We Need New Names, by NoViolet Bulawayo, is much more than a coming of age story. It’s a tale of savage colonialism, of local tyrants and unremitting droughts and rains, of the shattering pain of having to leave because all things are falling apart. It’s the story of one girl’s unique trajectory that shares common roads with all immigrants from all places.
Things fall apart. The novel opens in Africa, in the shantytown of Paradise, Zimbabwe. Complex and original characters inhabit its tiny, mud-colored shacks: Chipo, eleven and pregnant by her grandfather — the event that provokes her muteness; Bastard, a boy whose superficial meanness masks his loss of hope; Mother of Bones, who clings to a suitcase of useless old money. These are the family and friends of Darling, the ten-year-old narrator who takes readers on a guava-stealing adventure to ease her starving belly.
Bulawayo’s novel is peppered with beautiful similes like “Paradise is all tin and stretches out in the sun like a wet sheepskin nailed on the ground to dry.” Each town contains a different world of race and class. Next door to impoverished Paradise is Budapest, a community of better-off whites and blacks with big houses, where “even the air itself is empty.” Next is the industrial town Bulawayo names Shanghai, full of terrible machines run by Chinese industrial colonizers.
Throughout their exploits, Darling and friends attempt to give Chipo a coat-hanger abortion, witness the kidnapping of a white Zimbabwean family by a machete-toting black nationalist gang, and cope with the return of Darling’s long-lost father who has full-blown AIDS. Meanwhile, Darling impatiently awaits the life-saving plane ticket to “Destroyedmichigan,” Detroit, where her Aunt Fostalina lives.
Bulawayo offers a scathing critique of foreigners’ knee-jerk racism. In greeting an NGO team handing out toys and candy, the kids must be polite to three smiling, white Americans. The visitors’ feet have barely touched the ground when they whip out cameras for photos. Each adult resident receives a paltry bag of beans and rice, for which they must appear ever so grateful.
Sometimes Bulawayo’s writing dissolves into stream-of-consciousness interludes of powerful poetic repetition: “Look at them leaving in droves, the children of the land, just look at them leaving in droves. Those with nothing are crossing borders. Those with strength are crossing borders. Those with ambitions are crossing borders.”
Unfulfilled dreams. The book suddenly shifts to the United States. When Darling arrives in Detroit, she sees relatives dealing with forced assimilation in multiple ways. Aunt Fostalina is obsessed with dieting; Uncle Kojo takes long, aimless drives, desperately afraid his soldier son will perish in Afghanistan.
The strength of this section is the author’s connections between all immigrants: “The others spoke languages we did not know, worshipped different gods, ate what we would not dare touch. But like us, they had left their homelands behind.” Bulawayo eloquently captures the paradox of alienation and sympathy that workers from different countries feel in their common goal to learn English, comparing their reluctant tongues to “staggering drunkards.” She writes about the dictatorial INS, maids with scalding irons, and tobacco picking with a hard realism that lends voice to many universal aspects of immigrants’ lives.
As Darling willfully detaches from her past and present, these empathetic insights dim. She ridicules her friend Kristal for speaking Ebonics, insensitive to chronic racism against American Blacks. Protagonists should not be flawless in novels, but author Bulawayo missed an opportunity to distance herself from the youthful Darling and portray Kristal beyond the stereotypes.
Same goes for Kate, the suicidal, anorexic daughter of a wealthy white scumbag for whom Darling cleans house. Darling considers Kate less afflicted than herself because Kate knows nothing about “real” hunger, trivializing a life-threatening eating disorder and mental illness.
Several years later, Darling’s Zimbabwean friend Chipo gets through in a startling Skype call. This after Darling has ignored Chipo’s phone calls for years. Chipo accuses Darling of abandoning her country, family and friends. Although Darling’s life choices are understandable, I found myself agreeing with Chipo. It’s the first and only criticism of Darling’s self-absorption.
The abrupt last scene was troubling. A dog that “chooses” to leave home is eventually killed on the road by a big truck. This may contain great metaphoric potential but it’s a sorrowful and misplaced substitute for Darling’s slow transformation into adulthood.
Bulawayo seems to believe the harsh journey of immigrants is merely from empty plates to empty lives. A dismal conclusion, however extraordinary her descriptive language.
Sarah Scott is a fast food worker, political activist with the Nestora Salgado defense committee, and hard-working writer. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.