A Powerful Literary Debut
A review of We Need New Names, by NoViolet Bulawayo.
“Paradise is all tin and stretches out in the sun like a wet sheepskin nailed on the ground to dry; the shacks are the muddy color of dirty puddles after the rains. The shacks themselves are terrible but from up here, they seem much better, almost beautiful even. . . .”
When you read such prose in We Need New Names, the debut novel by Zimbabwean author NoViolet Bulawayo, it is clear why the author and her works have received such critical praise.
So far, Bulawayo has won the 2011 Caine Prize for African Writing; the 2013 Etisalat Prize for Literature — a Pan-African prize celebrating first-time writers of published fiction books; and the 2014 PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award for Debut Fiction. She was also shortlisted for both the 2013 Man Booker Prize and the Guardian First Book Award, and was chosen as one of the National Book Award’s top-five authors under 35.
We Need New Names powerfully chronicles a young girl’s coming-of-age journey from Africa to America.
In the first half of the book, the 10-year-old narrator, Darling, lives with her mother and grandmother in a Zimbabwean shantytown called Paradise. Her father works in the South African mines but has not yet returned after many years away. Darling and her friends prowl around Paradise stealing guavas, inventing games like “Find Bin Laden” and singing Lady Gaga songs.
Eventually, Darling moves to America — to “Destroyedmichygen” (Detroit, Michigan), specifically — to live with her Aunt Fostalina. But America is nothing like what Darling dreamed it would be. She struggles to make sense of things such as the greedy snow that swallows everything, the variety of food available and the badly behaved children. Still, Darling makes every effort to fit in, even adopting an American accent.
There is a sense that, as a teenager, Darling is not as happy as she was in Paradise — that she is “hungry for [her] country and nothing is going to fix that.” Bulawayo presents this through the subtle changes in Darling’s voice, which moves from being lighthearted and quite funny in Paradise to drier, more subdued and even cruder in “Michygen.”
She struggles with being teased at school about her name, her hair, her style, and she pretends she’s not hungry when in public, because she is still learning how to eat with a knife and fork. But despite missing home, like many before her who came on a visitor’s visa and stayed after it expired, she knows that going back would be extremely difficult. She must attempt to delicately balance her feelings of alienation and longing with immersion in America.
We Need New Names is a beautifully written series of short stories, woven together by the vibrant voice of Darling — keeping the reader hooked from the shacks of Paradise to cold, cold Michygen.