Google+ Bookslingers Blog: Review: We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

Review: We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

Every year when the Man Booker Prize longlist is announced, I think to myself: "I should read all those book and be an intellectual person that people see on the street and think: 'My goodness! There goes a well-read intellectual person.'"

This has never happened. The reading bit or the stranger admiration.

But, it's that time of year again and so I am here to talk about We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo.

This is a tough book to talk about for many reasons.

Firstly, I don't often read or review Literature with a capital L. Because it is often Depressing with a capital Damn, Bad Stuff Happens To People (Most of Them Jerks).

Secondly, this is not a fun book to read.

We Need New Names is the coming-of-age novel of Darling, who is growing up in Paradise, a shantytown in Zimbabwe. Her life there is divided into before and now. Before, she went to the school because there were teachers and she lived in a house and her father was home and healthy. Then, the entire village was bulldozed - sometimes with the children still inside the houses.

Now, they live in tin shacks and the men are gone to far-off countries to work and her mother is at the border trying to make money. Darling and her friends (Bastard, Chipo, Godknows, Sbho and Stina) roam the streets of rich neighbourhoods to steal guavas.

Bulawayo is a powerful writer. There's a steel and a poetry to her writing that marks her as one of the up-and-coming writers of this generation. We Need New Names is her debut novel based on her Caine award-winning short story "Hitting Budapest." The novel does feel more like a connected collection of shorts instead of one cohesive story.

In fact, there's a lot of whiplash. One moment we are watching the funeral in the makeshift Paradise cemetery and then we're in America in "Destroyedmichygen." And here's where the book faltered for me. Her prose really sang when she wrote about Darling's life in Paradise. But when we get to America, we see Darling and her friends watching violent porn in the basement and the transition severs our connection to the story. Who is Darling now? What are her hopes and dreams and feelings? Within the roaming pack of children, we understand her. But when she is alone and separated from the group and her place, she becomes a ghost.

Trying to put in the book in context though, this review by Helon Habila really resonated:

I was at a Caine prize seminar a few years back and the discussion was on the state of the new fiction coming out of Africa. One of the panelists, in passing, accused the new writers of "performing Africa" for the world. To perform Africa, the distinguished panellist explained, is to inundate one's writing with images and symbols and allusions that evoke, to borrow a phrase from Aristotle, pity and fear, but not in a real tragic sense, more in a CNN, western-media-coverage-of-Africa, poverty-porn sense. We are talking child soldiers, genocide, child prostitution, female genital mutilation, political violence, police brutality, dictatorships, predatory preachers, dead bodies on the roadside. The result, for the reader, isn't always catharsis, as Aristotle suggested, but its direct opposite: a sort of creeping horror that leads to a desensitization to the reality being represented.
And We Need New Names occasionally reads like a checklist of TV Africa: political corruption, inept World Aid, duplicitous clergymen, crushing poverty, orphans, AIDS, incest, child rape,  etc. The children are a little too on the nose with their political observations: "Stina said a country is a Coca-Cola bottle that can smash on the floor and disappoint you."

But no one captures the simple wickedness of children better and this book is cruel and cutting in all the right places. Even weeks after finishing the book, I find myself thinking about the contradictions and ugly truths that Bulawayo exposes.

Will definitely be picking up Bulawayo's next book when it comes out. That and about four fluffy cozy mysteries to read afterwards to maintain equilibrium to prevent the post-reading "I am just going to curl up in a quilt under my bed and numbly contemplate the cruelty of mankind."