Coming up on Thursday, March 27 at ALOUD, Dinaw Mengestu, the MacArthur Award-winning author of two novels, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears and How to Read the Air, will discuss his new book, All Our Names, with novelist Laila Lalami. All Our Names is a deeply lyrical love story that explores two worlds in the early 70s—a quiet middle-of-nowhere American town and the bustling, violent capital of Uganda. Although the story follows the lives of those living in exile, The New York Times warns readers not to oversimplify Mengestu as a writer of “the immigrant experience” because All Our Names is more profoundly “a story about finding out who you are, about how much of you is formed by your family and your homeland, and what happens when those things go up in smoke.” We caught up with Mengestu before his upcoming ALOUD appearance about balancing the political and personal in his writing, and where he finds inspiration—spoiler alert: the library!
Much of your work focuses on personal stories that take place within tumultuous political climates. What interests you in the balancing act of these two worlds?
Mengestu: A large part of that interest is inevitably born out of my own family history–our migration from Ethiopia to the United States as a result of Ethiopia’s communist revolution. I grew up intimately aware of how politics can radically alter the course of a nation, and of course by extension the life of an individual or family.
Along the same lines, your new novel All Our Names is a love story that is also about exile—what was the genesis for this story?
Mengestu: For me this story is first and foremost a series of portraits of love. The exile that follows places those love stories into a state of crisis.
Since ALOUD is part of the Los Angeles Public Library, we’re always curious about authors’ connections to libraries. Do you have any connections to libraries—growing up as a kid, or as a parent, or do you use the library as a working writer?
Mengestu: As a child I spent much time in my public library, not only reading, but buying massive amounts of used paperback novels during the library book sales. By the time I graduated high school I had a wonderful personal library, purchased from my local library that I carried with me for years. While living in both New York and Paris, I did much of my writing in two beautiful reading rooms, one at the New York Public Library, and another at a small library that overlooked the river Seine.
Can you recommend other books to our readers—writing from a diaspora, political novels, or love stories—that have influenced your work?
Mengestu: One of my favorite novels of all time, and the one that I consider to be the most influential in writing All Our Names, also happens to be the same one that Laila Lalami wrote a superb introduction for: Season of Migration to the North.
Learn more about Mengestu’s upcoming ALOUD program and make free reservations here.