All Our Names: What Names?

From the title of this novel, All Our Names, we can assume that there will be the theme of names throughout the story. However, after reading it we can confirm names are in fact a theme, yet not in the sense that we maybe first assumed. As we discussed in class, the names of everyone/thing throughout the story are left ambiguous. This applies to the main characters, some locations, and some minor characters as well. Examples of this include; Helen, whose father can’t remember why he chose that name for her, Isaac, who has no last name, and no real identity written on paper, Langston, which we know is not his real name, The President, who is never referred to by name, same as The Capital.

In addition, the names that are present, are extremely ‘un-African’. For example; Hope, Patience, Langston, Isaac, Helen, David, Dickens. This is an interesting tactic on the authors part, especially for an ‘African’ novel, in which names typically hold a high level of importance (mirroring their level of importance in the real world). My question is, why does Mengestu choose to have ambiguous and ‘un-African’ names? What purpose does this serve? Is it so the readers can better apply their own impressions of the characters? Maybe it’s because he wants the book to apply more to the America/ the mid-west, than to Africa? Or maybe it is supposed to symbolize a change of identity…two possible supporting examples of this are, when Isaac comes to the midwest and is assigned the name Dickens (symbolizing his switch from Uganda to America), and when Langston first comes to the capital and says that he is leaving everything from before behind him, including his family names, and then when he first meets Isaac, he is assigned the name Langston (symbolizing his switch from being with his family in his village to being mostly on his own in the capital). With that last option, I would like to end with a quote I find ties together the theme of names in this novel…

“…Isaac was their legacy to him, and when his revolutionary dreams came to an end, and he had to choose between leaving and staying, that name became his last an most precious gift to me.”

Posted on September 25, 2014, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. One thing that I realized getting closer to the end of this book is that these are not only “unAfrican” names but that they are distinctly Christian names.

    “Isaac” comes from Genesis 22, where God tells Abraham to prove his faith and love for him by going to a mountaintop and sacrificing his son, Isaac. As Abraham is about to kill Isaac, God calls down and tells him to stop and that because he was willing to sacrifice Isaac he knows Abraham’s faith is true. I believe that having two of the main characters named Isaac shows how they are meant to be sacrifices. We know one Isaac died for the sake of his country, a very literal sacrifice, and the other had his entire culture and life sacrificed by having to move to America.

    “Joseph” comes from Genesis 37-45, and his story is also portrayed in the hit musical, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” Basically, Joseph has these visions of the future that always showed him as a successful leader, and he was also his father Jacob’s favorite son. Jacob gave him a magnificent beautiful coat, and Joseph’s brothers got jealous. They sold Joseph to slave traders and bloodied up his coat to make Jacob think Joseph died. A lot of stuff happens and Joseph ends up as the Pharaoh’s right-hand man because of his ability to interpret dreams, and during the years of famine his brothers came to the Pharaoh to beg for grain. They didn’t recognize Joseph, but after a lot of trickery Joseph revealed himself to them and forgives them for how they had wronged him, even going so far as to provide for them. I think that Joseph in All Our Names would like to follow this pattern, and if he gave himself the name that could be the reason why. He imagines himself as a leader who will create this great Africa, but he cannot fulfill this role. The Biblical Joseph is a very forgiving person; he forgives his brothers for trying to kill him and selling him as a slave and welcomes them back into his life with open arms. The story of Joseph in the Bible is ultimately a story about forgiveness. But Joseph in All Our Names seems incapable of that, and relies far too heavily on murder and unethical means to reach his end, and that could be why he is unable to live up to this dream.

    One other point I wanted to make was how Isaac calls each of the bodies he buries “Adam.” Thinking in Biblical terms, I think this is significant. Adam is the first human on Earth, and the act of burying him over and over again to me symbolizes the end of beginnings. The independence movement, their new beginning, has died, and I think Isaac is realizing here that the other revolutionary movements will suffer the same fate. It’s almost Sisyphean in how cyclical and hopeless it is, and it gives the idea that each beginning will always have an end; that Africa will never be stable.

    I would find it interesting if someone were able to see a connection between David and the story of David and Goliath (1 Samuel 17), or even a connection between Helen and St. Helen.

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