We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo; published 2013 by Reagan Arthur Books
Genre: Literary Fiction
Review in a word: Eye-opening
Opening line: “We are on our way to Budapest: Bastard and Chipo and Godknows and Sbho and Stina and me.”
We Need New Names gives voice to Darling, a Zimbabwean girl growing up in a poor shanty town. Racial tension, disease, and starvation are told through Darling’s naivety and limited understanding. When the story begins, Darling is only ten years old and her eleven-year-old friend, Chipo, is pregnant by her grandfather. Darling’s father has abandoned their family and gone to South Africa; he returns later and dies of AIDS. Darling is mostly raised by her religious grandmother, Mother of Bones, part of a cultish group of “Christians” led by the perverted Prophet Revelations Bitchington Mborro—whose name says it all.
We follow Darling and her friends as they run wild in Paradise and Budapest, stealing guavas and watching as black soldiers raid a white Zimbabwean’s house, taking the man and his wife who knows where. The kids play war games, as that’s all they’ve ever seen.
Darling’s Aunt Fostina lives in Detroit and Darling eventually goes to live with her, where we get a glimpse of the hard immigrant life. Darling deals with Americans who ignorantly think that Africa is one country. In one chapter, Bulawayo completely drops Darling’s first-person narration and discusses the guilt many immigrants feel: their friends and family in their home countries insist that in America everyone has money, and berate them for not sending more money to them. The refugees leave their war-torn country, desperate to make money and send it back home to provide for their families, and immigrate to America on school visas, the only ones they can get, but can’t renew them because, of course, they’re not in school. And then they can never return to their home countries to visit relatives because they won’t be allowed back into the US. Fostina works multiple jobs to buy Mother of Bones and Darling’s mother a new house in Zimbabwe—one that is much nicer than their own in Detroit.
The story reveals Darling’s (and others’) conflict of identity, and so many Americans’ embarrassing ignorance. In one scene, at the wedding of one of Aunt Fostina’s friends, a woman approaches Darling in the bathroom and pelts her with questions about the Congo and other countries in Africa that Darling has never been to, knows nothing about. The woman tears up over the poor orphans in Africa and shares her pride that her daughter is in the Peace Corps and going to Make A Difference there. Of course, the woman has the best of intentions, but is blind to Darling’s own reality. This is an enlightening moment for Darling, as she remembers how photographers from the BBC took pictures of her and her group of friends, and she realizes how those photographers, and everyone who saw those photos, must have viewed her. Not as an individual with a voice, but as a Poor Starving Child in Africa.
Reading this scene was so humbling for me. Let’s just say I’m seriously reconsidering how I feel about “mission trips” and other short-term solutions. They’re really just about us feeling good.
Bulawayo’s writing style is gripping. In one Lord of the Flies-type scene, Darling and her friends in Paradise are reenacting the death of Bornfree, a young man killed in their town. Bastard plays Bornfree and all of the other children attack him. The scene had my heart racing. The BBC photographers asked them, “What kind of game were you just playing?” Bastard answers, “Can’t you see this is for real?” Heartbreaking.
I’m doing a terrible job explaining all of the complexity and texture in this story, so please just do me a favor and read it.
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Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Children of the Jacaranda Tree by Sahar Delijani