Reviewed by Gabriel Morley
A new generation of novelists is emerging from the continent of Africa, bringing a rich variety of stories and images with them. These stories are immense, frequently unsettling and often overlooked in America, but NoViolet Bulawayo’s new novel “We Need New Names” is begging to be noticed.
Bulawayo’s coming of age tale features Darling, a 10-year-old girl in Zimbabwe who lives in a shanty town called Paradise. Darling and her mother have been uprooted by civil unrest and forced to live in Paradise in a one-room shack made of corrugated tin. Hundreds of other displaced Zimbabweans are crammed together with them. But Darling has hope. Her aunt lives in America and Darling insists it is only a matter of time before she joins her relatives in Destroyedmichigan (Detroit, MI). In the meantime, Darling and her friends, including a pregnant 11-year-old named Chipo, prowl the streets day and night looking for food, or mischief, or anything to occupy their time and meager existence. No one cares about the children of Paradise. The men are busy getting drunk all day and the women are busy gossiping and fixing hair. The children eat or don’t eat. No one cares. School is not a priority. The only clothes they have were scavenged and feature American advertising.
The situation in Paradise is so dire and that when the children find a dead woman hanging from a tree, their first inclination is to take her shoes so they can sell them and by a loaf of real bread. No one ever mentions the dead woman again.
Bulawayo’s writing is clear and pointed. The children’s dialogue is exacting, fraught with meaning they do not yet understand, but which follows them like the aching hunger in their bellies. When Darling is finally able to go to America she reflects on the droves of children leaving Zimbabwe.
“When things fall apart, the children of the land scurry and scatter like birds escaping a burning sky. They flee their own wretched land so their hunger may be pacified in foreign lands, their tears wiped away in strange lands, the wounds of their despair bandaged in faraway lands, their blistered prayers muttered in the darkness . . .”
“We Need New Names” is not only a story about Zimbabwe, but also the African experience in America.
In Michigan, Darling is surrounded by other Africans who can no longer return home because they are in the United States on expired visitor visas. It’s as if they are trapped in America in these new lives that have no resemblance to the lives and the countries they left behind. “We Need New Names” was recently longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Britain’s most prestigious literary award.
CPPL has two copies of “We Need New Names.” Copies are available at Central library and Epps Memorial in north Lake Charles. Bulawayo is currently a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University.
Recently, Michael Shewmaker, a former poetry graduate student at McNeese was awarded a Stegner Fellowship.
Staff: Gabriel Morley is the director of the Calcasieu Parish Public Library.