“Then we are rushing then we are running then we are running and laughing and laughing and laughing.” (back cover of We Need New Names) The truth comes from the mouths of babes is what kept coming to mind as I was reading this captivating story. We Need New Names struck me at first with much sadness, shock, and horror, but most of all it sparked my interest to learn more about the history of Zimbabwe. The main character Darling narrates the hardship of her life in Zimbabwe with the language of a child. Everything we learn in the first 60 pages of the book is recounted simply and directly. It almost makes things feel even stronger and terrible coming from her in such an innocent way. There are moments when the tension is so potent that I found myself squirming in my seat dreading what was coming next.
Zimbabwe is an African country with a very complex history that frankly I don’t know much about besides the few things I remember hearing on the news – food shortages, Mugabe, seizing of white owned land, etc. All of these events start around the year 2000 like the story We Need New Names. In the first half of the story, Bulawayo tells us the history and strife of life in Zimbabwe, while simultaneously giving us the background we need to know to understand Darling’s homeland and life. Surprisingly, this story is more than just the terrible plight of growing up in an African country. It is also a story of immigration and the difficulties that go along with it. Most people think it’s easy to immigrate, especially when the person’s home country is strewn with violence, poverty, economic and political instability. It’s just not that clear.
Amongst all the savagery we read about, there is the simple fun life of being a child that stayed with me. Darling, Chipo, Bastard, Godknows, Sbho, and Stina were making memories. Memories that could be rekindled by simply smelling a guava. Memories. I think we can all relate to that, even if we haven’t left our home country indefinitely. The memories of what we did, what we ate, what and who we love travels with us, always there in the back of our minds. The first part of We Need New Names is just that. It’s the memories of Darling, family, friends, life in the village and the history of her homeland, Zimbabwe.
The second half of the book explores life in the United States. The country which is perceived to be a saviour of some sort. Or, is it? Darling constantly talks about her Aunt Fostalina coming to take her back to live in America. One day it finally happens and then we get the analysis of how that goes. Bulawayo makes an obvious critique of American lifestyle and the American perception of Africa being nothing more than that place where there are starving children, civil war, and economic instability – nothing more than a stereotype and certainly no distinction from one country to another, while still narrating through Darling. We as the reader learn more about the hardship and heavy responsibility to provide for family in America as well as family back home in Zimbabwe. The separation is heartbreaking. It’s like being in some sort of purgatory. Darling has escaped life in Zimbabwe yet she isn’t able to live wholly in America. The longing to see her mother and her country again is interminable, but Darling can’t go home because she wouldn’t be able to return to America, like many other immigrants.
We Need New Names could be a strong contender for the Man Book Prize this year but I’m not sure it will win. I really can’t judge since I haven’t read the others on the shortlist yet. I’m also looking forward to reading The Lowland, The Luminaries, and A Tale for a Time Being. However, there are a few problems with We Need New Names, in my opinion. Firstly, the second half of the novel seems a bit rushed compared to the first half. Aunt Fostalina, Uncle Kojo, and Tshaka Zulu are very interesting characters that I would have loved to get to know just a little better. Another problem is that the section on America wasn’t in-depth enough. It seemed to lack the sensitivity and personification of the first half. Some events were skipped over too quickly so I didn’t feel as connected to that part of the story as I did in the beginning. Lastly, after having some time to think about it, I feel as if the construction of the second half of the novel was built on vignettes, which Bulawayo employs to convey some of the important and minor themes. Nevertheless, We Need New Names is a book that you should take a look at. It’s well worth the 4 stars I gave it on Goodreads. Noviolet Bulawayo is definitely an author we will be reading a lot more from in the future. It’s also refreshing to read an author from Zimbabwe!