All Our Names- Identity Lost

One of the major themes that stood out to me in this novel is the theme of “lost identity.” This theme is important because not only does it apply to the novel, but also used by the author to critique modern society. It applies to the novel because the main character Isaac suffers from a lost identity. He mentions in the book that

I had 13 names. Each name was from a different generation, beginning with my father and going back from him.”

In this quote Isaac is already alluding to the fact that he suffers from a lost identity because his names are just a reflection of his family not him. There is also a more explicit case in the novel when he goes to the diner with Helen, and he is served with paper plates and plastic utensils. The diner attempts to strip his identity as a person by treating Isaac like a 3rd class citizen.

On a larger scale I think the author uses this theme of “lost identity” to critique the way Westerners view black people. In America for example, we use the ‘politically correct’ term to describe all black people as African Americans. A major problem with this is not all black people in America are from Africa. Some people are from Central America or South America. As Dinaw Mengestu grew up in Illinois, he might have experienced some of that first hand. Another way to look at this theme in a more current view is how there can be a tendency for westerners to imitate some of the black culture (Miley Cyrus) through personal style, music, and dance.

I also could be completely wrong about this and somehow talked myself into this making sense. Your thoughts?


Posted on September 25, 2014, in All Our Names and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I actually think this makes a lot of sense! However, I may be pushing the envelope with my example of the “lost identity” you described. I think one could argue that Helen struggled with her own identity throughout the novel as a result of her own constant comparison of herself to her mother. She often pointed out similarities between her and her mother, only to follow up those similarities with something that set her apart from her mother. I think this shows that she was constantly struggling with her own identity in that she was uncomfortable with the the fact that she may have been slowly turning into her mother. Again, this is just one very particular aspect of the larger theme you described of “lost identity,” so I’m not sure if this is where you were trying to go with your post but I wanted to share my thoughts!

  2. I think both of your points (1. lost identity 2. racial problems) are very interesting and valid. As you and Anna both mentioned, the characters (eg. Langston and Helen) in the novel suffer from identity loss. And I find it interesting to compare the two characters’ identity loss. They seem to me two minor different kinds of identity losses. Langston’s comes from different generations while Helen’s comes solely from her mother (let’s just suppose that Anna’s assumption is valid). They both comes from the family pressure, but Helen’s mother’s image to some extent “haunts” her a lot because they are living together. In contrast, Langston is far away from his ancestors.

    Concerning the racial problems you mentioned in the post, I think you illustrated the concept that “black≠African American”. Thanks for this point!

    The next question we have to think about is that whether names really equal identities. To me, different names doesn’t seem to change who I am. I have a Mandarin name, an English name, a Russian name, an Arabic name, but I am still the “me”. And this somehow makes me think of the famous quotes from Romeo and Juliet: “O! be some other name: What’s in a name? that which we call a rose. By any other name would smell as sweet” (46-8). What do you guys think?

    I would like to say that they are suffering from identity crisis because they are confused about what and who they are, eg. Helen is always comparing her mother and herself. They do not lose their identity all.

    PS. Whether names really equal identities or not, I still think Dinaw Mengestu’s using of the image “ALL OUR NAMES” is brilliant! It’s a very good way to symbolize the identity crisis.

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