I’ve fallen a tad behind in my challenge reads and it’s only March – this does not bode well. Anyway, I’m back on the horse, wagon, whatever and have just read We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo, which fulfils task #8 – a book by an author from Africa.
I have to admit, it took me a little while to really get into this one; although, my overall impression of the book is a positive one, I was by no means grabbed from the very first page. It wasn’t that I disliked it; I just felt a little removed from the story initially. But either the story picked up or I was able to engage properly because by the end I really loved it.
We Need New Names is narrated by Darling, a ten-year-old girl living in a shanty town called Paradise. Although we are never specifically told it’s Zimbabwe, the political events and subtle mentions (although not by name) of Mugabe make it clear that that’s where we are. Darling and her friends used to go to school, they used to have homes with bathrooms and furniture, but now they live in huts and spend their days stealing guavas and playing games like Find bin-Laden. But Darling is luckier than her friends – she is going to America to live with her aunt; she’s leaving for a paradise with a different name.
Purely by chance I have read a few books narrated by children lately, and it’s a technique that is fraught with danger. The biggest challenge is that the author needs to give the child a realistic amount of self-awareness, enough to know which parts of their story to tell, but not enough to necessarily know the significance of these events. The child needs to know that the things they are talking about are important, but not comprehend the reasons for their importance. In my opinion, Bulawayo walks this line perfectly. Darling presents a credible amount of awareness about the horrific events going on around her, coupled with a child’s understanding of what these events mean. She tells us about the expressions of hope on the adults’ faces as they make their way to vote, and the pain that slowly replaces that hope, but she can’t fully articulate what these emotions mean. It’s up to the reader to join the dots and interpret what’s going on in their lives. I also felt that learning about truly sickening events through the eyes of a child added a certain amount of shock value to the act, but at the same time they were softened by Darling’s child-like naiveté.
Some of the best sections of the book were when Darling was in America and comparing her life there to her life back in Paradise. This passage in particular really made me laugh:
‘In America, the fatness is not the fatness I was used to at home…It was fatness that did not interfere with the body; a neck was still a neck, a stomach a stomach, an arm an arm, a buttock a buttock. But this American fatness takes it to a whole ‘nother level: the body is turned into something else – the neck becomes a thigh, the stomach becomes an anthill, an arm a thing, a buttock a I don’t even know what.’
The book strongly explores themes of belonging and patriotism and the sacrifices people make to find a better life for themselves. Once Darling is in America she is confronted with a sense of not really belonging anywhere – can she still call Zimbabwe her country if she left it in the hope of a better life? Does she truly understand their suffering, now that she is out of it? As her friend Chipo says to her, ‘It’s the wound that knows the texture of the pain; it’s us who stayed here feeling the real suffering.’
For me, it is impossible to imagine having to choose between abandoning your home for a better life elsewhere, knowing that you leave behind friends and family and a country that needs people to stay in order for things to change. It’s these themes and questions that make this such an important book, and one that I will be thinking about for many weeks to come.