We Need New Names, by NoViolet Bulawayo
This coming-of-age story follows ten-year-old Darling from her home in a Zimbabwean township to a new life in America.
It featured on the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize in 2013.
NoViolet Bulawayo is a Zimbabwean writer who is currently a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University.
Literary fiction. The book emerged from the author’s 2011 short story, which won the Caine Prize for African Writing.
Darling is a young girl growing up in a poor African township, who dreams of going to America. As a teenager, she goes to live in Detroit with her aunt’s family and comes to realise that life there isn’t as easy as she had imagined.
Key themes and motifs
- National identity and belonging
- Sexual discovery, child pregnancy, HIV
- Cultural differences
What’s to love?
Told from Darling’s point-of-view, this novel is written with a vivid, unique voice that brings to life some of the shocking things she experiences every day.
The descriptions of Darling’s home town of Paradise, and the neighbouring Budapest, inhabited by rich, white people, are colourful and vibrant; contrasting with the dull, grey world she discovers when she comes to America, leaving behind her gang of unruly friends. Yet it is the second half of the book that I found most engaging.
And when they asked us where we were from, we exchanged glances and smiled with the shyness of child brides. They said, Africa? We nodded yes. What part of Africa? We smiled. Is it that part where vultures wait for famished children to die? We smiled. Where the life expectancy is thirty-five years? We smiled? Is it there where dissidents shove AK-47s between women’s legs? We smiled. Where people run about naked? We smiled. That part where they massacred each other? We smiled. Is it where the old president rigged the election and people were tortured and killed and a whole bunch of them put in prison and all, there where they are dying of cholera – oh my God, yes, we’ve seen your country; it’s been on the news.”
“They will never be the same again because you just cannot be the same once you leave behind who and what you are, you just cannot be the same.”
Not quite a story, more a collection of incidents in one girl’s life, through which the reader comes to understand life in modern day Zimbabwe.
At times it felt like certain chapters were a nod to a particular issue, from the influence of religious leaders in exorcisms, to the growth of the Chinese workforce in Africa, to AIDS and female genital mutilation. The story dealt with so many of these things that it never managed to explore them with meaningful depth.
Read it if you enjoyed
- The books of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi
- Every Day Is For the Thief, by Teju Cole
Find out more:
We Need New Names, on Amazon (affiliate link)
We Need New Names on Goodreads