In her debut novel “We Need New Names”, NoViolet Bulawayo unveils a captivating story about the lives of five children in post-independence Zimbabwe. The book, which was nominated for the Man Booker Prize filters the troubling socio-political elements of the era through the eyes of 10-year-old Darling.
We first meet Darling and her gang of hungry friends Bastard, Godknows, Chipo, Sbho, and Stina as they are walking from their shantytown to steal guavas in an upscale neighborhood called Budapest. As the children dissect the difference between the tin huts in their slums to the manicured compounds in Budapest, Bulawayo employs humor to explore the socio-political difficulties that the country is facing under Mugabe.
She addresses contentious issues such as the unequal distribution of land by allowing the protagonist, Darling, to sarcastically suggest that “If you’re stealing something its better if it’s small and hideable… so I don’t know what the white people were trying to do in the first place, stealing not just a tiny piece but a whole country.” As the young friends hopscotch through the city of Harare, we get a fuller understanding of the depth of their destitution and learn of Darling’s dream to escape poverty by moving to the United States.
The challenges of this dream are revealed in the second half of the book when Darling leaves her friends in Zimbabwe and travels to Michigan to live with her aunt Fostalina. In the land of her dreams, she is confronted with culture shock and the reality that America is not all that it is cracked up to be. Using language that flows with simplicity, Darling recounts her immigrant experience by detailing her struggle to assimilate in a new country while she watches her aunt’s marriage fall apart.
As Darling wrestles with homesickness, she also struggles with the sense that she no longer connects with certain elements of her native country. In a poignant conversation with a friend who was still in Zimbabwe, he accused her of leaving a country that needs her to find a better life overseas. “Do you abandon your house because it’s burning or do you find water to put it out?” he asks.
“We Need New Names”, is a charming and engaging book that provides a canvas to view the complexities of post-colonial Africa. It uses the challenges of Zimbabwe as a microcosm to outline some of the societal ills that plague the continent. From the stigma attached to HIV, to economic discrepancy, Bulawayo brings forth well-developed characters to highlight heartbreaking stories without overwhelming the reader.
Nonetheless, there are times when the storyline seems disjointed because it does not follow a structured plot. Bulawayo would have done well to weave a thread of suspense from the beginning of the book to the end. However, that does not take away from the fact that this is a great read, worthy of all the international acclaim.
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