Hayley Scrivenor reviews We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo
We Need New Names
By NoViolet Bulawayo
Reviewed by HAYLEY SCRIVENOR
We Need New Names is a work of literary fiction about hunger of all kinds. Zimbabwean author NoViolet Bulawayo’s novel begins in Budapest. Darling, an eleven-year-old girl, runs with her friends through a community of gated houses (named for the Hungarian capital) in an unnamed country in Africa. Darling and her friends have come to these gates and the large, clean houses they conceal to steal guavas.
In Paradise (the incongruously named shanty town in Zimbabwe where Darling lives), she and her friends Stina, Godknows, Chipo, Bastard and Sbho play games like Find bin Laden, Andy-over and the country-game. Success in the country-game is dependent on what country you are assigned before the game has begun. The friends vie to be the USA or the UK. No one wants to be countries like North Korea and Ethiopia. No one wants to be the country that they all live in either: ‘who wants to be a terrible place of hunger and things falling apart? (49). The bulging belly of Darling’s friend, the eleven-year-old Chipo is a constant reminder of the threat of violence, sexual and otherwise, in Paradise—we are told in passing that ‘somebody made her pregnant’ (2). A scene where Darling, Chipo and a girl named Forgiveness ceremoniously prepare to ‘remove Chipo’s stomach’ is understated. The children imagine they are playing out a scene from ER. Forgiveness bends a rusty coathanger out of shape. This ‘play’ abortion (which is cut short) is a reflection of the realities that the girls have heard or know about, but do not really understand.
Darling’s descriptions are startling and often, quite funny. She describes economic collapse, poverty and political unrest with child-like concern for detail: the impossibly appetizing smell of baking bread, a grandmother who counts her money ‘like somebody told her it lays eggs overnight’ (22), the ‘o’ formed by the lips of a dead woman like she was ‘maybe interrupted in the middle of saying something’ (17). Most pressing is the constant hunger the children feel:
We shout and we shout and we shout; We want to eat the thing she was eating, we want to hear our voices soar, we want our hunger to go away (10).
Darling has been dreaming of ‘Destroyedmichygen’ for a long time. The promise that her aunt (who lives in Detroit, Michigan) will send for her sets her apart from her friends. The process of getting to America is deftly described as ‘harder than crawling through the anus of a needle’ (240). And yet, Darling’s journey from Paradise to the USA is not is the focus of the book. Indeed, the physical journey from her home country, away from hunger and guavas to American excess and a new kind of poverty is barely touched on. Instead Darling (already in America for a period when the book takes up her story again) invites us to ‘come here where I am standing and look outside the window’ (147) as she turns her frank gaze on her new life in America. Darling’s migration is, at first, perfectly legal. She attends high school, works part time jobs. When her visa expires she joins the ranks of undocumented workers, at one stage working as a housecleaner for someone her Aunt knows. In America, the memory of a faded orange Cornell t-shirt worn by Bastard, Darling’s playmate in Paradise, is thrown into sharp relief by the beautiful daughter of Darling’s employer who attends Cornell, but refuses to eat:
I just kill myself with laughter. Because, Miss I Want to Be Sexy, there is this: You have a fridge bloated with food so no matter how much you starve yourself, you’ll never know real, true hunger. (268)
And yet Darling own hunger doesn’t end when she leaves Paradise and arrives in Detroit. It’s only exchanged for a new hunger, shared by outsiders everywhere. Darling’s unease and dissatisfaction are sharpened by thoughts of her home, the friends she has left behind.
While most of the story belongs to Darling and her distinctive impressions, there are a few significant point of view changes. The passage below employs the third person, adding depth to Darling’s story of leaving her home country:
Moving, running, emigrating, going, deserting, walking, quitting, flying, fleeing—to all over, to countries near and far, to countries unheard of, to countries whose names they cannot pronounce. They are leaving in droves (p, 145).
One of the most interesting chapters in the book is ‘How They Lived’, a chapter told entirely from a collective point of view using the first person plural. Instead of Darling and her friends, this ‘we’ seems to consist of a range of people who have left their countries to come to the USA:
Because we were not in our own country, we could not use our own languages, and so when we spoke our voices came out bruised. When we talked our tongues thrashed madly in our mouths, staggered like drunken men. Because we were not using our languages we said things we did not mean; what we really wanted to say remained folded inside, trapped. In America we did not always have the words. It was only when we were by ourselves that we spoke in our real voices. When we were alone we summoned the horses of our languages and mounted their backs and galloped past skyscrapers. Always, we were reluctant to come back down. (240)
Although the first person plural could be accused of wearing away the individual edges from the narrative, these sections told using ‘we’ broaden the book, make it about more than one girl’s journey. As Darling bemoans in the novel, Africa is often thought of by the people she meets as one place, with one story. This book joins others like Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah and Taiye Selesi’s Ghana Must Go that are complicating those assumptions while exploring the experiences of characters who leave their homes to travel to a new reality.
Viktor Shklovsky said of Tolstoy that the writer ‘describe[d] an object as if he were seeing it for the first time, an event as if it were happening for the first time’. The small details recorded and defamiliarised by Darling are the real strength of this book: a slice of pizza described by someone who has never encountered one—slices of pepperoni ‘the color of burn wounds’ (6)—and a calendar Jesus who ‘has women’s hair and is smiling shyly, his head tilted a bit to the side; you can tell he really wanted to look nice in the picture’ (23). There’s also a friend from Darling’s high school who’s ‘got this chest like she’s going to breastfeed the whole of America’ (220). When Darling misses her country, she describes a sky ‘so blue you can spray Clorox on it and wipe it with a paper towel and it wouldn’t even come off.’ (151). More than these details, it’s Darling’s even gaze, her frankness that stays with the reader. We Need New Names is a visceral, embodied book where hunger is more than a motif. It’s a book where hunger—for food, for love, for home—and the experience of being alive are inextricably intertwined. As people continue to move across the globe, playing their own version of the country-game, carving out new homes in places often hostile to them, We Need New Names is a book that helps us see these migrations on a human scale.
HAYLEY SCRIVENOR is a writer and PhD candidate at the University of Wollongong, Australia where she also lectures in creative writing. Her research areas include the first person plural and empathy. She is the director of Wollongong Writers Festival, held annually in November www.wollongongwritersfestival.com. You can find more of her writing at her website: www.hayleyscrivenor.com.