Much has already been said about NoViolet Bulawayo’s Man Booker Prize-nominated We Need New Names, but I arrogate to myself the right to add my two-pence worth: it is beautifully written.
Ok, I realize I have to say a little bit more. We Need New Names is a thinly disguised tale of political and economic disempowerment in Zimbabwe, told through the eyes (and ears) of the juvenile, witty and humorous Darling and her fellow urchins Bastard, Chipo, Godknows, Stina, and Sbho. Narrated by Darling in the first-person, it follows her and her friends’ tribulations first in their poverty-stricken home area, ironically named Paradise, through to her emigration to America to join her Aunt in “Destroyedmichygen”, where she nevertheless finds that life isn’t as she had expected.
“So where are the twists in the story?” you might ask. Well, there aren’t. It is sort of an engaging commentary that brings up issue after issue, discarding them once they have been presented to you, presumably to solicit your empathy, or, if you are prickled enough, your outrage. Easy – just think of any problems that may be there in Zimbabwe, and you’ll find them in this book. Poverty, political and economic marginalization, emigration to South Africa and other places (principally America and the UK), HIV/AIDS, rape (Chipo is pregnant as a result of being raped by her grandfather), longevity of Mugabe in power, difficult lives and dislocation in exile, and many more (such as devious, greedy preachers, and even China in Africa). It is no wonder Nigerian Novelist Helon Habila notes “a palpable anxiety to cover every "African" topic; almost as if the writer had a checklist made from the morning's news on Africa.”
“Poverty porn” critics have had their feast on this book already. However, what would writing be if it weren’t from the heart, from what you see and feel and hear? If what you observe is devastating or disconcerting enough for you to write about it, why should you gag yourself? Anyway, enough of my little rant. If you shut your eyes to this little “checklist” hypothesis, you will be hit right in the gut by refreshing, innocent and keenly observant wit and humor that can only come from cheeky juveniles (Darling and her crew). If you are still standing, more will come and knock you down. That’s what saves this book and makes it very readable – tackling heavy issues through humorous and innocent-witted observant kids.
For instance, a twelve-year-old kid would leave you cross-eyed if she told you this:
“If you’re stealing something it’s better if it’s small and hideable or something you can eat quickly and be done with, like guavas. That way, people can’t see you with the thing to be reminded that you are a shameless thief and that you stole it from them, so I don’t know what the white people were trying to do in the first place, stealing not just a tiny piece but a whole country. Who can ever forget you stole something like that?”
We Need New Names is bittersweet. You will find yourself laughing then catching yourself, or just being unsure whether to laugh or not, trying to uphold your indignation but finding yourself unable to clamp that laugh that forces itself out with a snort:
“I remind myself I have decided that praying to God is a waste of time. You pray and pray and pray and nothing changes, like for example I prayed for a real house and good clothes and a bicycle and things for a long, long, time, and none of it has happened… I’ve thought about it properly, this whole praying thing, I mean really thought about it, and what I think is that maybe people are doing it wrong; that instead of asking God nicely, people should be demanding and questioning and threatening to stop worshipping him…”
Beneath every startling and witty observation is a heavy theme or issue that sneaks up on you. However, Darling’s wit and humor somewhat cools down as she grows older and moves to America to join her aunt. With that, the book’s sparkle and energy fades off slightly and becomes a bit laden by the theme of displacement and dislocation. Darling finds new problems in America. For instance, while she gets more food than she can eat, “there are times, though, that no matter how much food I eat, I find the food does nothing for me, like I am hungry for my country and nothing is going to fix that.”
NoViolet Bulawayo (Zimbabweans have colorful names indeed, her real name isn’t as colorful but she just had to do it on her pen name) doesn’t present an epic, astounding, or sweeping work of literature. This book’s appeal lies in its subtle trickery: You will read through heavy themes without feeling overburdened by them. You will feel involved. Sometimes you will laugh with Darling and her gang; sometimes you will feel like reprimanding them, or feel sorry for them and wish you could do something for them, or you would simply appreciate being part of them and sharing their sad or silly little secrets. This is the magic of writing.
Picture Credit: Goodreads