The Long and Short of It: We Need New Names

BOOK: We Need New Names
FORMAT: Hardback (borrowed from Library)

While voices in the diaspora are becoming more and more recognisable to the average reader, I would hazard a guess that only the smallest few are familiar with the vast bodies of African literature available in English at the present moment.  Books such as We Need New Names take an important step in bridging cultural differences between European/ Western societies and developing African nations because more than anything else, they highlight the similarities.  This is what struck me most about this remarkable book. 

Darling and her friends are normal children.  They play games of make believe like the country game, where everyone wants to be a ‘good ‘ country like the USA or Australia or Britain, but no one wants to be somewhere like the Congo.  They play ‘Find bin Laden’.  And they hunt for guavas because they are hungry.  But this is not childish hunger- this is starvation.  Darling, Bastard, Chip, Sbho, Stina and Chipo hunt for guavas in a place called Budapest, which is where all the rich people live.  They gorge themselves on these guavas even though they know that this will make them constipated and that the seeds might rip their anuses when they defecate, because it is better than starving.  The worst a child might see when out exploring in Australia is tame compared to the things Darling and her friends see; a white man and woman taken from their homes by a mob advocating ‘Blak Power’; a neighbour shot; a dog kicked over a fence; a woman hanging dead from a tree because she has contracted The Sickness- AIDS.  Each time something like this happens, as I reader I found myself thinking that no, this was a feint that would be reversed at the last moment.  After all these are only children.  But only once does that happen.

In the scene from which the book has taken its name, Sbho and Darling and a new girl in the village perform an operation to get rid of Chipo’s pregnant stomach because it is in the way of their playing.  They adopt new names and become characters from ER.  Thankfully, at the last moment a village woman named MotherLove discovers them, and stops the backyard abortion before the new girl can insert the mangled coat hanger inside of Chipo. 

Darling talks of going to America and her dreams are only limited by her imagination.  She tells her friends she will have a Lamboghini car, that she will go to Cornell, that she will live in a big house like the ones in Budapest when her Aunt Fostalina comes for her.  But America is not the country where dreams come true.  As a Zimbabwean and as an African living in America, Darling encounters hardships.  No one understands her even when she is speaking English.  She has to pay her way through college working in a supermarket where her job is to sort cans for recycling.  She cleans the home of a rich man whose daughter is an anorexic.  Darling finds the idea that a white girl choosing not to eat could ever truly know starvation laughable.  She feels it all the time, that she is not an American.
But neither is she a Zimbabwean anymore.  In a powerful Skype conversation with the grown up Chipo, Darling is admonished for her sympathy for her country’s plight because she chose to leave.  Chipo uses the analogy of the burning house- do you leave, or do you get water and try to save it?  Darling is left with a sense of loss and does not know where she belongs. 

We Need New Names is a powerful and subtle tale of identity and coming of age, and it is a mighty shame that this book did not win the Man Booker Prize.  I see NoViolet Bulawayo’s writing as on a par with the great Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s.  I heartily enjoyed this book and gave it five stars.