NoViolet Bulawayo’s debut novel, We Need New Names, integrates all the archetypal elements which readers come to expect of a “typical” African novel; poverty, rape, Aids, religious fanaticism, political violence and the struggle for independence. Yet, as a whole, it does not fufill those expectations. Bulawayo tells the story of a devastated nation. This is not a novel about the exterior landscape of a traumatised country. Names is a novel concerned with the internal, with the fruitful mind of its young narrator, Darling.
Darling and her “gang” of friends are starving. This is lucidy depicted in her graphic account, “[w]e didn’t eat this morning and my stomach feels like somebody just took a shovel and dug everything out,” Their homes bulldozed by the authorities and they live in a shanty-town. Darling’s eleven-year-old friend, Chipo, is pregnant with her grandfather’s child. Another woman, deemed “possessed”, is sexually assaulted by the Prophet before the people of the church. Darling’s father dies of Aids. There is no doubt that life is cruel and unforgiving. Yet, her story is not a plea for pity; she and her gang of friends are not robbed of their childhood. The children have fun, play games, steal guavas from the houses of the rich, talk of their dreams to migrate to America. Bulawayo writes beautifully; her use of syntax is immaculate and she strings together simple words to form the exquisite, lyrical yet childlike and unsentimental voice of Darling, who will charm with the innocence of such poetic lines as: “then we are rushing, then we are running, then we are running and laughing and laughing and laughing.” Saturated with vivid metaphors, Darling’s striking account of her country is brightly coloured and energetic.
However, Bulawayo is also shrewd in her social commentary. Darling eventually accomplishes her desire to move to America. Yet, from the onset of the novel, Bulawayo’s knowledge that America is not everything Darling believes it to be is implied in the subtly satiric ring of Bulawayo’swords: “and then we take off and run to kill each other with our brand new guns from America.” Indeed, Darling soon comes to realise that America and its material wealth will not fulfil her dreams.
We Need New Names might not form a cohesive whole. It lacks a linear plot and is loosely structured and episodic. While the novel is separated between Darling’s life in her country and her life in America, its loose structure allows the two lands to be interwoven and contrasted with each other. However, despite serving a certain purpose, one cannot help but be disappointed when the voice of the Americanised Darling lacks the vibrancy of Darling in her own country.
The idea and image of a country is a recurring motif in the novel, a symbol that the children are fixated upon, from the “country-game” they create, to the basic act of defecating, which is described as “an almost impossible task, like you are trying to give birth to a country.” The thought of giving birth to a country is revealing because it hints at a cherished connection between a country and its people. More importantly, it places the people in the role of a parent with duties of protection and nourishment. And herein lies the answer to Darling’s disappointment in America, for she has abandoned her own country. In following the advice of the title, We Need New Names, and adopting America as her new home, Darling has robbed herself of her identity – she has alienated herself. As Chipo aptly asks, “do you abandon your house because it’s burning or do you find water and put out the flames?”
While not without flaws, We Need New Names is an immensely powerful read. It is a novel that holds the power to bring tears but also laughter. It is raw: furiously impassioned, anguished, yet infinitely humorous.