Spotlight on Dinaw Mengestu

Africa39 author, Dinaw Mengestu, talking about his latest novel, “All Our Names”.

Talking about the genre increasingly known as “immigrant fiction”, Mengestu argued for a more metaphorical usage of the word “immigrant” as a metonym for loss and its various manifestations/representations:

We often think that the immigrant story is unique to people who have left their homes. But for me it has increasingly become a story of people who have lost something essential to who they are and have to reinvent themselves and decide who they are in the wake of that loss. How do they find someone to love again? How do they find another home? How is this tied to the experience of violence? How does it reshape our sense of identity and how do we come to terms with it?
(source: DW)

In a review that is worth reading in its entirety, Professor Aaron Bady was intensely critical of the politics of “All Our Names”, drawing links between V.S. Naipaul’s worse impulses and Mengestu’s work; criticisms to which Mengestu responded at length on Twitter. Bady wrote:

I’m unsettled by the extent to which Dinaw Mengestu’s “All Our Names” (2014) seems to have absorbed V.S. Naipaul’s vision of Africa, and the brutal hopelessness of revolution. Mengestu is fond of Naipaul; he recently called A Bend in the River (1979) “a harsh and surprisingly prescient account of the Congo’s dissolution,” and wrote that “[a]s the country slowly fractures, so do the lives of the characters, making it one of the most intimate portraits of revolution—in the broadest sense of that word—in literature.”

If I may make so bold, I suspect it was his own novel he was thinking of, but put that aside for a moment: V. S. Naipaul is a fine writer and a bigot, both were true of “A Bend in the River”, and it’s a problem for me that All Our Names aspires to tell such a similar story, about revolution gone wrong. “All Our Names” is a truly lovely novel, but I can’t really enjoy it; to be blunt, it stinks of Naipaulian ideology. I am torn between a sound that’s halfway between a snort and nothing, as was Ifemelu in Chimamanda Adichie’s “Americanah”, when a white friend starts waxing eloquent about Naipaul […]
(source: The New Inquiry)

"All Our Names" by Dinaw Mengestu.

“All Our Names” by Dinaw Mengestu.

Mengestu responded:

 - From now on I want to be known as a settler rather than an immigrant

 - @zunguzungu what a strange and utterly distorted reading of the novel, my characters:

 - In 2006 I crossed the border from Chad into Darfur on the back of a pickup truck with a group of Sudanese refugees returning home.

 - After two days of driving, we ended in Muzbat, one of the few partially inhabited  villages left at that time.

 - I slept outside with a group of teenage boys who were members of the Sudanese Liberation Army, then the largest rebel group in Darfur

 - They all claimed to be revolutionaries; they had no ideology other than wanting a better future for themselves and their villages.

 - They had followed their elders to war before they were old enough to fully understand its consequences.

 - If the peace negotiations taking place far from Muzbat was beyond them,  they understood far harsher, and more important truths.

 - They next morning, over tea, they spoke of wanting to go to school. They were revolutionaries, but above all they wanted to be students.

 - They knew as well that the odds of that ever happening were diminished slightly each day. They grew older; the war grew more intractable

 - By the end of our conversation, one of the youngest boys offered a sort of confession.

 - He knew his time had already passed (he was still in puberty) but there was another generation waiting

 - and perhaps for them his revolution would have meaning.

 - I thought of those young revolutionaries constantly while writing this novel.

 - In "All our Names", my characters are contemptuous of the privileged students who merely talk of revolution

 - that stands in contrast to their admiration for what they believe to be the true revolutionaries

 - who, like those boys in muzbat, have given more than just words to their revolution

 - @zunguzungu warped, and false interpretation of my characters, of my ideas, couldn’t be a more flagrant distortion of my work.

 - Perhaps that I could live with, but @zunguzungu suggests that I refer to these revolutionaries as “boys” as some sort of belittling gesture

 - As someone who’s been called *boy* many times in my life, to have that idea imposed upon me by someone who has no idea what "boy" means is…

 - well, let's say its tiring, to use a bit of my own gentle phrasing.

 - Last night after a wonderful conversation with @LailaLalami a young woman and her mother came up to me to say hello.

 - The daughter, like my own children, was white half-white, half-Ethiopian. Her mother, like my character Helen was a social worker.

 - Her father was Ethiopian, and had come to American during the start of Ethiopia’s revolution.

 - @zunguzungu says he hates that narrative. The Obama narrative, as he refers to it.

 - Unfortunately, that narrative is not yours, or anyone's to hate. The only thing to hate here is....

(Source: 03-04/2014, @dinawmengestu)

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