We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo
|We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo|
|Category: General Fiction|
|Reviewer: Trish Simpson-Davis|
|Summary: What happens to a child who leaves her family, friends and country of birth for the chance of a better future? As a small girl, Darling desperately wanted to leave Zimbabwe for the USA, but at what price? A riveting read from a new writer.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 304||Date: June 2013|
|Publisher: Chatto & Windus|
This powerful narrative bears witness to the experience of economic migrants. Not just black Africans coming from Zimbabwe, like NoViolet Bulawayo, but more generally, those several generations of hardy, resourceful immigrants driven to the USA in search of a better future. Such people leave behind less courageous family members, but not their emotions towards those they have loved or their nation of birth.
This is a sobering primer, just right for the current political debate on immigration. As NoViolet Bulawayo makes clear in the first half of the novel, we need to understand firstly that conditions in some countries are intolerably bad. They force a harsh choice: to chance illegal migration in an unknown country or endure escalating privations at home; a choice which each individual must relate to his future survival chances.
The young gang of friends living in Paradise already know that their country is one of the poorest in the world. They are often hungry and their housing is inadequate. Their family units are subsidised occasionally by NGOs and those family members who have left for richer countries in the West. Beyond these bare facts are the searing images of everyday life: the white couple beaten and forced to watch the destruction of their affluent lifestyle; the death of Darling’s mainly absent father from AIDS; the elective mutism of a young teenage friend, raped by her own grandfather. All are described matter-of-factly by the young narrator, Darling, desensitised by the everyday deficiencies and brutal reality of life in her country of birth.
The games the children play reflect this recognition. Find Bin Laden, for instance, is labelled boring because they can never find him. Their aspirations are framed in their conversations and games about richer countries of opportunity, such as Destroyed Michygen, where Darling’s Aunt Fostalina lives. Darling is sure that her aunt will call her over one day. Those who have made the decision to get out will do whatever is necessary to enter the country of their choice. Faced with the lack of life chances depicted so vividly in the book, how many of us would think and behave any differently?
In Africa, families assume economic responsibility for relatives when they can. So Aunt Fostalina offers a home and American education to Darling. Darling is pleased to leave, little realising that circumstances and practicalities will prevent her from seeing her mother, or Zimbabwe, again. (The leavetaking scene reminded me quite forcefully of the anguish of Irish farewells a hundred years earlier). At least there is the telephone and Skype these days.
Once Darling arrives in the USA she finds immigrants nicknamed after their countries of origin–so, presumably, the author’s pen name. People quickly lose their birth names, traditionally bestowed by the head of an African family. Disembodied from their culture and identity, mostly living outside their visas, people become anonymous and invisible. Worse, homesick migrants feel forever strangers in their new countries of adoption, even when their children are completely Americanised. Aunt Fostalina, for example, hasn’t really mastered English, yet has become American enough to be hooked on exercise.
Despite the difficulties, Darling soon normalises, loosening her African ties in favour of watching porn on the internet. I was glad that she adjusted so quickly yet chilled that the sacrifices made by others for her had been for this end result. Darling finds herself dislocated from her friends in Zimbabwe. Eventually her old friend Chipo, back home, points out that by leaving, Darling has severed her connection with her birth country:
I know its bad, Chipo, I’m so sorry. It pains me to think about it, I say.
What is so bad? Why are you feeling pain? She says.
… you are not the one suffering. You think watching on BBC means you know what is going on? No you don’t, my friend, it’s the wound that knows the texture of the pain …
It is NoViolet Bulawayo’s way with words that makes this book unforgettable. Lyrical images unexpectedly light the story. Darling listens to her mother having sex with a stranger: The bed is shuffling like a train taking them somewhere important that needs to be reached fast. Listening to a funeral crowd far away: The singing is so distant it’s like the voices have been buried under the earth and they are now trying to get out. Later, Darling describes the land of plenty: In America we saw more food than we had seen in all our lives and we were so happy we rummaged through the dustbins of our souls to retrieve the stained, broken pieces of God.
It is commonly held that a first novel is a cathartic experience, blurring the edges between fiction and biography. If that is so, then the power of this novel is in its veracity. I am so pleased to have had the chance to read it.
I'd like to thank the publishers for sending this book.
Enough: Why the World's Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty by Scott Kilman and Roger Thurow gives an engrossing account of why this is happening in Africa.
We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo is in the Man Booker Prize 2013.
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You can read more book reviews or buy We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo at Amazon.com.
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