Written by Vicki DeArmon
When you hear a new voice like the one that soars out of We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo, you want to throw your head back and laugh with delight much like the Zimbabwe children in this novel do when they cannot repress their wonder. Bulawayo captures the ten-year-old protagonist, Darling, and her band of friends as they roam their town like small thugs, seemingly unattached to their adults and their circumstances. It is the adults who suffer for the bulldozing of their shacks in the wake of political upheaval, the ravaging effects of AIDS, the loss of their men to jobs in South Africa.
But when the schools shut down, the children play, making games from their dire circumstances. A woman kills herself and the children happen upon her hanging from a tree. The children–named Bastard, Godknows, Sbho, Chipo, Stina, and Darling–reveal the full slate of human reactions. Like a Greek Chorus, they weigh each circumstance and judge it. Seeing the woman, they are afraid and want to run; they evoke the punishment of God as one of them, Bastard, throws a rock at the hanging woman. They leave, only to return to steal her shoes because they can sell them to buy a loaf of bread to relieve their hunger. And then they all move on, in dizzy laughter.
They play the “country game” which reflects the status of their country as negligible in the scope of the bigger world; that is why no one wants to “be” it, they all want to “be” America. They steal guavas from the rich people who live in the nearby town of Budapest, trolling the streets looking for guavas and then squatting in pain to release them when they eat too much.
The genius of this book is how the trials of Zimbabwe and its people are revealed through the blithe and unconscious cast of children. But its vibrancy is in the language.
When Darling’s father returns from South Africa with AIDS to die at home, she is slow to understand, feeling shame and not wanting to let her friends know. But they discover the truth and push their way into her house to view him in his sick bed, and in their spontaneous song, they shift her understanding from shame to grief and finally, a kind of joy.
“Then Stina reaches and takes Father’s hand and starts moving it to the song, and Bastard moves the other hand…. We all look at one another and smile-sing because we are touching him, just touching him all over like he is a beautiful plaything we have just rescued from the trash. He feels like dry wood in my hands, but there is a strange light in his sunken eyes, like he has swallowed the sun.”
That vibrancy fades with Darling’s move to America to live with her aunt. Life moves from the cadence and wonder of childhood to the confusion and alienation of being an immigrant teen in the Promised Land. Darling’s relatives experience the fear of being stopped by the police, the necessity of marrying to obtain a green card, working at multiple jobs to send money back to relatives, and answering well intentioned questions from Americans whose understanding of Africa–a continent of fifty-four countries—is viewed as a single experience shared by all Africans.
The reader may sense that the last portion of the novel is a list of trials the author feels must be included, that generalize the immigrant experience, and draw us away from the specific story that is Darling’s, but it is forgiven due to the power of the narrative. We Need New Names is painful in its wrenching truth and beautifully told.
We Need New Names was shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize.
Book review written by Vicki DeArmon,
Marketing & Events Director, Copperfield’s Books,
Seven stores in San Francisco’s North Bay