What you need to know:
- The domestic stories mesh into the national history and the tale then becomes a lamentation to a nation that’s drowned the dreams of its people.
- Post-independence hopes dwindle and families are torn asunder as husbands cross borders in search of jobs.
- Citizens are rendered homeless when the government orders demolition of their houses even as the desperate adults keep vigil, praying for change.
It is probable that, on completing the first chapter of NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names, one may be tempted to put the book aside and for a moment, steep herself in the wild and carefree childhood days that Bulawayo writes of poignantly.
We Need New Names (2013) is Bulawayo’s debut and tells the story of Darling, from her childhood in Paradise, a shanty town in an unnamed country that fits the description of Zimbabwe to her coming of age in the United States.
The book starts off powerfully, with the narrator Darling and her friends Bastard, Chipo, Godknows, Sbho and Stina sneaking off and heading to the leafy suburb of Budapest to steal guavas from the big trees that are heavy with fruit waiting for them. We are thus immersed into Darling’s shanty home-Paradise where we meet all manner of characters; a pregnant eleven-year-old girl Chipo, a demon-chasing prophet Revelations Bitchington, a sick returnee father who had fled the country to go look for a job abroad and many others.
The domestic stories mesh into the national history and the tale then becomes a lamentation to a nation that’s drowned the dreams of its people. Post-independence hopes dwindle and families are torn asunder as husbands cross borders in search of jobs. Citizens are rendered homeless when the government orders demolition of their houses even as the desperate adults keep vigil, praying for change. Others pick up machetes and attack white neighbourhoods, urging the whites to leave because Africa is for Africans. Yet despite all this, Darling and her young friends are cushioned from the realities by their childish imagination which allows them to create their own realities via make-believe games.
All this changes when Darling leaves to go live with her aunt Fostalina in Detroit, Michigan or Destroyed Michygen as the children call it. We watch her come of age, from the carefree happy child to a cautious introspective realist who no longer romanticises things. The writer does a great job here, seamlessly transitioning the tale and setting almost imperceptibly.
The novelist Bulawayo’s chief success lies in her innovative use of language in the book. English is wet clay in her hands and she kneads and moulds it, creating impossible meanings and delighting the reader with phrases like “Running and jumping and chanting the word change in the air like it’s something you can grab and put in your mouth and sink your teeth into.” Bulawayo catches her metaphors and sayings before they go cold. She encloses them all alive and warm in very readable prose so that our eyes stay glued to the pages of the book.
The voice of the child narrator captures childish experiences convincingly. Ridiculously simplistic solutions, in which the reader finds great amusement, are offered. Solutions like going away to live with aunties in America or moving on from stealing guavas to stealing bigger things inside the house. These, Bulawayo juxtaposes with adult realities; that democracy is a pipe dream, and that even moving away is futile because in those new lands the immigrants will be forced to “sit on one buttock because they must not sit comfortably lest they be asked to rise and leave; and they, too, will have to walk on their toes because they must not leave footprints on the new earth lest they be mistaken for those who want to claim the land as theirs.”
The English novelist and essayist Virginia Woolf wrote that “Where everything may be written about, the difficulty is what to leave out.” It is by this door that criticism enters We Need New Names. For Bulawayo crams too many social issues in the little book.
She rumbles on, making the youngish narrator a vehicle for any and every problem that exists on the universe. Poverty, religious fanatics, AIDS, FGM , rape, violence, pornography and even war in the Middle East... the issues go on and on until the reader wants to shout “enough. Stop already and save some problems for the next book.”
Nevertheless, Bulawayo’s debut novel is a very important book written with a very keen eye for detail and a literary innovativeness that many writers can learn from. And, though it comes decades after Nervous Conditions and House of Hunger, which deal with similar matters in Zimbabwe, Bulawayo tells the story in a way that proves right Achebe’s words in There was a Country; that the role of a writer is not a rigid position but on that can metamorph and traverse decades.
The writer is a teacher in Baringo County.