| NoViolet Bulawayo |
a Guardian first book award nominee for
We Need New Names.
Photograph: Mark Pringle
Friday, 8 July 2016
‘We Need New Names,’ by NoViolet Bulawayo
Novels sometimes grow out of short stories. In a previous blog, I talked about Jonathan Strange and Mr Morrell the 900 page fantasy that only got noticed after its author, Susanna Clarke, had a short story published. NoViolet Bulawayo has experienced something like this; she won the Caine Prize for African Writing with Hitting Budapest a short story which tells the story of poverty-stricken children on the hunt for food at any price. Now she’s been shortlisted for the Man-Booker with what feels like an expansion of this tale; We Need New Names. A great title, by the way, as it both demonstrates the major theme in the book but is also uttered by one of the children in the story as they play their games around a grim shanty town ironically named Paradise. Bulawayo uses the eyes of ten-year-old Darling to portray everything she believes is wrong with government policies in her home country, Zimbabwe. Her characters are destitute – and desperate – they no longer have a school or a house, or even enough food, since the police bulldozed their township.
Darling, and her gang of friends, Bastard, Chipo, Godknows, Sbho and Stina may be children, but they have experienced a lot of life. Chipo is pregnant after being raped by her grandfather - later in the novel we watch her childhood disappear as she matures into a very young mother.
Playing in the scrubland, they see a body suicide hanging from a tree. They steal the woman's almost new shoes to sell for bread.Then Darling's father returns from South Africa with AIDS and she empathetically describes how the children respond to a terminally sick person.
In the Guardian, reviewer Helon Habila, does raise the issue of cramming into the novel every ‘African’ topic” …as if the writer had a checklist made from the morning's news on Africa… (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/jun/20/need-new-names-bulawayo-review) and this is a good point, new writers should always do well to avoid the temptation to ‘tell all their world’, but I think she pulls this off using a brilliant combination of continued action with a fine sense of rhythm and use of language. Bulawayo uses original images to portray her scenes of Darling’s world…the bulldozers appear boiling… constructing a powerful ‘voice’ for Darling’s narration, which imbues her with dignity, resilience and a fighting spirit. In a tense chapter, the gang are ‘scrumping’ for guavas in a posh neighbouring suburb, when, still up in the trees, they witness a pro-Mugabe attack by black partisans on the whites living in the huge houses, binding their hands and taking them away, chanting "Africa for Africans!”
Darling has been promised that she will be sent to America, where her aunt Fostalina lives. This move is needed in the novel – Bulawayo clearly wanted to contrast Darling’s two lives – but I enjoyed the first half of the book a lot more.
Being a very real pre-pubescent girl, Darling soon reinvents herself as a typical US kid, and this weakens the link with the core themes of the novel. Even so, we’re reminded just how much work that might take…“The problem with English is this: You usually can't open your mouth and it comes out just like that--first you have to think what you want to say. Then you have to find the words. Then you have to carefully arrange those words in your head. Then you have to say the words quietly to yourself, to make sure you got them okay. And finally, the last step, which is to say the words out loud and have them sound just right.
But then because you have to do all this, when you get to the final step, something strange has happened to you and you speak the way a drunk walks. And, because you are speaking like falling, it's as if you are an idiot, when the truth is that it's the language and the whole process that's messed up. And then the problem with those who speak only English is this: they don't know how to listen; they are busy looking at your falling instead of paying attention to what you are saying…
Darling naturally begins to forget her old land and previous love of her old friends, although not so completely that we can’t keep tabs on them in the book; during a Skype call Chipo tells her, “Darling, my dear, you left the house burning and you have the guts to tell me, in that stupid accent that you were not even born with, that doesn’t even suit you, that this is your country?”
NoViolat Bulawayo is the pen name of Elizabeth Zandile Tshele. Born in Zimbabwe, In 2010, she gained a fellowship after completing her MA in Creative Writing at Cornell University. This short, very readable book that bravely recounts a life in a country we’re usually allowed to know very little about.