Tuesday, June 25, 2013

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

Darling, 10 years old at the start of NoViolet Bulawayo's debut novel We Need New Names, is a unique and unsentimental narrator. I really enjoyed hearing her voice performed by Robin Miles in the audiobook format [Hachette Audio: 9 hrs].

The first part of the book is set in the turbulent times following the independence of Zimbabwe. Darling's family has been displaced and lives in a shantytown called Paradise. She and other children go on guava raids to a richer nearby community, Budapest, in order to assuage their constant hunger.

I'm fond of novels for adults that have child narrators, especially when they are done as well as this one. I can imagine the heat when Darling describes it: "the sun ironed us and ironed us and ironed us." She is asked to hold a baby with a surprised look on its face, as if he had "just seen the buttocks of a snake."

Later, Darling goes to live with her aunt in Detroit. Her ferocity increases in the second half of the book as Darling recounts her teen years. I've never before encountered the words "we smiled" written to contain so much anger. Darling, like other immigrants, struggles to find an identity that fits, and to feel at home. She describes that uncomfortable place of being between two worlds. She is no longer considered Zimbabwean by those she left behind, but she isn't American either. Darling wonders what America is for, if you can't fulfill your dreams there.

We Need New Names is expanded from Bulawayo's short story, 'Hitting Budapest,' that won the Caine Prize for African writing. The episodic style of the novel lends itself well to being read a little at a time, in chapter installments. I was so attracted to Darling's voice, however, that I gulped it down quickly.

Readalike: Ghana Must Go (Taiye Selasi). Contrast We Need New Names with Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight (Alexandra Fuller), which gives a Caucasian child's point of view of Zimbabwe.

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