NoViolet Bulawayo (Zimbabwe) – We Need New Names

Poverty in Zimbabwe and coming of age in the USA

In her debut novel, Bulawayo tells the story of Darling, a ten-year-old girl in Zimbabwe who wanders the streets with her friends before going to live in the United States with her aunt. The book reads like a series of vignettes as Darling grows up and deals with — first — extreme poverty in Zimbabwe, and — second — life as an immigrant in the US.

Bulawayo paints wonderful prose pictures. For example, she describes the sign on the shop of a traditional healer: “BESTEST HEALER IN ALL OF THIS PARADISE AND BEEYOND WILL PROPER FIX ALL THESE PROBLEMSOME THINGS THAT YOU MAY ENCOUNTER IN YOUR LIFE: BEWITCHEDNESS, CURSES, BAD LUCK, WHORING SPOUSES, CHILDRENLESSNESS, POVERTY, JOBLESSNESS, AIDS, MADNESS, SMALL PENISES, EPILEPSY, BAD DREAMS, BAD MARRIAGE/MARRIAGELESSNESS, COMPETITION AT WORK, DEAD PEOPLE TERRORIZING YOU, BAD LUCK WITH GETTING VISAS ESPECIALLY TO USA AND BRITAIN, NONSENSEFUL PEOPLE IN YOUR LIFE, THINGS DISAPPEARING IN YOUR HOUSE ETC. ETC. ETC. PLEASE PAYMENT IN FOREX ONLY.”

She also offers insights into being from a country that has gone through great upheaval. For her mother, there are three homes: home before independence, home after independence, and the “home of things falling apart.” Later, in the US, Darling notices how Anglophone Africans in America are often not understood because of their thick accents. “I have decided the best way to deal with it all is to sound American, and the TV has taught me just how to do it. It’s pretty easy; all you have to do is watch Dora the Explorer, The Simpsons, SpongeBob, Scooby-Doo, and then you move on to That’s So Raven, Glee, Friends, Golden Girls, and so on, just listening and imitating the accents.”

My one critique is that I sometimes felt that Bulawayo was checking African “issues” off a list. I later read Nigerian writer Helon Habila’s characterization of just this. He writes: “It has fraudulent preachers and is partly set in a soul-crushing ghetto called Paradise, somewhere in Zimbabwe. Yes, there is a dead body hanging from a tree; there is AIDS – the narrator’s father is dying of it; there is political violence…; there are street children…. Did I mention that one of the children…is pregnant after being raped by her grandfather? There is a palpable anxiety to cover every ‘African’ topic; almost as if the writer had a checklist made from the morning’s news on Africa. There’s even a rather inexplicable chapter on how the Chinese are taking over Africa.” And that’s not even to mention the scene with the naive NGO distributing goods to Zimbabweans and the naive Americans talking about the tragedy and the beauty of Africa.

The audiobook is read excellently by Robin Miles.

A few lines I liked:

On taking photos of people: “The man starts taking pictures with his big camera. They just like taking pictures, these NGO people, like maybe we are their real friends and relatives. … They don’t care that we are embarrassed by our dirt and torn clothing, that we would prefer they didn’t do it. They just take the pictures anyway. Take and take.”

On smiling: “Now I know that smiling at nothing is really a white people thing.”

Note on content: The book has some descriptions of pornography as well as strong language.

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