It took me almost two years to get around to reading We Need New Names, the first novel by an author from Zimbabwe to be shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. I’m glad I made it.
NoViolet Bulawayo’s book has a tremendously memorable narrative voice, thought provoking themes and characters so vividly drawn they practically jumped out of the page to shake your hand. I was reading this while on holiday and could look up from my shady spot across the Zambezi River to the very landscape in which the novel is set, imagining Darling and the friends and family in her town just beyond the trees.
The Zimbabwe depicted in the novel is a country in the midst of crisis. Its people long for ‘real change’ but they and their country are “falling apart” (a direct reference to Chinua Achebe’s novel). Their opinions count for nothing at the ballot box and hopes for real change die when the same order is re-elected, leaving them once again scratching for a living by selling trinkets and relying on aid agencies who dole out sweets and toys and meagre food items in return for freely taking photographs insensitive to the fact that the people they capture are embarrassed by their torn and dirty clothes. Not surprisingly the people in this land hold onto a dream that one day they can get out of this land.
Look at them leaving in droves, the children of the land. Those with nothing are crossing borders. Those with strength are crossing borders. Those with ambitions are crossing borders. Moving, running, emigrating, going, deserting, walking, flying, fleeing — all to countries whose names they cannot pronounce.
Not that just any country will do as their destination. In one of the games played by thirteen year old Darling and her friends they each have to choose a country.
Everybody wants to he the USA and Britain and Canada and Australia and Switzerland. Nobody wants to be rags of countries like Congo, like Somalia, like Iraq, like Sudan, like Haiti and not even this one we live in — who wants to be in a terrible place of hunger and things falling apart.
Darling has been sent to live with her grandmother in a shanty town called Paradise while her mother treks to the border every few months to sell carved animals and beads to tourists. Her father went off to the capital in search of work but hasn’t been seen for years. Darling runs riot with her friends Godknows, Bastard and Chipo, stealing guavas, singing Lady Gaga songs and playing Find Bin Laden. It’s fun but anything but carefree. Chip though only 13 years old is carrying her grandfather’s child, Aids is rife and partisans begin attacking white settlers.
Darling does leave the country though her new life in the environs of Detroit (otherwise known to Darling as Destroyedmichygen) doesn’t turn out the way she expected nor the happiness she anticipated. It brings her new challenges as she struggles to adjust to her new environment. She makes new friends eventually (some of the funniest sections of the book are when she and her friends watch porn films with the sound turned off so they can make the accompanying grunts and groans themselves). Not entirely at home in her new world however, she tries to retain her connection to Paradise home only to be rejected by her old friends. Hers is not a unique experience she believes. Thousands of Africans left their land with hope for the future, only to find they are welcomed with restraint not open arms.
When we got to America we took our dreams, looked at them tenderly as if they were new born children and put them away. We would not be pursuing them. We would never be the things we wanted to be. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers. We dropped our heads because we were no longer people. We were now illegals.
Although We Need New Names is Darling’s story, in a broader sense it is the story of a nation and of the immigrant experience and of the superficiality of aid agency attitudes. Bulawayo presents this in a narrative that is often poetic and always alive and confident.
This was Bulawayo’s debut novel, born out of a short story that won the Caine prize. for African writing It will be fascinating to see what she does next.
We Need New Names is published in UK by Chatto & Windus
NoViolet Bulawayo (the pen name of Elizabeth Zandile Tshele) was born in Zimbabwe in 1981, a year after the country gained independence. At the age of 18 she left for America, settling in Kalamazoo, Michigan. She gained her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Cornell University in 2010.