Category Archives: All Our Names

All Our Names Book Reviews

Hi everybody! Even though we have read All Our Names for a while, but I still want to share something I read. I accidentally found two different book reviews from two newspapers. I find it interesting to compare different people’s book review. Both of the book reviewers point out that All Our Names is NOT a typical immigrant story we know. These book reviews help me to rethink the themes and the book again.

New York Times–>

The Washington Post–>


Needing To Be Rescued From One’s Name

One line that has stuck with me throughout reading Dinaw Mengestu’s All Our Names is: “Rescue – that is the true heart behind romance and fairy tale; the spontaneous love that frees us from the tower, hospital bed, or broken world is always only the means to that end” (109). And the reason as to why this line stuck with me actually has to do with our discussion about names. We touched upon the fact that names are not really used and are not really important, but I believe that it is. In the beginning of the book, what Langston says Isaac left with him was not just his character, who he was as a person, but his name; Langston himself carried various nicknames like “Professor” and “Ali” which could go to showing how multifaceted he is, who exactly he is; and while Isaac is just a name as Helen points out, it is still what she knows him by.

How does the line that stuck with me relate to this topic of names? Well, one’s name serves as a great identifier. While a name is not what makes everything real or great, having a name to carry is important to many of us. I know it is to me. And while I wholeheartedly believe in keeping my last name when I get married, Langston just throws his birth name away and is dubbed something else. But the fact is he made this transition into the capital that seemed rushed, chaotic, and change seemed like a farce; the hopes that were there for the country of post-colonial independence served as a disappointment. Langston rescued himself from that by taking on a new name. I believe that the quote is stating that “rescue” is this sort of freedom, freedom from realities and to be a dreamer and perhaps have dreams become realities. And from the beginning I feel that Langston was looking for a new identity, a new purpose, which was sort of this fairy tale in his mind that he could not make a complete reality being an outsider, but could possibly work towards. Similarly, Helen is also trying to really find herself through the definitions of her job, her relationships, and her potential future.

In All Our Names, names itself are also important not only because they serve as an identifier, but because of their ties to family, to where someone has grown up, to what someone’s life has been. And through changing a name or questioning it, one could say that it rescues one from the worries that this name is all he or she has and this life is all he or she has rather than: “I am more than just my name…I will make my name mean more.”

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?

Long-cherished desires of Ugandans

The circumstances of Uganda and behaviors of Isaac draws parallel in this novel. Uganda gained its independence from the Great Britain in 1962. This noble takes place in post-colonial era of Uganda where newly independent state, Uganda, was trying to construct its own social and governmental structure. It had the right to reorder their basic format as a nation but after being ruled by British, Uganda lacked in resources and technical expertise. It was a time of confusion and Uganda have not yet made any significant progress at this point of time.

This situation of Uganda is similar to what Isaac goes through as an African man. He mentions how no Africans were allowed to live near the university because it was considered to be the space of the White people. After independence, restricted properties for White lost its purpose and restrictions on Africans living near university have been removed. In post-colonial era, Isaac wonders around the university pretending to be the student there. From the outsider’s view, there seems to be nothing wrong with Isaac being in university and it is quite believable that Isaac is a student at the university. However, in reality, Isaac is just pretending to be university student and in fact he wished to be the student there someday in his life.

How Isaac portrays himself is different than how he really is and the image that Isaac is pretending to be is how he wants to be rather than how he really is. Same applies to Uganda. Uganda, on the surface, seems like a nation which gained sovereignty through independence. However, in reality, Uganda have not fully escaped from their colonizer but pretending as if they are completely apart from the British now, hoping it will become true someday. The impact of telling a story of post-colonial experience was as powerful as portraying colonial times because this parallel between Uganda in 1970s and Isaac on university campus captures desperation and pertinacious hope for new way of life that Ugandans had after their independence.