We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

Tuesday, June 3, 2014


We Need New Names
Leaving your country is like dying, and when you come back you are like a ghost returning to earth, roaming around with missing gaze in your eyes.

Darling spends most of her time playing with her friends - they go to richer neighborhoods to steal guavas, they invent a lot of games and play them. Their schools were shut down recently so they don't have to study anymore, but Darling is not happy about it - she desperately wants to go to school and study. They don't have any money though. Their houses are destroyed and the government doesn't care about them. But Darling has a chance to change it all - she could go and stay with her aunt in the United States. She could go there and live the life of her dreams, and visit home occasionally. But it's not as easy as that - she learns belatedly.

We Need New Names is one of those wonderful books written with such an authentic voice that the reader becomes the narrator. We don't have many books like that - at least not many English books set outside the English-speaking countries. We Need New Names not only expresses Darling's Zimbabwean English well, it also chronicles her language improvement over the course of the book. When we begin, she had just had a few years of schooling and her English was rusty, but definitely better than that of all her friends. But later, when she moves to the United States and starts studying there - her English had improved so much that you could mistake her for a native US citizen. I loved this writing and transformation so much, it inspired this post.

Language aside, Darling's character is well-felt throughout the novel. Only ten years old, but she had already seen enough tragedy around her that it doesn't horrify or sadden her terribly. When she and her friends see a dead woman hanging from a tree, they talk about taking her shoes so that they can buy some bread. When Darling's grandmother's church's self-proclaimed priest treats a woman obscenely in order to cure her of something, she is initially uneasy but then shrugs it off and spends the rest of the service just having a conversation with her friend. When Darling's father returns home sick (and diagnosed as having AIDS by her people, since that's the only disease they really knew about), she feels sick of his presence and wishes him dead occasionally. Later, when they happen to be present at a neighborhood where white people (even Zimbabwe-born) were being forcefully evicted from their homes, Darling and her friends wander through the houses just vacated and stare amazed at all the riches around them, not feeling bothered at all by the violence they just saw.

These are kids who grew up seeing violence around them. Even their games are based on violent events. They'd kill each other as part of the game and cheer or cry as if they were bystanders to the actual death. They have not yet known peace and as far as they are concerned, it's not something that they will see in their lifetimes. They feel heavily when they see too much of violence - they just have a huge tolerance level. They are resourceful, but if they are cornered in a threatening situation, they will cry. Yet, they all have dreams - they want to go to America, and South Africa, and Dubai, and other well-off countries and live happy lives. And when they do, this innocence of childhood is what they want to return to. These friends are who they yearn to be with.

We Need New Names addresses a lot of issues that people from war-strewn countries face, but from the eyes of kids. When the adults wax poetic about the secure lives they had led before war, that means nothing to the kids. The adults get wasted. The kids watch that and get wasted too. Once they move to a new place, where freedom is the order of the day, what kind of life will be normal to them? Do they get used to the new life and forget the violence of the past? Or do they eye all the freedom with distaste and suspicion? This book also reminded me again that illegal immigration is not a black or white matter. The people who could get deported are humans who came here for a better life - a life that was denied to them just because of the randomness of birth. Shuttling them away rarely solves anyone's problems.

One big realization I had for the umpteenth time - Like many folks I knew, I have had days  as a kid when I just didn't want to go to school. All that studying, maintaining grades, play time lost, sleepy weekdays, etc. Darling just wanted to go to school. It's terribly disappointing that there are kids in this world who have no school to go to, and kids who can go complaining about it.

I borrowed this books from the good old library.
Armchair reading in Zimbabwe

18 comments:

bermudaonion(Kathy) said...

That sounds gut wrenching and also like the kind of book I love. I will have to look for it.

JoAnn @ Lakeside Musing said...

This definitely sounds like one for my wish list...

Mystica said...

Sounds factual with no frills.

literaryfeline said...

This sounds like an amazing read, Athira. It sounds like it covers quite a few relevant issues. Just reading your review, I already find myself caring about Darling. What a culture shock it must have been coming to the U.S. Thank you for your insightful review. This one is going on my wish list.

Sam_TinyLibrary said...

Love your review of this, and I agree that Darling's character and narration are what make the book special.

Ti Reed said...

What you said there at the end, about school and getting an education really speaks volumes doesn't it? It's such a chore for children these days to go to school. Getting my teen to do anything school work related is like sticking pins in my eye. So rough and not pleasant and then there are kids out there just begging for the same experience.

Anita LeBeau said...

Hi There, this book sounds very good, and thought provoking!! I've been meaning to get over to your blog...sorry it's been too long.

tanya (52 books or bust) said...

I sometimes worry that book narrated by children will be a little too precious, but everything I've heard makes it sound like this one is great. I have to get to it soon, though I suspect people will be talking about it for quite some time.

Shweta said...

It was a hard to read book but I have been recommending it to all those care to listen because books like We Need New Names have to be read. About the complaining part , I agree. I used to think why should I not miss classes once in a while. Reading this really makes one realise how privileged we were/are to have got what so many can't even dream of.

Athira / Aths said...

I hope you enjoy it. It really is an awesome book to read.

Athira / Aths said...

It is a wonderful read! I hope you like it!

Athira / Aths said...

It was just that.

Athira / Aths said...

I hope you really like it! I thought it was very genuine and written very well. Darling is certainly a character to love.

Athira / Aths said...

Thank you!

Athira / Aths said...

My parents used to use that argument every time I tried to ignore school work. They even said a similar thing when I didn't eat my meals on schedule. So I pretty much grew up hearing that. But hearing it isn't the same thing as reading about it or even experiencing it. I thought the author did a great job is showing all that, without dancing that fact in our eyes.

Athira / Aths said...

It's alright! Thank you for stopping by! :-)

Athira / Aths said...

I usually hesitate reading books narrated by children too. Emma Donoghue's ROOM bugged me a lot. This book's narrator is pretty genuine. She's young but she grows and matures as we read. The transformation happens very nicely in front of our eyes.

Athira / Aths said...

Exactly! I guess there's a lot to be said about the adage Absence makes the heart grow fonder. When you don't have something, the value of it increases a lot in your eyes. I'm glad that books like these remind me of that.