52 Books by 52 Women: We Need New Names

For a year I’m reading 52 books by women authors whose work I’ve never read before. Click here for previous installments.

We Need New Names is the 2013 debut novel by 32-year-old author NoViolet Bulawayo, born and raised in Zimbabwe and now living in the United States, where she’s a Stegner Fellow at Stanford. It’s told from the point of view of a 10-year-old girl, Darling, in a shantytown in Zimbabwe. The country is never named in the novel—it’s always “our country” and “our language”—but it’s not exactly hidden either, with references to white self-identified “Rhodesians” and the Limpopo River border with South Africa.

NoViolet Bulawayo. Photo by Smeeta Mahanti.

NoViolet Bulawayo. Photo by Smeeta Mahanti.

Not that I know much about Zimbabwe, because lord knows I don’t. That’s one of the disorienting things about reading it, because it’s told through the eyes of a child, and Darling and her friends don’t know anything about the political situation there either. She knows she used to live in a proper house, but then people with bulldozers came and they don’t anymore. The kids don’t go to school because the teachers all moved away. Darling and her friends wander into a slightly more well-off neighborhood to steal guavas and gorge on them, knowing it’ll give them digestive problems almost immediately. They know there are elections and people talking about change, but there are also thugs beating people to death for expressing themselves politically and mobs assembling to drive the few longtime white residents out of their homes.

The kids just see everything around them as normal, accepting whatever comes matter-of-factly. They make up games in which they pretend to be countries or find bin Laden or even reenact the murder of one of their neighbors. When they occasionally reference Paris Hilton or Lady Gaga, it’s disorienting because you never hear about them having any access to television or other electronic devices. American pop culture is sometimes shockingly pervasive.

One of Darling’s fellow 10-year-olds is pregnant and won’t talk about how it happened—she hasn’t talked at all since it happened, in fact—and a scene in which she and her friends decide to get rid of her belly with overheard and misunderstood home remedies is excruciatingly tense as we wonder just how far they’ll go.

The names in the novel are fantastic. Darling’s friends have names like Bastard and Godknows, and the town preacher is named Prophet Revelations Bitchington Mborro, never called anything for short.

Darling talks a lot about how someday she’ll live in America with her aunt Fostalina in Destroyedmichygen, but it’s so far from her day-to-day life that she may as well be talking about going to live on the moon. So it’s a shock when Darling finally does go to Michigan, just like she said she would, and her transformation into a googling, texting teenager is kind of amazing considering that not long ago she was completely mystified by air conditioning. But Darling’s account of living with her exercise-obsessed aunt and her Ghanaian boyfriend proves no less fascinating, as she gravitates toward other immigrants, and she and her friends give themselves a comprehensive A-to-Z education in online porn.

Along the way there are a couple of heartbreaking poetic chapters about the experience of emigration and Fostalina’s experience of assimilation and deculturization, of losing all the traditions of the old country so as not to stand out. In the gorgeously written chapter “How They Lived,” Bulawayo writes:

“And then our own children were born. We held their American birth certificates tight. We did not name our children after our parents, after ourselves; we feared if we did they would not be able to say their own names, that their friends and teachers would not know how to call them. We gave them names that would make them belong in America, names that did not mean anything to us: Aaron, Josh, Dana, Corey, Jack, Kathleen. When our children were born, we did not bury their umbilical cords under the earth to bind them to the land because we had no land to call ours. We did not hold their heads over smoking herbs to make them strong, did not tie fetishes around their waists to protect them from evil spirits, did not brew beer and spill tobacco on the earth to announce their arrivals to the ancestors. “

It’s a rich and rewarding novel and I’m glad I read it, largely because it gave me a curious glimpse at a cultural experience that I know next to nothing about.

Books read in the challenge so far:

Book 1: Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence

Book 2: Octavia E. Butler, Kindred

Book 3: Elissa Wald, The Secret Lives of Married Women

Book 4: Kurahashi Yumiko, The Woman with the Flying Head

Book 5: NoViolet Bulawayo, We Need New Names

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  1. 4 / 15 / 2014 6:18 pm

    I am so glad you read this book! So much of what you talk about was my experience with the book too – the disoriented childish conversations, navigating the complicated teen years with the added layer of absorbing a new country and a new culture. Loving the 52 books project!


    • 4 / 16 / 2014 9:27 am

      Thanks, Valerie! And thanks for recommending it.





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