Published in 2014, All Our Names
by Dinaw Mengestu is a coming-of-age story set during an African revolution. The story follows two young men as they are drawn out from the safety of their university campus into the intensity of the streets outside. As the story progresses, the two young men are driven apart, as one becomes involved in the inner workings of the revolution while the other finds refuge in the American Midwest.
After reading an article in the newspaper, the narrator, a young man from a small African village, gives up his name and travels to the Ugandan capital of Kampala in the hopes of studying literature. The article has convinced him that he must become a writer. Upon his arrival in Kampala, he soon learns of the volatile political climate, as one revolution has just ended and another is on the horizon.
He quickly befriends Isaac, a charismatic but mysterious man, and they become virtually inseparable. Isaac tells the narrator his dream of becoming a politician and bringing stability to the local government. As time goes on, Isaac becomes more involved in political protests; he begins a “paper revolution,” writing about crimes against the country and posting it all over the university campus. His campaign is successful, but when he goes to celebrate this small victory at a popular cafe, he is taunted by the rich students there. Tensions escalate and a fight breaks out where Isaac is badly beaten. This does not deter Isaac; instead, it propels him further by giving him visual marks to show that he is involved in the revolution.
After the success of the “paper revolution,” Isaac initiates gatherings where people can come to confess their crimes. However, it is becoming increasingly difficult to gather in groups; the meetings are frequently interrupted by guards who beat Isaac and the others. The narrator manages to flee before sustaining any serious injuries, but it gives him an idea of just how volatile things are becoming and that Isaac is involved in some potentially dangerous activities.
The next time the narrator sees Isaac is during a peaceful protest at the university. The students gather all night but tear gas is thrown into the group first thing in the morning and students are forcefully arrested. Isaac and the narrator escape to an abandoned classroom where Isaac is now living. They joke about making bombs throughout the day. The narrator leaves, arriving back at his own home shortly after nightfall. After hiding out for several days, the narrator takes a walk and buys a government newspaper. As he is walking down the street, unknown men assault him. When the narrator wakes up, he is in the hospital; Isaac is there to give him a black notebook and to share his joy that they now have even more in common.
Isaac and the narrator leave the hospital together, and Isaac convinces him to come with him to the home of a rebel named Joseph. Joseph secretly offers the narrator a way to leave the area before the battles begin, but the narrator chooses to stay. Isaac, the narrator, and Joseph go to Joseph's hometown to liberate it. They are successful in their mission, but later that evening, Joseph is brought out of his home by soldiers and executed. Isaac then informs the narrator that it is time for him to leave. He gives the narrator a passport with no picture, a student visa, money, and a notebook. He informs the narrator that he is to take on his identity and, as Isaac Mabira, he is to leave the country to study in America. The narrator opens the notebook and notices that Isaac has written down all of the names that he gave to the narrator previously but they are all scratched out except for Isaac's name at the bottom. They embrace and say goodbye, knowing that they will probably never see each other again.
Helen is a middle-aged, white, social worker who has been assigned the task of helping the narrator to settle into small Midwestern USA life. She is discontent with her job and her life, but both are changed once she meets Isaac. They soon begin a romantic relationship, although, in the beginning, it is mostly physical and kept within the walls of her house. Helen thinks it is time to make their interracial relationship public, proving to herself that the attraction is more than physical and the need for a change from the silently racist community is needed. She takes Isaac to a local diner where they are met with looks of disapproval. Isaac shrugs it off and eats his lunch as if nothing is going on, but Helen is devastated that her experiment has failed. She then avoids Isaac for a few days.
When she goes to visit him, Isaac turns her away at the door, although he does not tell her why. Later, she finds out that he has recently been told that his best friend has been killed in Uganda. Helen and Isaac continue to sleep together, and Isaac begins to tell Helen how he really came to the United States. Helen realizes they will never be able to have a happy life together. Immediately, she tells Isaac that she wants to take a trip with him. They go to Chicago where Helen reveals that she had originally intended on leaving him there so that he can start a new life away from the bigotry of her small town. She then tells Isaac she was wrong to do that; she feels that they can truly have a life together in Chicago. Helen leaves Isaac in Chicago with the promise to return in a few days with all of her things.