All Our Names

UnknownAll Our Names
Dinaw Mengestu
© 2014
256 pages (hardcover)

A couple years ago, the Washington Post reported in this article that 15% of new marriages were interracial (check out this graphic that accompanied the article): “’Intermarriage in this country has evolved from being illegal to being a taboo to being merely unusual,’ said Paul Taylor, the Pew official who edited ‘The Rise of Intermarriage’ report. ‘With each passing year, it becomes less unusual.’”

For me, interracial relationships are not at all unusual. In fact, they’re my normal.

My parents (white dad, Asian mom) met at a small college in Iowa in the late ‘60s. They married in the early ‘70s, only a few years after the Supreme Court’s Loving v. Virginia decision holding that Virginia’s law prohibiting interracial marriages was unconstitutional.

That was less than 50 years ago, so it’s pretty hard to fathom that the prevailing opinion of the day was this (a snippet of the trial judge’s opinion that the Lovings appealed):

Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And, but for the interference with his arrangement, there would be no cause for such marriage. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.

Oh, how times have changed! On a day-to-day basis, I rarely think about the fact that I am biracial (except, of course, when I am asked, “What are you?”) or that I am in an interracial marriage. But reading All Our Names was a good reminder of what others went through to make that possible for me.

The book is set in the early ‘70s and has two first-person narrators: Isaac and Helen. Isaac is Ethiopian; Helen is from the Midwest United States and white.

Helen is a young, disheartened social worker (“It wasn’t until an entire year had passed and I was asked to make a list of all my successes that my faith began to give. I only had vague memories of the 154 people who had been assigned to me. . . . I gradually gave up trying to change anyone’s life.”). She was born and raised in small-town Laurel (the book never specifies a state). She is in her mid-twenties but still lives with her mom in her childhood home (her parents are divorced).

When Isaac was born he had thirteen names (“Each name was from a different generation, beginning with my father and going back from him. I was the first one in our village to have thirteen names. Our family was considered blessed to have such a history.”), but Isaac was not one of them. His real name is never revealed; he gave up all his names when he traveled from Ethiopia to Uganda with dreams of becoming a writer. In Uganda, on the college campus (where he is not actually a student, because he is too poor), he meets his best friend, the original Isaac. Original Isaac is a political activist with dreams of becoming a revolutionary. Uganda is independent but struggling to find its identity. Power struggles abound as the government attempts to maintain power in the face of revolution. The Isaacs activism is peripheral at the beginning, but when Original Isaac meets some powerful people, that changes quickly. And, as things get more and more dangerous, Original Isaac sends his friend off to the United States to escape, giving him his name, his passport, and his visa.

When Isaac arrives in Laurel, Helen is assigned as his caseworker. His file contains only one sheet of paper, nearly devoid of information. Helen knows next to nothing about him. She doesn’t know where he’s from, what he’s been through, or why he’s in Laurel. But there’s something about him to which she is drawn, and, before long, they are in a passionate relationship. Helen genuinely loves Isaac (or, at least, her idea of Isaac), but she also sees their relationship as a statement. She keeps a tally of the places they’ve been in public together (the post office, the grocery store). She attempts to prove that their love is real and acceptable and sustainable . . . but she is naïve and idealistic. She takes Isaac to a diner for lunch (“The diner was never officially segregated, but I couldn’t remember anyone who wasn’t white eating there, either.”). When the waitress first asks if they would like to take their food to go, and then serves Isaac’s lunch on paper plates (Helen gets the normal dishes), Helen gets embarrassed and wants to leave. But Isaac refuses, saying, “Not until we both finish our lunch . . . That’s what you wanted, isn’t it?” After they finish eating, Helen attempts to put a positive spin on their lunch, telling herself that their eating at the diner proves their love and the sacrifices they are willing to make. But Isaac brings her back to Earth: “Now you know. This is how they break you, slowly, in pieces.”

Rating: 3.5/5

This is a book about both love and war. The touching, loving moments are balanced with moments of graphic violence. The writing is good (with moments of greatness on one hand and slow, draggy passages on the other), and the ending is beautiful.

The book bounces back and forth between Isaac’s story of his time in Uganda with Original Isaac and Helen’s story of her relationship with Isaac after he arrives in the States, both of which are told in first person. This is a book about identity and how others can shape and change that identity. Intentionally, thus, there is a great disparity between their two stories (not just in setting, but in intensity and action), which serves to highlight Helen’s and Isaac’s vastly different perspectives.

It also serves to make the book as a whole feel somewhat disjointed. It’s hard to jump back and forth seamlessly between small-town Laurel where nothing much is going on (but an interracial love story subjected to small-town racism) to Uganda, where police brutality and violent revolutions are the order of the day.

Books about interracial couples have a tendency to be a little grating. They are often either too statement-y or too quaint. This book is neither. The book highlights the challenges we face and sacrifices we make for love (both platonic and romantic). The Isaac/Helen relationship is genuine, with distinct highs and lows. There is a big difference between how Helen and Isaac act together, in the privacy of Isaac’s apartment, and how they act and interact in public. And, although we only see the relationship through Helen’s rose-colored glasses, it is clear that Isaac is more pragmatic and realistic about the societal pressures stacked against them.

Who should read it: Calling out friends who are in interracial relationships seems vaguely inappropriate, so I will simply say that if you have that perspective/life experience, you may relate to this book (and Helen’s/Isaac’s relationship) more.

Want to read along with me?  Reviews of these books are coming soon:

  • This One Is Mine by Maria Semple (this is the first novel from the former Ellen and Arrested Development writer and author of Where’d You Go, Bernadette)
  • Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann (winner of the National Book Award for Fiction in 2009, the Ambassador Book Award for Fiction in 2010, and the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association (NAIBA) Book of the Year for Fiction in 2010; an Amazon Best Book of the Month for June 2009)
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2 thoughts on “All Our Names

  1. Nicely done. WIll likely go on my TBR list. Funny, back in the day (being a geezer that day was a long time ago in a distant galaxy), even in NYC, interracial marriage were rare. My parents mixed marriage was a religious mix and that was close to scandalous. I used to ask my mom what tribe I was in since the people in the next apartment kept calling me a half-breed. With my marriage, the worst we saw was the “where are you from?” “no, where are you really from?” conversation starters that drove my wife nuts. The answers would be “New York.” “Oh, Queens” “Oh Forest HIlls” “Oh Austin Blvd” and if that didn’t get them to stop she’d give them a virtual bitch-slap and they would shrink away in terror. My daughter? She just goes on about dumb white people and leaves it at that.

    Good review and to the extent the books explores the dichotomy between public/private relationships, it may have some resonance.

    • Times are a’changing. Did you see the National Geographic article, “The Changing Face of America,” a couple months ago (“The U.S. Census Bureau has collected detailed data on multiracial people only since 2000, when it first allowed respondents to check off more than one race, and 6.8 million people chose to do so. Ten years later that number jumped by 32 percent, making it one of the fastest growing categories.”)? Here’s the link to the gorgeous interactive portrait spread that accompanied it: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2013/10/changing-faces/schoeller-photography.

      Also, it sounds like your wife might have appreciated the sentiments expressed in this piece published in the NYT: http://parenting.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/08/19/mixed-kids-are-always-so-beautiful/ (I personally don’t agree with all of her opinions or interpretations, but, judging from the HUNDREDS of comments, lots of people do!).

      Glad you enjoyed the review. If you read the book, let me know your thoughts on it.

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