Cbr14bingo Adapt/bingo – the story is about Darling adapting to life in Michigan after growing up in a Zimbabwean shanty
We Need New Names is what I would call a fictional memoir based on the author’s childhood experience of moving from Zimbabwe to the United States. Darling, a teen living in Michigan with her aunt’s family, remembers growing up in a shantytown called Paradise with her friends, dreaming of moving to the United States, and then experiencing the reality of life here. This is a sobering account of the modern immigrant experience.
The childhood that Darling recalls is in the early 2000s, which we know because one of the games she and her friends play is called “Find Bin Laden.” Darling is about 10 years old, and she and her friends no longer attend school. We know that they used to, that they and their families once had nice houses, jobs, clothes, food, and all the trappings of a normal life. Independence from colonial powers had brought a period of stability that was shattered when anti-government forces razed their community, forcing inhabitants into squalor and leading many young people to flee Zimbabwe for opportunity in the west. Darling’s father left for work in South African only to return years later dying from AIDS. Darling and her friends spend their days roaming the nicer, white neighborhoods stealing guavas from the trees and making up games to keep busy and take their minds off their hunger. They all dream of becoming rich away from Paradise and imagine a life of ease and comfort in the West.
Darling is the first of her friends to actually get to move away. She moves to what she initially calls “Destroyed” Michigan before moving again to Kalamazoo with Aunt Fostalina and her family. Fostalina works several low-paying jobs including at a nursing home and cleaning houses, and while Darling does experience some of the benefits of life in the US (enough food, clothing, TV, etc), things are not exactly as she imagined, and she finds that impossible to convey to her friends when they speak. The cold weather and snow are unlike anything Darling has ever experienced, but other adjustments are harder. At school, she is constantly teased.
“… in the end I just felt wrong in my skin, in my body, in my clothes, in my language, in my head, everything.”
She works hard to sound like other kids sound, to pick up the right accent, but she also finds herself feeling homesick and wanting to return for a visit. The problem is that if she goes back home, given that her visa has expired, Darling will not be able to return to the US — a common problem for other immigrants, including Fostalina and her husband. Darling’s conversations with her old friends become more difficult, especially as some of them move away as well. A conversation with her friend Chipo is particularly upsetting, as Chipo essentially tells Darling that she has no right to talk about suffering any more or to refer to Zimbabwe as “her country” since she moved away from it.
Darling goes to school and is a good student. She works a few jobs at the grocery and cleaning houses. She is the “hard working immigrant” who has dreams but in the end she sees that like so many others who have come from abroad those dreams must be packed away. She will work hard, save money to send home, help other young people leave as those before her have done. The experience of leaving home and essentially being unable to return has a bifurcating effect on those who have done it; one is cut off from one’s ancestors, friends, history in the hopes of finding some opportunity, but it is seemingly impossible to achieve the “American Dream”. There is no “happy ending” to this story; it is simply a realistic depiction of what “dreamers” who risk everything to move here can expect for their efforts.