06 Jul

Zimbabwe, America, and the immigrant experience

Book Review: We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

We Need New Names

I can’t quite recall where I first heard about this book, but I have been hearing about it a lot lately. I discovered that We Need New Names is definitely not being over-hyped; it is awesome. This is probably the first work of Africa-related, contemporary fiction I’ve read since Achebe’s Things Fall Apart in high school and it made me feel like I’ve been missing out on something profound and interesting.

This book is beautifully written. It is just full of amazing imagery. I’m not inclined to gush about such things, but as I was reading this book, I just wanted to drink up all the language and become drunk from it because it was so heady. Even though the story is told from the point of view of a child, the language isn’t necessarily puerile. Darling, the narrator, doesn’t use lots of sophisticated language, but her thoughts are really succinct and what she says makes the reader picture everything. For example, when speaking about the heat she says, “The sun keeps ironing us and ironing us and ironing us,” which is something I can relate to with the heat wave happening at the moment.  In another chapter, Darling is watching a funeral and comments of the cemetery:

“[It] is mounds and mounds of red earth everywhere, like people are being harvested, like death is maybe waiting behind a rock with a big bag of free food and people are rushing, tripping over each other to get to the front before the handouts run out. That is how it is, the way the dead keep coming and coming.”

Not all the imagery is morbid, of course, but this example stood out to me because it’s such a mature observation even though it is rooted in kid-logic.

As to the plot (which is, I suppose, what people want to hear about in a review), the book is told from the perspective of Darling, a girl who lives in Paradise—a shanty town in Zimbabwe. Her observations about life are folded in among vignettes of playing with her friends: Bastard, Godknows, Shbo, Stina, and the pregnant Chipo. Darling dreams of moving to America, a place where everyone has enough food and is rich, and she knows that one day she will because her Aunt Fostalina lives there. The second part of the book focuses on Darling’s life in America (specifically, in “Destroyedmichygen”) and how she copes with the reality of living in the US, works through her identity, and relates to others. The result is both a poignant view of life in modern Zimbabwe and of the immigrant experience in America.

The first half of We Need New Names made me realize how little I know about Zimbabwe specifically and Africa in general. From the way the story is told, the reader can gather that Zimbabwe used to be ruled by a king, but then it was taken over by white colonialists. The colonialists were eventually ousted by the native black people, who were then deposed by another group of black people. That is an extremely rudimentary understanding, but clearly this isn’t a book about politics or history; it’s about one person’s experience in Zimbabwe. I feel like I should be able to at least put names on some of these movements or governments, but I don’t have any in my head. I think that reading up on modern African history is definitely going to be on my to-do list.

The second half of the book was, in a way, more relatable, just because I am American and Darling’s experiences were easier for me to digest, even though they were through the eyes of someone new to the country. I briefly taught English as a second language when I was a teacher, so I was able to appreciate some of the observations about learning (or improving, more accurately) English. In one scene, Aunt Fostalina is on the phone trying to order something from Victoria’s Secret, but she is not being well-understood. Darling comments about how you can practice what you want to say beforehand, but the words still come out wrong, concluding “English is like a huge iron door and you are always losing the keys.” This is such an amazing way to conceptualize all language learning, but especially English learning.

Something incidental to the story, but that I really liked, is the concept of a “talking eye.” Essentially, this is when you look at someone in a way that says something, like when a little dog wearing a pink jacket tries to get attention from Darling and she gives it a talking eye that says “No, dog, you don’t even know me like that.” Or you could give a talking eye that says “Don’t even think about it,” or “Get over here.” Bulawayo has managed to name something I didn’t know I needed a word for.

We Need New Names is stuffed with observations about life both in Zimbabwe and in America. I really enjoyed Bulawayo’s take on the world and I feel like my worldview has definitely been expanded (which is the point of reading in the first place). There is a lot more in this book that I haven’t discussed because I know I can’t just talk about a whole book, but if anyone who has read it would like to discuss it with me, I would love to talk about it! I will definitely be keeping my eye out for future works by NoViolet Bulawayo.

What should you read after you’ve finished We Need New Names? Here are some things I am thinking of picking up that have similar themes:

  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie seems to be focused on immigration in a similar way to Bulawayo’s work, but centers on a teenage couple from Nigeria. The woman in the couple manages to immigrate to America, but the man is unable to do so. Adichie won the 2002 Caine Prize for African Writing for one of her previous novels.
  • A Contellation of Vital Phenomena is the debut novel of Anthony Marra. This story is set in Chechnya, another place I don’t know enough about.
  • The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe by Peter Godwin looks to be a pretty solid work on the modern political situation in Zimbabwe. If, like me, you know want to know more about Zimbabwe, this would be a good pick.