In her engaging debut novel, We Need New Names, NoViolet Bulawayo introduces the reader to a young Zimbabwean girl growing up in a poor township named ‘Paradise’. Ten-year old, ‘Darling’ is a feisty and independent girl who is gifted with an astute sense of observation, an expressive voice and a good dose of humor. The novel is as much a touching coming of age story – first in Zimbabwe and later in Michigan, USA, as it is an engaging and reflective account on family and ‘home’, friendship and loss, and, finally on self-discovery.
Overall, the novel is structured as a series of episodic stories, told loosely chronologically. They convey an assortment of glimpses into Darling’s day-to-day life rather than a continuous narrative. Darling is not only the lively narrator, she is also mostly in the centre of her story. Her voice is fresh and her capacity to describe her surroundings and the people in her life is utterly original.
Darling is surrounded by her gang of close friends. They are vividly and realistically drawn and we can easily imagine them as they roam free in their neighbourhood and also, secretly, cross the invisible border into ‘Budapest’, a near-by district of the well-off… Other than sheer curiosity to watch where and how the better-off live, one primary objective is to find food and anything useful to trade for necessities. They enjoy climbing over walls, peeking into gardens and houses, and are expert at heaving themselves into guava trees to get their fill of its fruit that can temporarily lull their constant feeling of hunger… but with unpleasant consequences. Poverty and hunger are constant companions to the children; the freedom to roam an unfortunate consequence of having no money for school.
Darling’s accounts are bitter-sweet: her father had left the family for the mines in South Africa and her mother ekes out a living, trading in the border region. Darling is left in the care of her strict grandmother, Mother of Bones. Her family had a better life once, and Darling went to school then, but the family was expelled from their “real” house during an earlier political unrest in the country. In the first half of the book, the backdrop is Zimbabwe in the early years of independence and issues of poverty and inequality, violence and suppression of human rights, disappointment with the lack of democracy, are touched upon without breaking the flow of the young protagonist’s story telling. Using the episodic story style throughout, NoViolet Bulawayo succeeds in addressing many of the pertinent issues that plague the local people without having to expand on them. Consistently, Bulawayo stays with Darling’s voice whose natural curiosity helps her to make sense of the things she doesn’t quite understand. She expresses her views in often comical ways in a mix of unusual imagery and associations. Her explanations to her friends can be at times hilarious, always original as she mixes her descriptions of life as she understands it from her limited experience with her witty interpretation of stories she hears from adults. Her language can be crude and raw, but also gentle and sensitive.
Darling often tells her friends that she will move one day to America to live with her aunt and to experience everything that goes with wealth and comfort: her American dream. It is not surprising, however, that life, when she arrives in Michigan, is quite different from what she imagined it to be. Still told in episodic chapters, Darling’s voice matures and loses much of her vibrancy and innocence. The stories are no longer as closely timed or connected as they were in the first part. While giving insights into her daily life and that of her close family, we lose the astute and wittily critical observer we have come to like and engage with. Darling’s life follows more or less the typical path of young (or older) people who, arriving on visitors’ visas and staying on, have to live under the radar. Darling makes every effort to “fit in” and to adapt to the realities she encounters. She adopts an American accent that her mother and her friends on the phone have difficulty understanding… The challenge to adapt to the ways of the new country distances her from her family and leaves behind her childhood friends. Darling still thinks of “home”, her mother and her close friends, but… with nostalgia as well as resignation into the impracticality of such a visit: “maybe next year”. In the chapter, “How They Lived”, written in a voice that is not Darling’s, Bulawayo generalizes the experience of immigration and the efforts immigrants from all over the world put into sounding happier than they are, not telling friends and family back home honestly how their lives have turned out in order not to sound discouraging and ungrateful. A strong story in its own right, but will Darling be able to draw any lessons from it over time?
Bulawayo’s We Need New Names grew out of the short story, Hitting Budapest, which won NoViolet Bulawayo the prestigious Caine Prize for African Writing in 2011.