As far as literary prizes go, We Need New Names has all the makings of a winner: its author, a 31-year-old Zimbabwean immigrant to the U.S., never planned a career as a writer, yet this, her first novel, has not only served as a form of catharsis for her, but allowed readers a look at a generation of people struggling with the realities of a country that promised freedom and brought despair.
NoViolet Bulawayo is the new voice the literary scene keeps looking for, and a debut novel achieving such critical acclaim is the stuff of fairy tales. Yes, Bulawayo has lived in the U.S. all her adult life; she did not write her novel in a shack in Zimbabwe and smuggle it out of the country to get it published — as much as that would raise her stakes in the claim for literary stardom, it’s just not how the modern world works. NoViolet Bulawayo has been lucky to be able to find the time, resources and necessary distance to write her novel, but that doesn’t take away her credentials as an “authentic” Zimbabwean writer. She shares the fate of many of her countrymen and women, living in exile, away from a home that left them little choice. It’s the story of millions of people around the world, and as such has its own authenticity and justification. This excellent podcast deals with the subject of migration in Bulawayo’s and Jhumpa Lahiri’s novels, and it’s a pleasure to listen to the author’s in their own words — as much as interviewers and reviewers would like to dwell on locations and cultural heritage, it all boils down to personal stories that needed to be told.
The novel follows Darling, a young girl living in a Zimbabwean shanty called Paradise, on her way to America. Darling and her friends remember a time when they lived in proper houses and did not go hungry. Now they live in shacks and roam the streets of the richer parts of town to steal guavas. They all dream of a future outside Paradise, but for now, they’re enjoying each other’s company, as any child would. Darling’s life consists of her family, her friends and the curious figures that inhabit Paradise. There’s a sweetness and innocence to her gaze that makes the adults’ actions and reactions all the more poignant. Faced with her 11-year-old friend’s pregnancy, for instance, Darling merely sees it as a cumbersome detail that will interfere with their games. It’s only when adults stare or even cry that the reality of the situation transcends the children’s’ perspective. As a literary device, this perspective helps to keep the novel from becoming a description of the harsh life in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. There is hope in Paradise.
When Darling moves to “DestroyedMichygen” to live with her aunt, much of this hope and optimism comes to an end. While Darling doesn’t face any apparent struggle, there is little ambition in the way she resigns to her role as cleaner, and even the prospect of going to university does not fill her with enthusiasm. Instead, the episodes of an all-American adolescence (including adult movies, joy rides and spats with friends) are interspersed with descriptions of emigrant lives. It’s those short chapters entitled “How They Left” and “How They Lived” that sum up the experience in an unemotional, descriptive style:
That is how time went. It flew and we did not see it flying. We did not go back home to visit because we did not have the papers for our return, and so we just stayed, knowing that if we went we would not be able to reenter America. We stayed, like prisoners, only we chose to be prisoners and we loved our prison; it was not a bad prison. And when things only got worse in our country, we pulled our shackles even tighter and said, We are not leaving America, no, we are not leaving.
Those descriptions of the reality of leaving behind a home and a life, no matter how desperate, are the strongest passages in We Need New Names. Even if my situation is a completely different one, certain aspects of migration are universal, and the emotions that come with them moved me immensely. In those few pages, Bulawayo manages to express everything I ever wanted to put down in words about the effects of leaving home — they are heartbreaking in their mix of linguistic simplicity and emotional depth.
The plot, as it is, seems strangely slim in comparison to the richness of those chapters. Part of me wishes that Bulawayo had given her heroine a richer, more fulfilling life in America. In comparison to her childhood in Paradise, life in the promise land is bleak. When Darling misses home, she is confronted not only with external barriers, but also with the attitude of those left behind: As an emigrant, it seems, she lost her right to care about her home, to even call it that. There is little comfort in this thought. We Need New Names is not a depressing book, though, and I am genuinely excited about Bulawayo’s future work.