I was born in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, so you can understand why the word “Bulawayo” leapt out at me from the book shelf in Barnes & Noble a few weeks ago. There it was, a book written by someone named NoViolet Bulawayo, on the shelf of books by new authors. When I confirmed that the author is indeed a native of Zimbabwe, I had to buy the book, a novel called We Need New Names.
I’ve read a number of books by white Zimbabweans, such as Alexandra Fuller’s Let’s Not Go to the Dogs Tonight, Peter Godwin’s When a Crocodile Eats the Sun, and Douglas Rogers’ The Last Resort: A Memoir of Mischief and Mayhem on a Family Farm in Africa. There’s also Love in the Driest Season, by an American foreign correspondent on assignment in Zimbabwe. And I have two previous works of fiction by black Zimbabweans on my bookshelf: Zenzeli: A Letter for My Daughter, by J. Nozip Maraire (1996), and Songs to an African Sunset, by Sekai Nzenza-Shand (1997). However, none of these books is set in the area of Zimbabwe with which I am most familiar – among the Ndebele people near Bulawayo. And neither of the novels deals with the political and economic disasters in Zimbabwe of the last 10-15 years.
NoViolet Bulawayo is the pen name of Elizabeth Shele, who came to the United States from Zimbabwe when she was 18 years old. She chose NoViolet for her first name in honor of her mother whose name was Violet, and Bulawayo for her last name because, as she said, the city of Bulawayo is “her people.” She earned her MFA at Cornell University, won the 2011 Caine Prize for African Writing, and is now a fellow at Stanford University. We Need New Names is her first novel.
As you might expect, the novel is highly autobiographical. The main character is a 10-year-old girl named Darling. The first half of the novel takes place in Zimbabwe, presumably in Bulawayo, although neither the country nor the city is ever named; the second half takes place in Michigan, where Darling comes to live with her aunt. Darling is the narrator of her own story.
A couple of the reviews I read praised the first half of the book but said it deteriorated when the setting shifted to the United States, while another, tellingly published on the New Zimbabwe website, said that Bulawayo hits her stride in the second half as she describes the feelings of loss and displacement that many immigrants feel. I find myself agreeing with both assessments: I “enjoyed” the first half more than the second half, probably because the story of the daily lives and exploits of Darling and her friends in their shantytown was compelling, while I was put off by how she and her new friends in Michigan spend a lot of their free time. On the other hand, the plight of immigrants, especially those who are in the U.S. away from their immediate family and whose legal status is in jeopardy, is very movingly and starkly portrayed in the second half. I couldn’t help wondering whether the reviewers who criticized the second half missed the point.
This is not an easy book to read – not because of the writing style, although you do have to get used to that – but because of the subject matter and how it describes both what has happened in Zimbabwe and what it’s like for immigrants here in the U.S. Earlier this year, I read the classic Nigerian novel by Chinua Achebe called Things Fall Apart. The words of that title echo throughout We Need New Names – things have fallen apart disastrously in Zimbabwe. If you’re looking for a fun read about carefree life in Zimbabwe from the point of view of a child, this isn’t it. If I was hoping for something that would transport me back to the country where I spent my childhood, this book didn’t do that. If I didn’t want to be made uncomfortable by the perspective of a young black Zimbabwean reflecting on what happened when the white people came, I shouldn’t have read this book. However, for many other reasons, I recommend the book. Just three examples of why I found the book so compelling:
1. A non-governmental agency (NGO) is delivering relief supplies. Darling and her friends wait impatiently for the gifts they know are coming as five NGO workers get out of the lorry. The children are motioned to sit down, and one of the workers starts taking pictures, “like we are their real friends and relatives and they will look at the pictures later and point us out by name to other friends and relatives once they get back to their homes. They don’t care that we are embarrassed by our dirt and torn clothing, that we would prefer they didn’t do it; they just take the pictures anyway, take and take. We don’t complain because we know that after the picture-taking comes the giving of gifts” (p. 54). The scene made me think of the NGO I know best that has sent food to Zimbabwe during times of drought and economic distress, one I highly respect and support and on whose board I once served – Mennonite Central Committee. I hope Darling and her friends would not feel the same way about MCC workers!!
2. The two chapters written in the third person paint vivid and unforgettable word pictures of why so many have left Zimbabwe and how they lived once they came to the U.S. From “How They Left”: “Look at them leaving in droves. . . . When things fall apart, the children of the land scurry and scatter like birds escaping a burning sky. They flee their own wretched land so their hunger may be pacified in foreign lands, their tears wiped away in strange lands. . . . They will never be the same again because you just cannot be the same once you leave behind who and what you are, you just cannot be the same” (pp. 147-148). From “How They Live”: “Because we were not in our country, we could not use our own languages, and so when we spoke our voices came out bruised. . . . Because we were not using our languages we said things we did not mean; what we really wanted to say remained folded inside, trapped. In America we did not always have the words” (p. 242).
3. From her new home in Michigan, Darling describes her longing for home. She says she has two homes inside her head – home before and after Paradise, the shantytown where her family now lives. Her mother and aunt have three homes inside their heads: home before independence, home after independence, and then “the home of things falling apart.” Her grandmother has four homes inside her head: “home before the white people came to steal the country. . . ; home when the white people came to steal the country and then there was war; home when black people got our stolen country back after independence; and then the home of now” (p. 194).
This is a book I might need to recommend to one of my book clubs because I would really like to talk about it with someone! Nigerian writer Ikhide R. Ikheloa is effusive in his praise for this new addition to African literature: “Let me just put it out there: This is probably the best book I have read in a very long time, perhaps in a decade, certainly the most poignant ode to identity, alienation and longing.” I don’t know if I would go that far, but it’s certainly one of the most thought-provoking novels I’ve read in awhile.
NoViolet Bulawayo’s account of the first time she returned to Zimbabwe
An interview with NoViolet Bulawayo (before the publication of We Need New Names)