Into the Unknown

NoViolet Bulawayo, born Elizabeth Zandile Tshele, was raised in her birthplace of Zimbabwe, a year following the nation’s independence from the United Kingdom was recognized globally. However, at the age of eighteen, she had to leave her homeland to pursue her dreams of becoming a writer. In the United States, wading through foreign waters, she managed to complete her Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in English. She was slowly able to build her career and establish a name for herself. There was one thing at the back of her mind that kept bothering her: she was never able to go back home.

Ever since Bulawayo’s move to the United States, Zimbabwe’s political landscape drastically changed. The stability that her generation once enjoyed was replaced by uncertainties and instability. This, coupled with her burgeoning school work kept Bulawayo from visiting her nation. Her time away from home, nevertheless, proved to be a productive time. It was during this time that she started working on the backbone of what would be her debut novel. In 2011, her short story Hitting Budapest won the Caine Prize for African Writing. Two years later, the short story would form part of Bulawayo’s debut novel, We Need New Names. It was the introductory chapter.

We are on our way to Budapest: Bastard and Chipo and Godknows and Sbho and Stina and me. We are going even though we are not allowed to cross Mzilikazi Road, even though Bastard is supposed to be watching his little sister Fraction, even though Mother would kill me dead if she found out; we are just going. There are guavas to steal in Budapest, and right now I’d rather die for guavas. We didn’t eat this morning and my stomach feels like somebody just took a shovel and dug everything out.”

Thus commenced Bulawayo’s debut novel. Set in contemporary Zimbabwe, the novel’s opening sequence introduced Darling, the novel’s main protagonist, and primary narrator. Brimming with enthusiasm and energy, she scoured the shantytown of Paradise and its environs, along with her friends: the aggressive Bastard, the mysteriously pregnant Chipo, the ever cheerful Godknows, the beautiful Sbho, and their conscience and voice of reason, Stina. This gang of pre-teen children kept running amok, creating mischief all over the place and giving headaches to their parents. They stole guavas, vandalized walls, and even tried to force the baby out of Chipo’s stomach. On other days, they escape Paradise to check out the richer suburb called Budapest.

“If you are stealing something it’s better if it’s small and hideable or something you can eat quickly and be done with, like guavas. This way, people can’t see you with the thing to be reminded that you are a shameless thief and that you stole it from them, 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. Who can ever forget you stole something like that?”

~ NoViolet Bulawayo, We Need New Names

Darling and her friends were full of verve and boundless energy, young children who were enjoying their childhood. It was a period of discovery and learning. Our childhood will always be a poignant part of our memory. Bulawayo vividly crafted this part of the narrative with her descriptive prose, capturing the experience of growing up in Paradise, from escaping hunger through a few stolen guavas to walking barefoot on the searing asphalt of the dusty roads. Destitution permeated the atmosphere in Paradise, but the ugly realities did not the children from finding satisfaction and joy in the company of each other. Their innocence obscured the harsher realities of life from them.

We Need New Names can be examined on three distinct elements. The first element that comes to the fore was the backdrop upon which the story was juxtaposed: the contemporary historyZimbabwe. The novel was rife with political overtones and to understand this, one must travel to the time when Bulawayo was writing her debut novel. During this time, the landscape of Zimbabwe was drastically being altered due to failed leadership. The country experienced hyperinflation. Efforts were made to weaken the political opposition and any forms of dissent were silenced. It was a time of instability and Zimbabwe’s head of state, Robert Mugabe, made it to nearly every international headline. Interestingly, neither Mugabe nor ZImbabwe were named in the story but the references were clear.

In an introduction written by Bulawayo for The Guardian First Book Award 2013, she mentioned that the novel’s main protagonist, Darling, was “inspired by a photograph of this kid sitting on the rubble that was his bulldozed home after the Zimbabwean government carried out Operation Murambatsvina[1]. Murambatsvina literally translates to Operation Drive Out the Rubbish. This operation, instituted in 2005 and also known as Operation Restore Order, was a massive campaign to clear out slums across Zimbabwe. The United Nations estimated that the operations have affected at least 700,000. Adversely affecting the poor, the campaign was viewed as a form of political retribution against those who vocally supported the opposition.

The kid in the picture made Bulawayo wonder about his story and what eventually happened to him, and to his fellow children of shantytowns. From him, Bulawayo conceived Darling whose story depicted the impact of Operation Murambatsvina. While Darling and her friends explored every nook and cranny of Budapest and Paradise, they also try to grapple with their memories of Before. Before pertained to the period of time when their families were complete and peace reigned in their part of the world. It was a time when the schools were not closed and children had better things to do than just scouring the shantytown. The widespread destitution and starvation that ensued led the fathers Darling and her friends to seek gainful employment outside of Zimbabwe. Some saw it as an opportunity to flee.

“Because we were not in our country, we could not use our own languages, and so when we spoke our voices came out bruised. When we talked, our tongues thrashed madly in our mouths, staggered like drunken men. Because we were not using our languages we said things we did not mean; what we really wanted to say remained folded inside. trapped. In America we did not always have the words. It was only when were were by ourselves that we spoke in our real voices. When we were alone we summoned the horses of our languages and mounted their backs and galloped past skyscrapers. Always, we were reluctant to come back.”

~ NoViolet Bulawayo, We Need New Names

The second layer of the novel dealt with the African diaspora. When Darling was ten-years-old, she moved to Detroit, United States, to live with her. What was once a dream she shared with her friends in Paradise has finally come true. She was giddy in anticipation, excited to eat good food and eventually become rich. The American Dream, after all, was wrapped up in opulent cover. Darling would learn the hard way that the American Dream was anything but as advertised. She had to adapt to her new environment while listening to the misconceptions about Africa and its culture. The cross-cultural comparisons between Zimbabwe and the USA added a layer to the story. The novel also showed the realities that illegal immigrants had to deal with, the looming possibility of being deported.

Navigating uncharted territories is challenging especially when one also has to deal with racism and other forms of discrimination. This was another part of Darling’s coming-of-age, which was also the third layer of the novel. Her new experiences in Detroit made Darling learn more about her country, the United States, and most importantly, about herself. It was not always a smooth ride last the different stressors surrounding her at times made her question herself and her identity. Yes, she has been looking forward to living in Detroit but as she adjusts to her new life, she realized that something has shifted within her. As Darling contemplated “Leaving your country is like dying, and when you come back you are like a ghost returning to earth, roaming around with missing gaze in your eyes.”

The question of identity and belongingness was prevalent in the second half of the novel. As Darling got swept up by changes, she began to question who she really is. She can’t help but feel as though she exchanged her dignity for the comforts of living away from her homeland being torn apart by strife. This was further underlined in a confrontation between Chipo and Darling in the novel’s concluding pages. Chipo asked Darling what she has dreaded the most, “It’s your country, Darling? Really, it’s your country, are you sure?” For Chipo, the moment Darling decided to leave her homeland she has given up all her claims to her roots: “If it’s your country, you have to love it to live in it and not leave it. You have to fight for it no matter what, to make it right.”

Through the experiences of Darling, Bulawayo explored interesting questions, such as the point when one’s claim on one’s provenance. Does it end even if one chooses to move to a new country in exchange for a better life? It is a question that many like Darling and her aunt deal with. Can one be faulted for choosing to pursue a better life in a different country because the motherland is unraveling? Or do we have to wait for the house of cards to crumble and fall apart with it? Where does one draw the one between being nationalistic and survival? There is, however, no black or white answer to such complex questions, as Darling would hopelessly realize.

“Look at them leaving in droves despite knowing they will be welcomed with restraint in those strange lands because they do not belong, knowing they will have to sit on one buttock because they must not sit comfortable lest they be asked to rise and leave, knowing they will speak in dampened whispers because they must not let their voices drown those of the owners of the land, knowing they will have to walk on their toes because they must not leave footprints on the new earth lest they be mistaken for those who want to claim the land as theirs. Look at them leaving in droves, arm in arm with loss and lost, look at them leaving in droves.”

~ NoViolet Bulawayo, We Need New Names

The book’s title, We Need New Names, was a reference to the author’s call for her countrymen to reinvent themselves, to adopt something new. It was her call for them to rise above the ashes of the failed regimen, unsympathetic government, and overall tumult that has debilitated them for over a decade. However, the message did not always clearly echo in the story. The novel’s different elements were disjointed, lacking a thread to string them all together in a coherent story. Without a doubt, Bulawayo’s prose was lush and vivid but the power of the novel’s message was muddled. It was an ambitious undertaking but it gave out on the weight of its ambition.

For all its faults, We Need New Names, helped establish Bulawayo as a new voice to watch out for. Her debut novel was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, earning Bulawayo a spot in history, the distinction of being the first black African woman and the first Zimbabwean to be shortlisted for the prestigious literary prize. It also earned her several accolades across the globe. Parts-historical, parts-political, parts coming-of-age story, We Need New Names is a multifaceted novel that grappled with several seminal concerns, from political to personal, from the immigrant experience to the pains of growing up. It was the story of modern Zimbabwe and its denizens as much as it was the story of Darling. It was also the story of our childhood and innocence. In Darling’s story, we see hope beaconing, not just for her but also for her nation.

Ratings

68%

Characters (30%) – 22%
Plot (30%) – 19%
Writing (25%) – 
18%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
9%

It was during the 2018 Big Bad Wolf Sale that I came across NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names. I had no inkling of what the book was about nor does the author’s name ring any bell of familiarity. Nevertheless, my interest was piqued so I purchased the book only to leave it to gather dust on my bookshelf. In an effort to tick off my growing unread books list, I included We Need New Names in my 2021 Beat the Backlist Challenge. I was actually surprised when I learned it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, hence, it was the transition from my February Booker Prize month to my March African literature month. The novel does have flashes of brilliance. Bulawayo vividly depicted the world Darling had to leave behind and the challenges she faced in her new world. It was the converge of several interesting subjects from the African diaspora to finding one’s voice in uncharted territories. Overall, however, I found the novel a little underwhelming. As a debut novel, it was decent enough. However, I felt that the novel’s various elements were disjointed, thus, adversely affecting the promise it held.

Book Specs

Author: NoViolet Bulawayo
Publisher: Reagan Arthur Books/Little, Brown and Company
Publishing Date: May 2013
Number of Pages: 292
Genre: Coming-of-Age

Synopsis

When Junot Diaz chose the opening scene of We Need New Names for publication in Boston Review, he wrote: “I knew this writer was going to blow up. NoViolet Bulawayo’s honesty, her voice, and her formidable command of her craft – all were apparent from the first page.” And the pages that follow more than deliver on that promise. Channeling the rhythm and vibrancy of the storytellers who raised her in Zimbabwe, NoViolet Bulawayo’s debut novel brings to life a young girl whose world is on the brink of transformation, full of danger but also possibility.

Ten-year-old Darling and her friends navigate their shantytown in Zimbabwe with the exuberance and mischievous spirit of children everywhere. Whether they’re stealing guavas from the rich neighborhoods nearby or memorizing a snippet of pop culture gleaned from a rare glimpse at television, life is a game. But they are shadowed by memories of Before. Before their homes were destroyed by paramilitary policemen, before the schools closed, before their fathers left for dangerous jobs abroad.

Darling is given an escape: She has an aunt in America. Determined to take advantage of America’s famous abundance but far from the insulation and comforts of her community in Zimbabwe, Darling must reckon with the sacrifices and mixed rewards of assimilating to her new home.

A potent story of displacement and arrival, We Need New Names is a disarmingly playful, devastatingly candid novel that is at once classic and utterly original, with a power all its own.

About the Author

NoViolet Bulawayo is the pen name of Zimbabwean author Elizabeth Zandile Tshele. Bulawayo was born on October 12, 1981, in Tsholotsho, Zimbabwe, and attended  Njube High School and later Mzilikazi High School. She completed her college education at Kalamazoo Valley Community College. She earned a Bachelor’s Degree in English from Texas A&M University-Commerce. She earned her Master’s Degree in English from Southern Methodist University. She has also completed a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Cornell University. Her works at Cornell earned her a Truman Capote Fellowship. She was earned the Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University.

Bulawayo started gaining attention for her works in 2011 when her story, Hitting Budapest won the Caine Prize for African Writing. The story would eventually become the opening chapter of her debut novel, We Need New Names (2013). The book earned several accolades such as the LA Times Book Prize Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, the Pen/Hemingway Award, the Etisalat Prize for Literature, the Barnes and Noble Discover Award (second place), and the National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” Fiction Selection. Bulawayo made history when the novel was shortlisted for the prestigious Booker Prize. She was the first black African woman and the first Zimbabwean to be shortlisted for the prize. It was announced that Bulawayo will be publishing her second novel, Glory, in 2022.

Between 2014 and 2018, Bulawayo served as a member of the board of trustees of the pan-African literary initiative Writivism. She is currently a Jones Lecturer in Fiction at Stanford University.

References

1. Bulawayo, NoViolet 2014, We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo, The Guardian, accessed 22 January 2022, <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/nov/15/we-need-new-names-noviolet-bulawayo-guardian-first-book-award>.