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Monday, May 12, 2014

Review of We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

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I read a lot of books. It’s the reason I have three bookshelves in my house and I am having another one made. It’s also why I started a book club and why I love reviewing books. Generally, I try to focus on good books and books that I like. And if I happen to read a bad book, why waste time writing about it? Why not write about nice things instead? For this reason I think I am quite generous with my book reviews. Until now… I both loved and hated this book. There were some wonderfully poignant passages that I really related to. Plus, books about childhood are often quite funny. At some point I even threw it against the wall in frustration. I picked it up again and a few chapters later rolled my eyes in exasperation. But there was no way I would allow a mere novel to defeat me so I soldiered on until I finished it, interspersed with many sighs and snorts of derision.

NoViolet Bulawayo is one of the new voices in contemporary African fiction. She is in her early 30s, grew up in Zimbabwe and then went to the US on a scholarship when she was 18 and has lived there ever since. We Need New Names is NoViolet’s debut novel and is about Darling and her friends who grow up in the ironically named shantytown of Paradise somewhere in present day Zimbabwe. The book is set in the run-up to Barack Obama’s historic election to become President of the United States in 2008 and before he ‘killed’ Osama Bin Laden. This is significant because the children spend much of their time in the first half of the book playing a number of current event inspired games, the chief of which is called Find Bin Laden.

The book’s basic plot is given on the back cover: Darling grows up in Zimbabwe dreaming of an escape to America. It finally happens and she makes it to Destroyed Michygen (aka Detroit Michigan), but life in the land of the free is not the heaven she imagined and has its own challenges. This is not a spoiler because We Need New Names is about Darling’s journey and filling in the details of what, how and why it happens.

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The book’s description of life in Zimbabwe is unflinching and has been interpreted by some as anti-Mugabe. I don’t think this is fair because it simply describes what is happening there. There is no need to be dramatic because the reality is not pretty, but at times actually horrific. Unfortunately, the book also reads like a justification for all those who have left to seek better fortunes elsewhere, implying those who stay in Zimbabwe lack ambition or are the less fortunate without relatives abroad to help sponsor an air ticket and visa application. This is also unfair because there are many qualified and competent Zimbabweans who have opted to stick with their country and not abandon it in its time of crisis.

The comical names of characters such as Bastard, GodKnows and BornFree are familiar and hilarious to us as Zambians. Other nationalities might view them as farcical, which of course they are, but they are also very real.

The description of childhood in the book is very adult like, unlike other books about childhood in Africa such as Patchwork by Ellen Banda-Aaku which sounded far more authentic. There is a lot of social commentary such as a passage depicting how even young children can see the similarity between modern Pentecostal churches and witchdoctors, where you must part with something material or financial in order to find the culprit blocking your good fortune and the divination rituals and prayer sessions are almost identical

What I did like about the book was that it showed how even in the midst of poverty, fear and violence people live happy and meaningful lives that make sense to them. The children’s games are a reflection of this. Find Bin Laden shows that Africa is not cut off from what is going on in distant places. Games involving Lady Gaga and David Beckham highlight how far pop culture reaches and that what interests young people in Australia is much the same as what captures the imagination of young people in an African slum. And sadly, the country game in which participants vie to be ‘good’ countries like Britain and Canada, doing everything to avoid being ‘bad’ countries like Zimbabwe and Congo give us an idea that people are often aware of their circumstances – the poor and disadvantaged know that they are poor and disadvantaged and don’t need reminding of it.

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However, my patience wore thin when Darling finally makes it to the US. You know exactly what is going to happen and it is tedious. Unfortunately, life in Destroyed Michygen takes up the last third of the book, which was pretty good up until that part. Perhaps because I am not in the diaspora I found the attempts to get me to sympathise with an ungrateful character annoying. So she gets to the US and cannot connect with her friends anymore so she ignores them completely? Boo hoo! So what? Rather than empathising with her, Darling comes across much like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s main character Ifemelu in her recent book Americanah – spoiled and self indulgent, but for different reasons. In Americanah, I think it was deliberate given Ifemelu’s privileged circumstances and opportunities. In this case, I think the failure is due to the author’s inability to flesh out the characters properly. But to be fair, Americanah is Chimamanda’s fourth book while We Need New Names is NoViolet’s first. Experience shows.

This review was published in the Bulletin and Record March 2014 edition.

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