We Need New Names
by NoViolet Bulawayo
A Book Review by Anne Strozier
This 2013 debut novel by Bulawayo was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. It is a moving, funny, and sometimes horrifying novel narrated by Darling who is 10 years old when the story begins. In her vibrant story-telling style, she describes her experiences with her friends, Bastard, Chipo, Godknows and Sbho. They wander the streets of Paradise, a shanty town in Zimbabwe, where they experience hunger, AIDS, political violence, and clueless NGO workers who snap endless pictures of them. The children remember living in “real homes” before Mugabe’s rule created poverty and destruction of their lives. Darling’s voice is distinctive and variable –at times matter-of-fact, then poetic, humorous, and often insightful. In describing the minister of Paradise, Darling says: “If Prophet Revelations Bitchington Mborro’s voice were an animal it would be big and fierce and would knock things down.” Of her father dying of AIDS, “We just peer in the tired light at the long bundle of bones, at the shrunken head, at the wavy hair, most of it fallen off, at the face that is all points and edges from bones jutting out, the pinkish-reddish lips, the ugly sores, the skin sticking to the bone like somebody ironed it on, the hands and feet like claws.” Because of the author’s pictorial language and lack of sentimentality, Darling is an unique and most appealing character.
Bulawayo’s writing is less vibrant in the second half of the book when Darling’s dream comes true and she gets to move to America — to live with her aunt in “Destroyedmichygen”. She describes her initial bewilderment at snow, the large amounts of food and choices, and the ease of American schools. She acclimates, but, like many immigrants, develops a feeling of alienation from both America and Zimbabwe. On a telephone call from Zimbabwe, her old friend 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?” Darling admits to herself: “because we were not in our country, we could not use our own language, and so when we spoke, our voices came out bruised.”
This wonderfully funny and painfully honest book from the point of view of a unique little girl is well worth the read.