We Need New Names – NoViolet Bulawayo
Where do I begin with We Need New Names? As I mentioned yesterday, I have a lot of issues with the book. I think it’s possibly the hardest book I’ve ever read, not because the prose is particularly difficult, but because of the subject matter. The Booker committee obviously felt it was a good book, but I think it’s a good example of the fact that good does not always equal enjoyable or nice.
The novel can be pretty much split into two parts. Part One focuses on Darling when she is roughly between nine and thirteen years old, while she is living in Zimbabwe, and Part Two happens once Darling has emigrated to the United States and is living with her Aunt, her boyfriend, and his son. It’s easy to see a difference between the Darling of Part One, where she is naïve to the point of obliviousness and Part Two Darling, where she her life as an outsider in Kalamazoo, Michigan causes her to grow cynical and disaffected, especially as she gets older.
Parts of We Need New Names are really interesting. For example, the way that Darling and her relations perceive Mugabe and the situation in Zimbabwe. He is never referred to by name, nor, in fact, is Zimbabwe as a nation, though it’s obvious enough that they are the context for the much of the book, even if you didn’t know that Bulawayo was Zimbabwean. What’s interesting is that although Mugabe is always portrayed as the villain in the Western media, and every time there is an election that ZANU-PF win, the unspoken assumption is that it was a fix, Darling and her friends always speak of “Our President” with utmost respect. Even though Darling and her family have fallen on hard times as a result of the financial crisis in Zimbabwe, she still views him with respect, and once she’s moved to America, her aunt’s (non-Zimbabwean) boyfriend really looks up to Mugabe as in his opinion, he’s the only African leader with any backbone. That said, there are also plenty of positive references to “the change people”, who I would assume represent the MDC, though my knowledge of Zimbabwean politics is a little hazy. There’s also a rather harrowing episode where Darling and her friends witness a mob attacking a White family and their large, expensive house, which the children are unable to understand fully, even though they think they do.
Darling’s relationship with her own identity, once she has moved to the US is another interesting one, because while she doesn’t fit in as an American, or even an African-American, nor is she any longer a Zimbabwean. That is to say, she still views herself as being Zimbabwean, but every time we see her talking to her mother, or her childhood friends who have never left their country, she is unable to relate to them and they reject her attempts. This I think makes We Need New Names stand against the other immigrant narratives I’ve read this year. Darling never feels Ifemelu or Kweku’s desire to return to her homeland, but her attempts at integration are even less effectual than theirs are, more in line with Hend’s experience, though less stark due to the age difference. The book’s biggest strength is actually the chapter dedicated not to Darling, but to the voice of all the people who have left African countries looking for a better life, and if you want proof of Bulawayo’s writing skills, this is it. Heart-wrenchingly frank, the nameless narrators spells out all the myriad of sacrifices they experience as they attempt to integrate, first and foremost the need to give their children American names, not African ones with too many syllables, vowels, and capitals, and consonant combinations that Western Anglo-phone tongues are unable to pronounce. It’s difficult to summarise, but I’d be surprised if I came across anything so eloquent for a long time.
However, the positive aspects of this book don’t quite make up for the rest of it. Back when I reviewed Americanah, I linked to an article criticising the Caine Prize for the fact that most of the nominated stories are bleak and depressing, and NoViolet Bulawayo was actually one of the authors being discussed. In fact, she won the prize that year, with a story that actually provided the basis for one of the chapters of We Need New Names. There is a lot of unpleasantness in the initial chapters of the book. One of Darling’s 13 year old friends is pregnant with her grandfather’ child for most of the earlier chapters, and at one point Darling and a few of her other friends attempt to give her an abortion with a coat-hanger and some bricks. There’s also plenty of dead, dying and injured people, and despite the fact I found the land-reclamation riot interesting, it was pretty horrifying. So yes, it’s really quite difficult to enjoy We Need New Names. I’m also at a loss as to whether my revulsion for some of the episodes is just because my sheltered western sensibilities are offended. Similarly, I don’t know if the hell of Darling’s Zimbabwe is accurate or if it’s exaggerated, and in which case if the exaggeration is gratuitous or not. This review casts it in an interesting light and, as it’s written by the original author of the Caine critique, it’s definitely worth reading.
As I said yesterday, despite the fact that I’m glad We Need New Names was nominated for the Booker prize and made the shortlist, I don’t think it’s going to win, or even that it should win. It’s a good book, and probably an important one, but I don’t think it’s an amazing one, which is what the Booker really needs.