“But first we have to fight over the names because everybody wants to be certain countries, like everybody wants to be the U.S.A and Britain and Canada and Australia and Switzerland…nobody wants to be rags of countries like Congo, like Somalia, like Iraq, like Sudan – who wants to be a terrible place of hunger and things falling apart?”
So shares Darling, the ten-year-old protagonist of NoViolet Bulawayo’s gorgeous debut We Need New Names, as she and her friends play “country-game,” where your value and worth is determined by the nation you are assigned. But upon her arrival to the U.S.A from Zimbabwe some years later, Darling comes to realize that the U.S.A of her reality is far from the country of her childhood games and desires.From We Need New Names’ first paragraph we are enveloped in the world of Darling and her crew of friends as they navigate friendship and hunger in the midst of civil turmoil in Zimbabwe beneath the rule of Robert Mugabe. Each member of this collective of comrades holds a name that is chewy and full in the mouth: Bastard, Chipo, Godknows, Sbho, Stina. In fact, each name given in the novel, from neighborhoods where wealthy, predominately white Zimbabweans live (Budapest), to the dialectal name for Michigan’s most populous city when heard by the ears of Darling and her friends (“Destroyedmichygen”), teaches the reader that the names we are born with and the names we are given hold significance and weight beyond a sound in the throat.
This novel forces the reader to pay attention: Bulawayo does not use quotation marks during dialogue. A chapter of the novel switches from the first person singular to first person plural. We learn to check our assumptions, and enter through the door that Darling leaves open. Through Darling’s eyes we witness a Zimbabwe ravaged by an unstable political regime and its aftershocks of political and social unrest, an interrupted education system, and random, yet orchestrated acts of violence from paramilitary men. We experience war, rape, immigration and sexuality anew through Darling – this is the power of her unique, fully-realized voice. But Bulawayo does much more than recount tragic moments: the strength of her lyrical prose is her ability to relay Darling’s story with humor and energy. The reader fully trusts our protagonist and guide as she moves from childhood play steeped in both innocence and tragedy, to navigating burgeoning adulthood and sexuality with her American friends in Detroit. The juxtaposition of these two sets of “play” is a powerful method to highlight the impact of external forces on the coming-of-age experience.
The horror of national turmoil comes with blurred lines: the evil is not African, or European, or Black, or White, but is amorphous and messy and therefore all the more frightening. In one scene, paramilitary men forcibly remove a wealthy White couple from their Budapest home. Darling and her friends, in Budapest to steal guavas, watch hidden from a tree. Through Bulawayo’s storytelling, the reader feels both derision for the couple and their opulent access in the wake of so much poverty, and empathy for them as they watch their home wrenched from their grasp. Darling and friends raid the sacked house for food once the paramilitary take the couple away, and Darling answers the couple’s phone when it rings, initiating a matter-of-fact conversation with the alarmed caller. Tragedy plays out here through Darling’s innocence, through her desire to start the chilling conversation all over again so she can be sure to call the white woman panicking on the line “ma’am.”
While we may not intimately know the history of Zimbabwe, each reader can connect with the experience of displacement and an uprooted identity. Upon Darling’s move to Detroit in the latter half of the novel, we hear the changes in her voice and sense of self as she adopts American slang that her old Zimbabwean friend Chipo greets with scorn during a Skype conversation: “Darling, my dear, you left the house burning and you have the guts to tell me, in that stupid accent that you were not even born with, that doesn’t even suit you, that this is your country?”
But then we also receive humor, so much humor in this novel. In Detroit Darling’s African-ness rears its head at a wedding reception as she strikes a misbehaving child, leaving a stunned and slack-jawed audience. With such moments the reader sees specificity in place of expectations and stereotypes.
Ultimately, the theme of naming that runs throughout We Need New Names encourages the reader to un-name; to see immigration, identity, war, and Africa differently from how we did when we entered the novel. To paraphrase Ms. Balawayo, we need new definitions.