As a part of the 2014 reading challenge to make more readers familiar with African authors and African themes, I have added several titles to my reading list and, to date, have read three or four of those titles. The most recent was We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo. This one you should read: it’s the author’s first novel and isn’t great literature but it does tell a good story that covers a lot of themes.
We Need New Names starts out in Africa, Zimbabwe to be more accurate (as Darling reminds us often, Africa is a lot of countries and in each one there are significant cultural differences). Darling is a girl of ten who lives in the midst of the turmoil in her country: poorly educated; Africa For Africans overthrowing colonialism; poverty; hunger; AIDS; and the blossoming of a sexual identity. The narrative is somewhat episodic but provides a rich view of impoverished life in a country undergoing a difficult and dangerous transformation.
Darling and her friends raid neighboring towns for food and fun, play street games like Find Bin Lauden, practice doing the adult thing with another friend, and observe forbidden activities, often hidden in the branches of a tall tree. Along the way the reader gets a good insight into the life in the ghetto which, surprisingly, often suggests that there are riches and experiences there that cannot be found elsewhere (later we learn that the watered-down Coca-Cola in the United States is not nearly as good as the Coke in Africa).
One of the themes in We Need New Names is escape. The young people of the neighborhood are all waiting for the day they can get out of the country and find a better life. Darling’s mother has a sister in the United States so Darling goes to America to live. The novel now turns around and we see the diaspora and how a young African woman overcomes the difficulties of fitting in with life in America (the Detroit area).
The first thing that is emphasized is snow: lots of cold and snow in Detroit: obviously much more than in southern Africa. But as Darling grows from Junior High to High School she develops into a somewhat typical American teenager, complete with cell phone, MacBook, internet porn, and trips to the Mall.
The first two parts of this book are both interesting and entertaining—life in Zimbabwe and life in Michigan—but it is the final chapters which give the novel it’s power and make the reader really think. The ultimate question raised by We Need New Names is one of recognition: Is Darling an African girl who now lives in America or is Darling now an American girl who has lost her closeness with her African roots?
I didn’t check the timeline of this novel but, much like Forrest Gump, several iconic events from history occur in the background as Darling is growing up. The one theme that really struck me was that Darling and so many others like her were what are referred to as illegal aliens: she entered the country under a student visa which quickly expired. No wonder she lost contact with Zimbabwe: being undocumented she could never return to the United States if she was to make a visit back home: the authorities would never allow her back into the country.
And you thought illegal alien was synonymous with Mexicans. We Need New Names makes it clear that illegal aliens come from all countries … and they are not illegal … they are people.
Of interest, Bulawayo is also the second largest city in Zimbabwe. You can find out more about this author and her writing by visiting her website, NoVioletBulawayo.