Ethiopian-American author Dinaw Mengestu and the aura of estrangement

Idi Amin in Kampala,Uganda, in 1971. Dinaw Mengistu's third novel is based in part on the tragedy of Uganda under a violent dictatorship. AP photo June 2014
Idi Amin in Kampala,Uganda, in 1971. Dinaw Mengistu’s third novel is based in part on the tragedy of Uganda under a violent dictatorship. AP photo June 2014

By Hannah Black

(The National) The Ethiopian-American author Dinaw Mengestu ’s third novel, All Our Names [Amazon.com], tells the story of Isaac, a name stretched to fit not one but two characters whose lives unfold in alternating narratives. In one of these narratives (Isaac), two men form a close friendship in Kampala during a coup, and in the other (Helen), set a year or two later, one of them attempts a love affair with an American woman in a small town in the Midwest.

In the Isaac narrative, we are guided around the revolutionary foment of Amin-era 1970s Kampala by a young man who will eventually take the name of his best friend Isaac when he leaves Uganda for the US. He is a foreigner in Kampala, recently arrived from Ethiopia with ambitions to become a university student and a writer. Over the novel’s first few pages, Mengestu gradually draws out the revelation that even the first of these dreams is impossibly unrealistic. Read more…

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