We Need New Names is the powerful literary debut from NoViolet Bulawayo, a Zimbabwean now living in the US. Shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize, she is (surprisingly) the first black African female writer to achieve this distinction. (Why Aminatta Forna was not shortlisted in 2010 for The Memory of Love is a mystery – but that’s another story).
A novel of two distinct halves, We Need New Names is something of a grower. We’re first introduced to the voice of ten year-old Darling in the shantytown of Paradise. This is her story, seen from her perspective and in her (fresh, evocative, ‘this is how it is’) language. There is a sense of acceptance, knowing no different as Darling and friends Bastard, Godknows, Sbho, Stina and Chipo are forced to entertain themselves with no school and little food, living, as they do, in extreme poverty.
Whether it’s stealing guavas from the wealthy neighbourhood of Budapest, playing games of their own making, dreaming of a better life in America or watching, usually from a distance, adult life, these savvy, street smart kids are funny yet unsettling. Darling herself lives in part with her grandmother (Mother of Bones); her absent father is in South Africa but who sends no money or word. Bastard is the leader of the group, influenced as he is by the strutting paramilitaries who are running amok in the country. Eleven year-old Chipo is pregnant.
But Darling has an escape clause – Aunt Fostalina, living in Detroit (or Destroyed, Michygen). The second half of the novel finds Darling dealing with the very different world of the much-dreamed about better life. The fact she is an illegal (as are Fostalina and her Ghanaian husband, Kojo) means Darling can never return (although it’s many years before she realises her situation).
The American element to the story is much more overtly politicised. It is Darling dealing with immigration and assimilation whilst trying to remain connected to the world she has left behind (Chipo has named her daughter Darling). Through her own observations over time, Darling slowly strips away her American dream. But it’s also a time of reflection and some understanding of the socioeconomic collapse of her childhood Zimbabwe.
We Need New Names is a profoundly poignant and moving book, written as a series of interrelated vignettes – a stream of consciousness and experiences of Darling growing up in Paradise and, later, Detroit. On the one hand it is a coming-of-age story: on the other, it is a deeply political observation of otherness and the outsider, of cultural differences and cultural expectations.
When things fall apart, the children of the land scurry and scatter like birds escaping a burning sky… Look at the children of the land leaving in droves, leaving their own land with bleeding wounds on their bodies and shock on their faces and blood in their hearts and hunger in their stomachs and grief in their footsteps. Leaving their mothers and fathers and children behind, leaving their umbilical chords underneath the soil, leaving the bones of their ancestors in the earth, leaving everything that makes them who and what they are, leaving because it is no longer possible to stay…
Look at them leaving in droves despite knowing they will be welcomed with restraint, knowing they will have to sit on one buttock because they must not sit comfortably lest they be asked to rise and leave, knowing they will speak in dampened whispers because they must not let their voices drown those of the owners of the land, knowing they will have to walk on their toes because they must not leave footprints on the new earth… Look at them leaving in droves, arm in arm with loss and lost….