"We Need New Names": A Book Review
updated 6:23 PM, Sunday 1st of December 2013
A young, new griot has a powerful debut novel “We Need New Names.” Author NoViolet Bulawayo delivers an amazingly authentic and vibrant voice, one that carries readers through the dehumanizing landscape of President Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe to one of America’s own dystopian cityscapes: Detroit. This post-postcolonial novel takes shape in the form of an exilic, coming-of-age narrative in which its protagonist, 10-year-old Darling, moves headlong through a fistula of hunger, satiation and of things falling apart before arriving in America to face the difficulties of assimilation.
The novel’s first half is arguably, the strongest; Bulawayo describes a community displaced by Mugabe’s 2005 Operation Murambatsvina, officially known as Operation Restore Order. Rationalized as a program to improve public health, the forced relocation of thousands of political opponents by paramilitary police resulted in large swathes of Zimbabwe’s black urban poor being resettled in rural areas. Forced to live in shanties, many displaced people suffered demolition of property, political repression and brutality. The novel takes off in the heart of one shantytown known as Paradise. So named because, like the blissful, yet metaphysically enclosed site of Edenic mishap, it is where the displaced continuously hope to leave.
Darling and her larky friends lead a precarious life in Paradise. The youngsters search for guava, scavenge a bordering gated community known as Budapest and try to make sense of a world beyond their control. Unable to enroll in school, the children use their unbridled imagination to cope with continual hunger and disparagement. They play games with monikers like Find bin Laden, Andy-over, and the Country-Game, a ring game where the children divide countries into developed or developing nations and call out players in a kind of foot-race warfare. Such games stand-in for the children’s precocious notions about world affairs and the cultural dominance of the United States and the West, while echoing the tenuousness of national alliances, political ties and life in Paradise.
Bulawayo’s characters, however, move through the uncertainty and marginality of their lives with upmost dignity. The novel teems with living, breathing archetypes that move across the proverbial stage with familiar grace, partially due to Bulawayo’s use of metonymic proper names. Darling’s childhood friends Bastard and Godknows represent two paths of reconciling the traumatic: secular materialism and spiritual idealism. There’s the Prophet Revelations Bitchington Mborro, who thunderously upbraids sinners, performs theatrical exorcisms and dutifully prays for the sick and dying. Resident-bootlegger MotherLove comforts all with bountiful compassion. Darling’s grandmother, Mother of Bones, collects memories of Zimbabwe’s pre-independence period. And human rights activist Bornfree exhorts the community to vote out the Mugabe government before being brutally assassinated. These unforgettable characters comprise a resilient community in the face of violence and the dominant forces of globalism.
Indeed, the novel explores issues of global capitalism, painting a nuanced, yet ubiquitous picture of economies aligned to a system of internationally entwined forces of production. One chapter describes Chinese economic investment in Zimbabwe through the building of shopping malls in exchange for export rights of cheap goods like yams, shoes and consumer electronics into Zimbabwe. After a Chinese construction company provides stale fortune cookies to Darling and her friends, she reads the fortunes: “A new pair of shoes will do you a world of good”; “The nightlife is for you”; “Your future will be happy and productive.” Clearly, the lives of poor, unemployed Zimbabweans, in particular, the displaced and dispossessed, remain conditionally yoked to productive forces of global capitalism. When Darling arrives in the United States, she encounters smothering consumerism, waste and labor alienation, ultimately tied a system of global capitalism.
Interestingly, the Zimbabwean children in the novel seem well-aware of the larger economic system and its impact on their lives; ironically, the Americans appear oblivious to the deleterious effects of globalism. The adolescent Darling, her ex-patriot family and her newfound American friends continually shop, text, watch television and make-do as working-class citizens. With college aspirations, Darling takes on temporary jobs as a maid and retail worker. However, she can’t seem to reconcile her life in America with an evolving sense of obligation to her former Zimbabwean community.
The novel, like its protagonist, remains in a kind of existential limbo. Darling, like the other Zimbabweans, domestic and expats, stands fixed in a political and economic stalemate where cultural habits and customs seem radically inadequate against a tide of unremitting forces. Bulawayo imbues her novel with shimmering detail, discordant and affecting, to erect a penetrating vision of a world at once horrific and mundane. Her characters have yet to fully realize their potential for self-determining autonomy. Darling’s words paint a beautiful yet mournful manner of speech.
“We Need New Names” scores on many fronts: The book was shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize and was included on the American National Book Foundation’s 5-Under-35 list. This novel dances with a singular rhythm and feel. Likeable, yet fallible characters abound. Odors, sounds, tastes and touch appear both gargantuan and trite at the same time: guava, empty beer bottles, exorcisms and the cold, extinguishing hands of a dying AIDS patient. They’re as much signposts as enigmas. Bulawayo gifts us with an arresting novel from which we can only disentangle ourselves through empathy and compassion. I highly recommend that you read this novel.
“We Need New Names” by NoViolet Bulawayo, Reagan Arthur Books, May 2013, 304 pages, $25 dollars.
Renoir Gaither is a library assistant at the University of Minnesota Libraries. He lives in St. Paul.