I recently moved to Malawi, so as part of this year’s Cannonball I’m going to include at least ten books by African writers.
We Need New Names received a lot of praise (NPR’s Great Reads of 2013, NYTimes’ Notable Books of the Year, finalist for the 2013 Guardian First Book Award, etc.) and is NoViolet Bulawayo’s semi-autobiographical literary debut.
I wanted to like this book. There were sections that were really beautifully written, wonderful turns of phrases, and some really striking insights. I especially liked the chapter “How They Lived” which describes the immigrant experience in heart-wrenching poetry. I think using a young narrator was interesting–often the narrator’s innocence belied the terrible reality of her surroundings, and it’s noble to try to give a voice to the children struggling in difficult environments.
The story is told in first person by Darling, a young Zimbabwean girl who travels to America in her tween years. The first half of the book describes a childhood in a shantytown in Zimbabwe from the perspective of 10-year old Darling and her band of friends. They navigate the shantytown like children do–concerned mostly with stealing guavas and playing games–and she paints a vivid portrait of the personalities and issues that shape their lives, from the influx of Chinese construction to the desolation of AIDS and poverty. The second half of the book chronicles Darling’s new life in Michigan with her aunt, where she learns that America has its own forms of chaos and difficulties–isolation and homesickness, a cultural preoccupation with looks, economic disadvantages that her family in Zimbabwe could not have predicted, etc.
That said, there were things about this book that I found really distracting and slightly disappointing. It takes a really skilled writer to pull off writing in first-person from a child’s perspective and in this book I think that voice fell flat as often as it succeeded. The overall story, while extremely important, also often felt trite, especially in the second half of the book where she is describing her disenchantment with America. It felt like a checklist, like she wrote one chapter for each affliction of Zimbabwe (AIDS, Chinese investment, poverty, rape, incest, child pregnancy) and America (obesity, porn, economic disadvantages, immigration, how terrible it is that we put our elders in nursing homes). She writes about these topics well, but I kept wishing it was a little more fluid, a little less on-the-nose, a little less thematically ambitious.
Rating: 3/5 stars. This is worth a read, but I’m admittedly half-hearted in this recommendation. I’d recommend it to someone who’s not familiar with themes in African politics and literature already–if you’re already up on your current events and fairly familiar with African issues (ie, if you watch the news regularly), many parts of this book may seem hackneyed. The sections that were the most enjoyable read less like parables and more like poetry–Bulawayo is absolutely strongest when she’s describing and observing rather than commenting on Important Political Topics. Some of her metaphors are breathtaking, particularly in her descriptions of people and places (“It is a big, big laugh, like it will swallow the sky.” I mean, that’s great!) She has a really unique and wonderful command of language, and I’m very curious to see what this author does next.