We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo is a remarkable and poignant debut for the Zimbabwean writer; written entirely without quotation marks, it repeatedly and harshly reminds the reader of the voice of Darling, the 10 year old protagonist, as she views atrocities and complexities of life both in Africa and the USA. An extension of her winning short story ‘Hitting Budapest’, which won the 2011 Caine Prize for African Writing, Bulawayos witty yet cynical prose creates a world which is at once beautiful and terrible, under Mugabe’s regime.
The bittersweet novel begins in a shanty town known as ‘Paradise’ in Zimbabwe. Here, Bulawayo contrasts childish games and stealing of guavas (and consequently stomach problems) with a vivid and harrowing image of life for the children of the slums. They witness (and experience) rape, child pregnancy, dead bodies, AIDS, exploitive preachers… yet the cheeky and fun-loving gang of friends, named Bastard, Godknows, Chipo, Sbho and Stina, persistently act with cheerfulness, childish innocence and a lack of understanding of what they are really experiencing.
It is tempting, I think, for authors who wish to explore such issues, to create very dark, angst ridden books with the aim of stirring emotion. But, for me, the scene that gave me chills, that gave me a deep, cold, heavy feeling in the pit of my stomach, was not the devastating descriptions of a dying AIDS victim, but of the children, desperate to have their old friend Chipo back, trying to work out how to get rid of her pregnant stomach, forced upon her by her grandfather.
The second half of the novel moves to America, where themes of loss of identity, western poverty, racism, cultural clashes and the sexualisation of young girls are explored. Bulawayo successfully shows the contrast and interaction between these two very different worlds, though I feel that the second half of the novel in particular seems rushed – each individual issue in this novel could warrant its own 300 story. By the time Darling has reached America, the passion and vibrancy of the narrative is gone… which was possibly the point.
Nevertheless, I regard We Need New Names as one of the most powerful and well-written books I have read this year, I would happily and passionately fight for it to be taught in schools.