Propelled into motion by the rippling aftershocks of colonialism, Africans have spent much of the last half-century writing history with their feet. And as they have scattered around the globe, their literature too has reflected this push and pull, giving rise to a rich tradition of stories, novels, and memoirs that leap across continents and cultures.
In her debut novel, We Need New Names, Zimbabwean writer NoViolet Bulawayo adds her own, striking voice to this tradition, while also telling a kind of story familiar to many American readers: that of a newcomer, struggling to negotiate the curious particulars of identity in a place where few Americans can even locate the immigrant's country of origin on a map.
“When they asked us where we were from, we exchanged glances and smiled with the shyness of child brides,” she writes. “Africa? We nodded yes. What part of Africa? We smiled. Is it the part where vultures wait for famished children to die. We smiled…. Where people run about naked? We smiled … oh my God, yes, we’ve seen your country; it’s been on the news.”
“We Need New Names” begins when its narrator, Darling, is a 10-year old living in a Zimbabwean township called Paradise. With the brisk directness of a child, she cuts a narrative path through the ruin of early 21st-century Zimbabwe, a place where school is a receding memory and she and her friends spend long afternoons stealing guavas from the wealthy suburbs to keep their hunger at bay.
The citizens of Paradise, whose names – Godknows, Bornfree, Lovemore, Messenger – are unbelievable only if you have never been to Zimbabwe, wear ripped Western hand-me-down T-shirts emblazoned with inscrutable text like “Google,” “Cornell,” and “Don’t be mean, go green,” which they receive in monthly handouts from a group Darling calls “the NGO people.”
Theirs is a universe punctuated by the persistent rhythm of departure – to South Africa, to London, to Dubai and New York – which carry off Paradise’s adults one by one with the lure of jobs they cannot find at home. Darling’s own father is one of these men, and her slow-boiling resentment for him does not fade even when he returns home to die of AIDS. But Bulawayo never spares us the honest and sometimes sparse morality of her child characters. “In my head I’m thinking, Die. Die now so I can go play with my friends, die now because this is not fair,” Darling says.
In South African novels, apartheid is the original sin that seems to set every plot into motion. In Zimbabwe it is colonialism. “If you’re stealing something it’s better if its small and hideable,” Darling explains. “That way people can’t see you with the thing to be reminded that you are a shameless thief and that you stole it from them, so I don’t know what white people were trying to do, stealing not just a tiny piece but a whole country.”
With the drumbeat of political turmoil rising around her, Darling is soon sent to America to live with an aunt. But if Zimbabwe was a land of obvious want, for Darling, America has a hollow ache to it as well. She bristles at Michigan’s brutal winters, layered with snow “as white as clean teeth,” and is haunted by the barrage of pop culture politics that seem to dictate teenage life in America: Do you like Justin Bieber? Do you prefer Burger King or McDonalds? Have you seen “High School Musical”?
Meanwhile Zimbabwe slowly loses its sharp focus. One day a few years after Darling has come to America, she calls a friend from home, only to be chastised for believing she still knows what’s happening there. “It’s those of us who stayed here feeling the real suffering,” her friend says curtly.
Unsurprisingly, given the intimate character of her prose, Bulawayo herself is a Zimbabwean immigrant to the United States, and she occasionally steps out of Darling’s story to survey the immigrant experience more broadly in short vignettes inserted between chapters.
“Because we were not in our country, we could not use our own language, and so when we spoke our voices came out bruised,” she writes. “When we talked, our tongues thrashed madly in our mouths, staggered like drunken men.” Though lovely, these segments float, disembodied, above the text in a way that is occasionally unsettling to the novel. Narrative omniscience, after all, is not what draws us to Darling’s story. It is in fact the opposite: her vulnerable, selfish, and utterly small consideration of the world. Bulawayo also occasionally undermines the delicacy of her storytelling with heavy-handed symbols (the anorexic American girl Darling meets who wears a “Save the Children” T-shirt on her emaciated frame, for instance).
But these are quibbles. “We Need New Names” is a vibrant first novel, and though deeply rooted in the particulars of Darling’s story, tells a story that will resonate far more widely. “Darling is Zimbabwean,” Bulawayo writes, “but it is my hope that she is also Mexican and Indian and British, that she is from anywhere else where people live and hope and dream and leave.”
Ryan Lenora Brown is a Monitor contributor.