WE NEED NEW NAMES by NoViolet Bulawayo
“We are on our way to Budapest: Bastard and Chipo and Godknows and Sbho and Stina and me. We are going even though we are not allowed to cross Mzilikazi Road, even though Bastard is supposed to be watching his little sister Fraction, even though Mother would kill me dead if she found out; we are just going. There are guavas to steal in Budapest, and right now I’d rather die for guavas. We didn’t eat this morning and my stomach feels like somebody just took a shovel and dug everything out.”
Review by Friederike Knabe (JAN 5, 2014)
NoViolet Bulawayo’s debut novel, We Need New Names, is the story of Darling, a young Zimbabwean girl living in a shantytown called Paradise. She is feisty ten-year old, an astute observer of her surroundings and the people in her life. Bulawayo structures her novel more like a series of linked stories, written in episodic chapters, told loosely chronologically than in one integrated whole. In fact, the short story “Hitting Budapest,” that became in some form an important chapter in this “novel,” won the prestigious 2011 Caine Prize for African Writing.
In addition to Darling, the stories introduce 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 walk into “Budapest,” a near-by district of the well-off… One of their goals is to get a glimpse how the other side lives, but primarily to find food and anything useful to trade. They enjoy climbing over walls, peeking into gardens and houses, and heaving themselves into trees to get their fill of guava, a fruit that can temporarily lull their constant feeling of hunger… but with unpleasant consequences.
Darling’s story is bitter-sweet: her father has 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 grandmother, Mother of Bones. They all 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 authentic voice. Consistently, Bulawayo stays with voice of her young protagonist 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, as astute descriptions of life as she sees and understands it from her limited experience that is mingled with her witty interpretation of stories she hears from adults. Her language can be crude and raw, but also gentle and sensitive. I very much enjoyed the vibrant fresh voice of Bulawayo’s young protagonist.
Darling has an aunt in the USA and she often tells her friends of her and that she will move 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 has arrived in Michigan, is quite different from what she imagined it to be. Still told in episodic chapters, Darling appears to lose her vibrant and innocent voice; it becomes more mature and even, but also flatter. Also, the stories are no longer as closely 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 usual paths of young (or older) people arriving on visitors’ visas and staying on 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… 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. 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?
|AMAZON READER RATING:||from 139 readers|
|PUBLISHER:||Reagan Arthur Books (May 21, 2013)|
|AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK?||YES! Start Reading Now!|
|AUTHOR WEBSITE:||NoViolet Bulawayo|
|EXTRAS:||Reading Guide and Excerpt|
|MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION:||Read our review of:
- We Need New Names (May 2013)