Author: NoViolet Bulawayo
Publisher: Random House
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Written by the Zimbabwean author NoViolet Bulawayo, We Need New Names is actually an extension of her Caine prize-winning short story, “Hitting Budapest“. The book is about a native Zimbabwean girl and her perspective on living in a country which is suffering from hunger, unemployment, inflation, and AIDS.
Darling is 10 years old when we first meet her. She’s a native African living in Zimbabwe, a country suffering from hunger, unemployment and AIDS. She and her family live in a ghetto, ironically named Paradise. She and her friends Bastard, Godknows, Sbho, Stina and Chipo survive on guavas while they traipse in the more opulent neighbourhoods of the city. They wear shirts with ‘Google’ or ‘Cornell’ written over them and say Cheese while NGOs take their pictures knowing that they won’t ever know the taste of it. Their lives, albeit tough, do have a certain zest, especially when they play games like “find bin Laden”.
Darling hears adults talking about change and wonders why things fall apart in the first place. Her friend Chipo is a rape victim of her own grandfather and is now pregnant at the tender age of 11. Darling worries about Chipo not only because she doesn’t play with them anymore but also because she has seen girls her age die while giving birth. Darling’s father left for South Africa a few years ago and now he has returned – a victim of AIDS. Darling has a hard time dealing with this new situation and is terrified by his thinness as if he only eats “pins and wires”.
The other half of the book deals with the migration of Darling from Paradise to Detroit, Michigan, or “Destroyedmichygen” as her friend Bastard calls it. The episodic chapters narrate the alienation of Darling as she tries to adopt the new life in America and its patronizing citizens. It’s not the life she has expected when she was in Paradise, but she is constantly amazed by the amount of food they have to eat and mystified by the silence of falling snow. As she becomes a teenager, she has learned all there is to learn about being an American- from trying dresses at the Best Buy to watching online pornography and explicit violence.
Even though the book is not intricate in composition, it still feels like Bulawayo is trying to deal with too many issues in one book. In the chapter ‘How They Lived’, I felt like the author is trying to lecture the world on the problems and sufferings of the African nations. Had it not been for the narrator’s resonant voice, the book would have crumpled under its own thematic weight.
The book is thought provoking and disturbing at times as the narrator gives a fierce account of harsh realities. The narration changes tones from sceptic to cynic as the book progresses and at times the readers might feel like Bulawayo is deliberately trying to mock the gratifications of American life. But NoViolet Bulawayo comes through best when she’s making meandering statements based on her own keen observations.