw drags this tease to the last bit of the book, which by this time, the plot is moving on a lot faster. Then, the end. Some names are still left hanging. I don’t ask why for that is not important. Be it Adam or Alex, there is a point reached where all names became a blur and the bigger picture is the lesson from the story.
Some might see this book from a racial angle, others cling to the Africa in tumult post-independence era and then, there may be something for those looking for an alternate ending to the “and they lived happily ever after” fairy tale. The most underlined quote in the Kindle version I read was “What I didn’t know until then was that loving someone and feeling loved in return was the best exercise for the heart, the strength training needed to do more than simply make it through life.”
What did I like? The names. Yes, I enjoyed all the names the characters could take up at different phases in their lives and the struggle to maintain an identity. All Our Names certainly caters to the identity crisis and forced identities invented in the face of hardship. So if you decide to read Dinaw’s latest novel, embrace the nicely crafted phrasing and all the above. And on the last side note, Coke deserves high fives for their recent campaign, Share a Coke with…(insert all of our names :)). Receiving a bottle with your name makes you have a rethink on this identity issue.