We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo
NoViolet Bulawayo’s powerful novel of the life of a young girl from Zimbabwe, We Need New Names, is a difficult read, but one not to be missed. In it, we are introduced to ten-year-old Darling as she ranges with her gang of friends (with names such as Bastard, Godknows and Chipo, Stina and Sbho) in search of food and diversion in her impoverished shantytown of Paradise. These children were not born into this life; Darling remembers when she went to school, when her family had a proper house with rooms and running water, when there were cars and stores and food enough. But all these things are now gone, bulldozed in the strife surrounding the Gukurahundi campaign of Robert Mugabe where the fight against white rule split blacks into factions that warred then with each other.
Darling is bolstered by the knowledge that she has an escape route by way of an aunt living in America, in a place she knows as “Destroyedmichygan”. She will go there someday, to a place where she will have everything she wants, a big house and clothes and food, not just to the mines in South Africa, where fathers and brothers and uncles go only to return sick and broken and dying.
Darling does make it to America, and she does enter into a life that on the surface is much better than the one she left in Paradise. But the casual consumption of her new country, with all its social expectations, cultural alienation and immigrant fears, and the fragmentation of any sense of a close-knit environment, leaves her aching and adrift, both longing for that left behind and yet unable to reconnect with it in any meaningful way. Her life in America is just as empty as her stomach was in Paradise. Now she has many of the things she dreamed of but none of the guidance and familial support, as gaunt as it may have been, to promise any brighter of a future – just a future littered with consumptive detritus.
It is a powerful book, full of nihilistic overtones that permeate without even the ability to recognize that any meaning is gone. Darling does not despair, but she seems to also be incapable of hope, living completely in the moment since a future is something that simply does not exist in her world. She takes only the most presumptive of initiatives, instead defaulting to a responsive reaction to her circumstances, seemingly unaware that the capacity for change even exists. Oh, Darling expects much, but accepts what is given even if it falls far short of her expectations.
I read this book and recognized that there is truth in it. I desperately wanted there to be a happy ending, but the ending is remote and gruesome. It bothered me, and even though I am aware that it is supposed to bother me, I feel completely inadequate in being able to reconcile what I am given in the narrative with what I want there to be – which I suspect is also part of the purpose of the writing. In fact, I feel as if I am an active part of the problem presented in the story, that my own selfishness and privilege and pollyanna outlook contributes to the gristle of the book.
And when they asked us where we were from, we exchanged glances and smiled with the shyness of child brides. They said, Africa? We nodded yes. What part of Africa? We smiled. Is it that part where vultures wait for famished children to die? We smiled. Where the life expectancy is thirty-five years? We smiled. Is it there where dissidents shove AK-47s between women’s legs? We smiled. Where people run about naked? We smiled. That part where they massacred each other? We smiled. Is it where the president rigged the election and people were tortured and killed and a whole bunch of them put in prison and all, there where they are dying of cholera – oh my God, yes, we’ve seen your country; it’s been on the news.
Powerful, indeed, but also, so very important.
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