[This is the fourteenth instalment in Ashley Thomson’s No Man’s Land Reading Project.]
You know when you finish a book and spend the immediately proceeding half-hour sitting completely still, staring at nothing, the physical book forgotten but still in your lap, pulling the whole thing together? Not in an anxious, confused way; in a quiet, unselfconscious effort to see the forest for the trees. Something in the story, voice, symbolism and imagery has come together, such that you feel compelled to ruminate on the big picture as soon as the book is closed – because you’re sure, without having to think too hard about it, that the big picture is quite wonderful.
We Need New Names is NoViolet Bulawayo’s first novel. It’s told in the first person by Darling, a young Zimbabwean girl, and spans her late childhood through late teens. As such, it could be (and has been) described as a coming of age story, but age is perhaps the least significant point of transformation. It’s not about age so much as identity, and not the formation of a single identity but rather the creation of a fundamental and everlasting rift in an identity – something anyone whose life has been spent between two countries or cultures, who’s had two homes, will immediately recognise.
The first half of We Need New Names is spent in Darling’s city in Zimbabwe, where she romps around with her friends Bastard, Godknows, Stina, Sbho and Chipo. It is equal parts brutal and effervescent. Where there is gorging on guavas, there is constipation. Where there is religious fervour, corruption. Where there is hopeful protest, there will soon be an angry mob. Where children play at being adults, there is the hopeless violence they are unknowingly aping.
Darling’s voice, written with a vividness and curiosity that balances levity and poignancy with invisible grace, turns World Vision’s impoverished wasteland into a delightful, unsettling playground. The children witness waves of hope turn into bitter backwash and ponder forms of abuse and struggle they can only begin to grasp. They dream and boast of escape, mimicking the ferocity of their surroundings and fantasising about lives they’ll never live with frightening innocence. It is charming, awful and beloved – it’s Darling’s home, and her dreams of leaving are so naive that you forget to question them.
When Darling is granted a temporary visa to the United States (the temporariness of which is never taken seriously), the latter half of the book transitions to a ghettoised suburb of Detroit, Michigan. This international divide is the most obvious but certainly not most important of many dichotomies Bulawayo has woven into We Need New Names. With this change comes a litany of others. Darling is an outsider, faced with defining herself in the face of being defined by a generalising, patronising society, and in the longer term with becoming an outsider to Zimbabwe, a place whose importance to her self-identity becomes greater, and yet somehow less tangible, as she ages.
One of the great strengths of We Need New Names is that it does not make its contrasts so clear as to be obvious or didactic. Self-definition versus external definition; where you live versus where you call home; expectation versus reality; the innocence of children versus the innocent ignorance of the west; the lightness of childhood versus the affected darkness of teenagers; AIDs in Africa versus bulimia in the US; children as illuminating soothsayers versus children as packhorses for society’s ills; the half-life that immigrants exploiting temporary visas are forced to live, unable to appeal to the state’s social infrastructure for fear of being discovered and deported, versus the undeniable but poisoned benefits of life in America – by maintaining and gently sharpening Darling’s voice, to the point where she is truly split between two selves, Bulawayo weaves these considerations into the peripheries of her protagonist’s story.
There are, however, two defining moments when Bulawayo abandons Darling – and equivocacy. In two chapters titled ‘How They Left’ and ‘How They Lived’, Bulawayo writes in an omniscient third person, describing like a poet academic two seismic human processes: emigration from Africa, and adaptation to life in America.
“Look at them leaving in droves … knowing they will have to walk on their toes because they must not leave footprints on the new earth lest they be mistaken for those who want to claim the land as theirs.”
If this novel has two “darlings” that could have been killed, it is those two chapters, but one gets the feeling Bulawayo could not have lived with that. In them is the true purpose of this novel made ragingly clear. She wants this experience heard and understood – not just as one person’s, Darling’s, but as a massive phenomenon. And while the chapters break the story’s flow and mark the novel indelibly as Bulawayo’s first, they are also huge, grounding statements written with visceral talent.
“We ate like pigs, like wolves, like dignitaries; we ate like vultures, like stray dogs, like monsters; we ate like kings. We ate for all our past hunger, for our parents and brothers and sisters and relatives and friends who were still back there.”
In the end, though, We Need New Names does close in Darling’s voice, with a scene that is a subtle triumph of voice, structure and imagery, and which ensures that this is Darling’s book. It gives the reader the end of a thread, by which we may unravel the novel. But Bulawayo’s desire to show that leaving Zimbabwe behind was never truly an option for Darling – that no matter how far she went or how bright and fascinating she became, her severed roots ensured she would always be mangled, pored over and pitied – is indicative of the fact that Bulawayo is writing on behalf of much more than just Darling.
It is no surprise, then, that Bulawayo is now working on non-fiction. Bulawayo’s will to speak with her own voice, and to the issues of AIDs and Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, is palpable, and it seems to be by great craft and conscious will that We Need New Names remains a work of fiction. Where this could be a flaw, it is a strength – this is a novel that guides the reader almost invisibly between two sides of the most unforgiving dichotomy in literature: truth and fiction.