We Need New Names
NoViolet Bulawayo took the literary world by storm with this stunning debut novel, telling the tale of a fascinating journey of self-development across continents. As a Zimbabwean now living in America, Bulawayo has at least a little in common with Darling, her narrator.
We Need New Names is a story of exploration and regret. A gripping and at times harrowing story of young people coming to terms with difficult circumstances both at home and abroad. First, in a Zimbabwe that could offer so much more. A land of beauty and natural resources, but one bereft of opportunities and justice. A nation still struggling to overcome historical oppression as well as present day hardships. In the second half we learn of the problems of moving to America, and what you lose when you leave your own country behind. How it feels to be overwhelmed by a political superpower that dominates world events but doesn’t really offer much to dream-chasing students, beyond, initially, a diet of junk food and sugary carbonated drinks and the chance to engage in cheap labour.
And so, Bulawayo first presents us with life in a Zimbabwean ghetto. Of what things must really be like for a struggling, youthful generation trying to break out and make sense of the world. The youngsters are, or will become, disadvantaged, disenfranchised, disillusioned people, and they have had nothing to do with the plight in which they find themselves.
The story has a lighter side. Bulawayo’s novel is funny, frequently in a teasing, reflective sense, though a rueful and sardonic mood is never far away. Much of the humour is discomforting and critical as well as amusing, targeting both native Zimbabweans and outsiders alike. In an early scene, Bulawayo tackles the dark arts to great comic effect, with references to witchcraft and weirdness. We come across Vodloza, who describes himself as the “Best healer in all of this paradise and beyond”. Vodloza claims to be able to rid people of curses, bad luck, and many other psychological and physical afflictions. These include ‘bad dreams’, ‘dead people terrorising you’, and perhaps most useful on a practical basis and for later in the story ‘bad luck getting visas, especially to USA and Britain’.
There are also extraordinary juvenile references to the Chinese and to a fat Chinaman. The youngsters use the term ‘Ching-chonging’ (talking in the style of a Chinese person) several times. How does Bulawayo get away with this ?! Perhaps because beneath this apparent comical interlude, there is a barely disguised reference to the economic and geo-political presence of the Chinese in Zimbabwe and in other African countries. This is commonly viewed as a regrettable necessity.
More seriously, there is a scathing critique of typically well-meaning but widely resented charity organisations. NGO volunteers arrive in town to give out clothes, toys (in particular toy guns), and then take photographs of happy, grateful, smiling African children, thinking that they have both helped and captured a little bit of Africa.
So, names. Where is the title leading us ? Along with some names that sound fairly ‘normal’ – Chipo, Stina, Makhosi, Fostalina, there are also names that might seem comical were it not that they are one of the few things that the characters own. These names are not entirely satisfactory or highly valued : Bastard, Godknows, Bornfree. It is tempting, but probably misguided, to think that Bornfree brings a touch of homage to Joy Adamson’s book and film on life with the lions. Matriarchal figures include Mother of Bones and Mother Love.
On the religious front, we have a preacher named “Prophet Revelations Bitchington Mborro”. A delightfully irreverent name. More virtuous character names include Dignity and Forgiveness. We also hear of Evangelists, Sweet Glory and The Holy Chariot Church People. So much religion in what appears to be an almost godless situation in the ghetto.
We also come across some intriguing and amusing names for places, including Budapest, Paradise and Heavenway. In the American half of the book, Darling lives in ‘Destroyed Michygen’ (Detroit Michigan).
But why do they need new names ? Do the characters feel they don’t have
‘proper’ names ? Are they just bored with their names ? Perhaps disappointed with names that represent something outside of themselves - an animal, a concept, an adjective, but rarely something intrinsic to their essential being / soul / personal characteristics ? Essential to identity as names are, do their names not represent true Zimbabwean identity ? And in the end, do more appropriate names even exist ?
As an aside, NoViolet Bulawayo’s real name is Elizabeth Zandile Tshele.
Many of the events in the story are unpleasant, plain nasty in some cases. There are frequent references to defecation and kaka. Peeing in the bushes, eating guavas and feeling pain when the seeds pass out at the other end. Stealing guavas in a Zimbabwean township seems to be a bit like scrumping for apples in rural England, but less charming.
The author picking guavas in her homeland.
The eponymous chapter is not really about names at all, but describes instead the play-acting of a mock abortion for Chipo, with characters named ‘Dr. Cutter’ and ‘Dr. Bullet’ and an old coat hanger for a prop. Mock, yes, humorous perhaps, but also really quite disturbing.
Going beyond play-acting, a band of militia storm a white couple’s house, leaving their calling card smeared on the mirror in the bathroom and blaming the
“evil white people who came to steal our land and make us paupers in our own country”. Great bitterness is represented here, of course, and this sets out quite a burden for both the author and readers to carry. Also on a grave note, the spectre of Aids materialises as Darling’s father returns from South Africa to waste away back home.
The youngsters play some fun but politically charged games in the story. The most notable of these is ‘Country Game’. A naïve, simplistic game for the players, perhaps, but an incisive political commentary by the author. In choosing a country “everybody wants to be the USA and Britain and Canada and France and Italy….” and in contrast :”Nobody wants to be the rags of countries like Congo, like Somalia, like Iraq, like Syria…not even this one we live in [Zimbabwe]”. And : “who wants to be a terrible place of hunger and things falling apart ?” A reference here to Chinua Achebe’s great work, perhaps, as well as a comment on contemporary society, injustice and hard luck. There is another game called ‘Find Bin Laden’ and another chapter entitled “Black Power”, though no discourse on these subjects in any great detail.
The second half of the story covers Darling’s experiences as an émigré in America. As a reader, losing the Zimbabwean setting feels a bit of a disappointment. For Darling, this starts out with the expectancy of a better life; a chance to escape hardship and to seek new opportunities. But the reality is complicated. The early joys of McDonalds, Burger King and KFC diminish quickly, washed down with Dr. Peppers. Work is scarce. Trusting in God for money is a challenge. Western Union is always on the horizon, with money to be sent back home. When Darling questions her new life, she is chided by her Aunt Fostalina with this : “You know how many young women actually want to come into this country to study ? How many of them are just – just dying to be where you are ?”
There are parallels here with Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and the struggles of Ifemelu. But here, even more so, is the sense of being trapped, of finality. Forever promising your family that you will visit but letting them down again year after year, due to visa restrictions, and never going home.
Becoming an outsider
Some of the most poignant comments in the story are expressed by Darling’s friend Chipo, who is still at home in Zimbabwe. Chipo accuses Darling of having abandoned her country, and of being part of the problem rather than a victim. The pain is still real for those at home, for those who stay. Chipo is unable understand what her friend has done, and unable to accept Darling as one of her own any more :
“What are you doing not in your country right now ? Why did you run off to America, Darling Nonkululeko Nkala, huh ? Why did you just leave?”
Darling has no answer.
There is a strong sense that the author is feeling guilty too. Bulawayo is not Darling, of course, but there are some essential similarities in their life stories. The author must be hurting. The book feels at least in part like an act of atonement. One last comment from Chipo :
“If it’s your country, you have to fight for it no matter what, to make it right”.
Bulawayo perhaps feels that she is indeed fighting, from afar. But one strongly suspects that she wishes she had never left her homeland for America.
There is a huge sense of disappointment and futility in life in the Zimbabwe depicted. Equally, there is a sense of the same in the supposedly grander, more exciting land of opportunity far away. The grass is always greener, even in a concrete jungle, or so it seems. Lack of resources is not the problem in America. It just doesn’t feel like home, or where you want to be. Distance, leaving one’s homeland behind, never being able to go home again, is depressing.
You seek new games, new names, but you have so much to lose. You end up with a life that no longer includes a feeling of home. Can the new surroundings ever replace Zimbabwe ? Do new people with new names enrich your life ? Will the new opportunities make you forget the old mixture of patriotism and suffering ?
The effects of colonialism are still a problem, as is the lack of understanding on the part of the rest of the world. This is an accusation and a challenge to the British, especially. The book never quite rams this home, but it is still damning in its critique of Britain’s role in the creation of a hapless, poor, unhappy society. The book also presents a searing self-criticism, for those who leave Zimbabwe behind to live a new life, even when there seems to be little choice.
The story ends back in Zimbabwe, with the killing of Ncuncu, Bornfree’s dog, knocked down by a lorry. A last touch of pathos in a setting where so many are downtrodden. And then there is a final reference to Bin Laden, formerly the most wanted enemy in the west, but a problem that bears no real relevance in the townships.
© Eddie Hewitt, 2015