TORONTO - Ethiopian-American novelist Dinaw Mengestu says he wanted his new novel "All Our Names" to break from the traditional immigrant tale.
"On the most cliched level, our idea of the immigrant narrative is ... the person who comes to the U.S. is happy to be there, gets a job, gets a car, gets a house. And then they go through the (process) of success," the author said during a recent interview.
"I've always been curious about the immigrants who don't want to necessarily be there ... plenty of people end up in other countries because they have to, because that's their way of surviving. ... People who come to their new country not because this is their dream but because their nightmare has become true."
Set in the early 1970s, "All Our Names" (Doubleday) is told through the dual perspectives of Helen — a social worker from a small Midwestern town — and "Isaac," the mysterious African student with whom she falls desperately in love. Isaac's narrative traces his previous life as a student in post-independence Uganda, and slowly reveals the truth about his identity.
Mengestu, who immigrated to Peoria, Ill., from Ethiopia when he was two years old, says he found it easier to write in Helen's voice than in Isaac's.
"Her experiences are actually closer to mine," said the 35-year-old, who is based in New York and teaches at Georgetown University. "I'm, of course, an African male, but I also grew up in a small town in the Midwest and there were a lot of women who were very generous and kind to my family ... and who helped raise us while my parents were working," he said.
The author — a father to two young boys — said "All Our Names" started out as a book about "dynamic, engaged" college students in Kampala. He soon found those characters slipping away and realized Helen was "waiting in the wings."
"As soon as she introduced herself to the story, as soon as she said: 'I saw Isaac coming off the plane,' her voice existed in a very whole way," he said.
In the literary world, there was some degree of expectation attached to the novel, which is Mengestu's third, following 2007's "The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears" and 2010's "How to Read the Air."
After all, the author is the recipient of some auspicious honours, including the National Book Foundation's 5 Under 35 Award, the New Yorker's 20 Under 40 Award, and a 2012 MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant. While Mengestu says the only pressure he felt was the usual stress of completing a novel, he can feel content that he's met expectations. Critics have rhapsodized about "All Our Names," with many commenting on the novel's tone, which has been called "tantalizingly laconic" and "elegiac."
"All three of my novels ... have tended to operate in that slightly melancholic slightly reserved sort of tone. Mood is so essential," said Mengestu. "You're always concerned about getting the physical details right but it is the core of the emotional narrative that gets me to want to write in the first place"
To strike that tone, the author lives with his characters constantly, even when he is not writing, and sometimes seeks out poetry to strike the right mood, including that of William Carlos Williams.
"(I spend) a lot of time thinking about (my characters)," he said. "Once I begin working on a novel, I'm in a constant sort of conversation. There's this kind of sideline voice that never really stops chattering away. ... I wake up and I try not to talk to anybody else because that voice is starting to emerge first thing in the morning."
Adds the author: "And then sometimes I go and I just sort of look back on (poems) .... that brings me back into the mood that reminds me why I wanted to write in the first place."