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Saturday 7 September 2013

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulaweyo

Continuing on the theme of Booker longlisted books, my next foray was to debut novelist NoViolet Bulaweyo’s We Need New Names. After the dense, multi-threaded, contemplative A Tale for the Time Being this book almost couldn’t be more different and it made for a refreshing change of pace. I can now understand what the Booker panel were talking about when they said the list was ‘diverse’.

We Need New Names follows the fortunes of Darling, a girl growing up in post independence Zimbabwe who aspires to live in America. The first half of the book follows Darling’s childhood in ‘Paradise’ a shanty town she shares with her friends Godknows, Chipo, Bastard, Sbho and Stina. It is called Paradise, but patently isn’t, the children are hungry and stealing fruit from a richer neighbourhood (named Budapest), their parents are scraping by or missing and there are hints of political persecution even from the very beginning. While the children are playing ‘country games’ their own country is coming apart around them, and everywhere the influence of the Western world is present from the visiting NGOs to Lady Gaga songs to games of Find Bin Laden.

The second half of the book follows Darling to America where she lives with her Aunt Fostalina, Uncle Kojo (who is not her uncle) and her cousin TJ who is like another country all in himself. This second half shows Darling coming to learn the truth of the ‘American Dream’ and what it means to be an immigrant desperate to stay in a country which doesn’t want you and to which you don’t belong, desperate to stay but wishing you could go back. The colours in the second half of the book are just that little bit paler, a more ghostly concrete grey compared to the sun-scorched vividity of the home she remembers.

In the course of this short novel of two disparate halves, Bulaweyo manages to cover a lot of ground including the impact of poverty, political persecution, the damaging effect of NGOs, the perception of the Western world from outside and the perception of ‘Africa’ by the Western world, AIDS, female genital mutilation, shamanism, illegal immigrants, poverty in America, war, the impact of being disconnected from your home nation. Using Darling as the ‘voice’ or observer of these issues enables the novel to remain apparently light whilst having a heavy impact, similar to the way that viewing events through Scout’s eyes brings weight to the terrible events in To Kill A Mockingbird. Whilst Bulaweyo isn’t any Harper Lee, this is a promising first novel which combines a lighthearted, youthful voice with a watchful eye, observing everything yet judging little.

 Where the novel really succeeds is in the sense of disconnection between a person, an immigrant, and their country. Bulaweyo portrays the difficulties  an immigrant faces in a country which is culturally alien and in which they are not wanted (but in which they are still openly exploited) but which they are desperate to stay if only to keep them from the jaws of hunger and political unrest. Juxtaposed against this is the yearning for the home country, where the heart belongs but in which they didn’t feel it either safe or possible to remain. The sense of disconnectedness, the loss of ‘belonging’ is quite stark and it’s refreshing to see this emotional impact from the immigrant’s point of view. Bulaweyo’s use of language is also refreshing, she has a sharp turn for simile and metaphor, though in places I did find myself suffering from simile exhaustion like in this passage here:

‘They were awesome to see, and when they were in full form, their noise lit Fambeki like a burning bush, songs and chants and sermons and prayers rising to the heavens before tumbling down the mountain like rocks and mauling whatever happened to pass by. And when afterwards no change came, the voices of the worshippers trickled down Fambeki like broken bones and dragged themselves away, but now they are back like God didn’t even ignore them that time.’

There were times in this novel where I wondered where it was going, where it seemed a little too disjointed and almost more like a series of interesting or disturbing anecdotes and observations rather than a cohesive story. I’m a little torn as to whether this is intended or not. In some respects the disjointedness mirrors the disconnection that Darling suffers when she uproots from Zimbabwe and replants in another country, but in others it comes across as unintended as though Bulaweyo didn’t quite manage to pull the threads of the novel together. That being said, it is an interesting, entertaining and in places disturbing read. What the story lacks in cohesiveness it makes up for in freshness, and what Bulaweyo lacks in sure-footedness she makes up for in vibrancy and originality. I am not convinced that this particular novel will take the Booker, but I am convinced that Bulaweyo is a writer to watch, a woman of talent, ability and originality and whose future development I will be following with a keen interest.

We Need New Names receives a displaced 8 out of 10 Biis.

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