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Review: We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

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NoViolet Bulawayo. We Need New Names. Little, Brown, 2013. $25.00 US. ISBN 9780316230810. (Thanks to Little, Brown for a review copy of this book.)

NoViolet Bulawayo. We Need New Names. Little, Brown, 2013. $25.00 US. ISBN 9780316230810. Thanks to Little, Brown for a review copy of this book.

NoViolet Bulawayo’s debut novel follows the life of ten-year-old Darling, a Zimbabwean girl coming up as the country is going down. This precocious child, who used to live in what she might term a house-house with parents holding job-jobs, now lives in a tin-wrapped camp called Paradise. Her parents have left for the borders to find work, and so Darling roams free with her gang of young friends: Bastard, Chipo, Godknows, Sbho, and Stina.

Because the schools are closed — the teachers have fled to South Africa seeking employment — Darling and her companions pass the time pilfering guavas from rich neighbourhoods and watching adults make their way in a divided world. Amusing themselves with games like “Find bin Laden” or bouts of play-lovemaking, these children betray an awareness of issues the adults consider serious, yet which Darling and her friends see as simple curiosities.

The genius of the book is in this juxtaposition: a wide range of social, political, and economic problems come to light in We Need New Names — the AIDS epidemic, patronizing NGO behaviour, political violence, and child sexual abuse, to name a few — yet these phenomena come in for matter-of-fact, humorous treatment by Darling and her gang. The way they discuss plans to abort the pregnancy of a pre-teen friend raped by an older family member is a case in point:

Today we’re getting rid of Chipo’s stomach once and for all. One, it makes it hard for us to play, and two, if we let her have the baby, she will just die. We heard the women talking yesterday about Nosizi, that short, light-skinned girl who took over MaDumane’s husband when MaDumane went to Namibia to be a housemaid. Nosizi is dead now, from giving birth. It kills like that. (80)

Darling’s world is one where playing games and dying in childbirth are both serious business. This youthful viewpoint provides both delightful insight into a child’s imagination and a poignant window on contemporary events in Zimbabwe. Considering the subject’s gravity, it was judicious of Bulawayo to enlist an irreverent ten-year-old as her narrator. This allowed her to craft a story that speaks in equal measure to joy and sorrow, richness and poverty, hope and destruction — themes that resonate with her birth country’s current dispensation.

In this regard, We Need New Names is a book that rails against popular representations of Zimbabwe — even if Bulawayo’s acknowledgement of every last African stereotype risks giving them new life. The book strikes back at the purely negative and show that the land north of the Limpopo River is rich with contradictions and full of beauty, just like, for example, “the USA, which is a country-country” (51). Bulawayo gives Zimbabwe depth, undermining those who invoke it as a tired cliché of darkness that’s older than Conrad. The novel’s closing paragraph, in which Darling chases a friend’s dog in a round of “Find bin Laden” only to witness a bread truck run it over, encapsulates this blend of joy and pain, loss and plenty:

There was red on the road. Two gaping furrows where the tires had plowed into the earth. An unsounded yelp drowned in the hollow of a twisted throat. White fur, red streaks in some places, like somebody clumsy had tried to decorate. Big, bared teeth. Crushed meat. Long pink tongue licking the earth. A lone paw raised in a perfect high-five. Bone jutting from the side of the stomach. One eye popped out (I could not see the other). And the delicious, delicious smell of Lobels bread. (292)

But the novel’s duality is not limited to Darling’s life in Zimbabwe. Halfway through the book she is abruptly taken to live in “Destroyedmichygan” with her Aunt Fostalina. Here the narrative takes a new course, centering on the challenges of life as an undocumented African teen in the United States. In this section, too, the book invokes stark contrasts. America is characterized by cold weather, abundance, and isolation: the opposite of Darling’s life in Paradise. Children don’t ask their parents for stories; they Google. They don’t invent games together; they play Xbox. They don’t lift guavas from local trees; they watch Redtube in the basement when their relatives are off doing shiftwork.

This latter part of the book is a mixed bag. On the one hand, it’s replete with tragic scenarios that brilliantly lampoon the objectification faced by African migrants on a daily basis (a woman corners Darling in a washroom and asks: “Are you from Africa too?… Can you say something in your language?… Isn’t that beautiful?… Africa is beautiful… But isn’t it terrible what’s happening in the Congo? Just awful….” (177-178)).

On the other hand, however, the back half of the novel ranges on more mundane territory. A child’s perspective on contemporary life in Zimbabwe is new, and in Bulawayo’s hands the material dazzles. The immigrant experience in America, however, is less innovative as subject matter. That’s not to say it should be neglected, or that the American side of We Need New Names isn’t worth reading. Bulawayo’s voice is fresh; fiction-lovers should take note, regardless of their stake in African affairs. But the dramatic shift in Darling’s circumstances at the novel’s midpoint creates an unsettling rift in the narrative.

In a way, this works because it emulates the abrupt shifts migration entails. Yet it also leaves one longing for cohesion. As it stands, the book isn’t about Darling’s immigrant experiences per se, nor is it about her childhood under ZANU-PF rule. It’s an even split. Granted, it’s one that reflects real life. But life often lacks the unity a cogent novel demands.

Yet regardless of the story’s bifurcation, We Need New Names is a bracing read. Darling is a feisty, funny, freethinking protagonist with sharp insights on Zimbabwe and America, childhood and growing up. The book is equal parts mirth and mishap, and it confirms the 2011 Caine Prize winner as a vigorous new force in literature.

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Style No. 95: Sci-Fi

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The planet of the Balthonians looks much like this piece of Earth-fruit.

The planet of the Balthonians looks much like this piece of Earth-fruit.

The planet Nebtok Blintz 6.1 is located just a short distance from the Zerbon nebula. It has a twin planet (6.2) and both float in a beautiful wraith of Zerbon’s orange gasses. While this was nice to look at as I drove in, visibility was terrible. Luckily I’d just had my wipers repaired, and after clicking them to intermittent I was able to see well enough to land.

I only had a tourist visa, which I’d picked up at the Nebtoki consulate on Pluto (all the Zerbon planets seem to have consulates there, who knows why). The bastards only gave me 30 days, but whatever. I’d have the last laugh as I was going to meet up with the Balthonians and help them smuggle four tonnes of diamonds from the planet’s carbon core. Then we’d roll in our billions and take  peyote and maybe go to Alpha Centauri for burgers. But first there was work to do.

Getting through customs was disgusting. I forgot how drippy the Nebtokis are, and to make matters worse the agent at my wicket had left his mucus cup at home. Ew. Maybe this helped me in the end though, because I was able to pass myself off as a tourist without being selected for reversible brain dissection. A more attentive agent might’ve seen I had things to hide.

I returned to my pod and headed for the rendez-vous point I’d set up with my contact among the Balthonians, Chad. “So you’re here, finally,” he said. As though it was my fault the whole road was socked in with orange gas and I couldn’t go more than 100,000. My foot wasn’t even on the pedal, I swear.

“Just give me the diamonds, cowboy,” I said. This is what people call Balthonians because they look like cows.

“And if I say no?” he said, smiling like a crazed fool. What the hell was he playing at? Jesus, I just crossed the galaxy for this guy.

“Hey, what’s the deal man? You’re the one who called me, unless you forgot.”

“Oh I didn’t forget. It’s her who isn’t so sure.”

“Her? The grandmother?”

“One and the same.”

“My god. I thought that was just a legend. You know, scare the Bogzarfs and all that. ‘Ooh, don’t mess with us or the grandmother will get you.'”

“Might scare you too.”

“Well I’m not nervous. If anyone should be nervous it’s her.”

“Oh she is, she always is. That’s her M.O.” He turned his head and yelled back into the darkness of the cave he’d come out of. “Grandmother! Our fence is here. Come size him up.”

Of course I’d lied to him, I was nervous as hell. The grandmother? She was feared from here to the goddamn vanguard of the universe.

After a minute she waddled out of the cave, and to my surprise she just looked like an other Balthonian woman. The only exception is that she had a cloaking device wrapped around her head like a shawl. “What do you want,” she asked.

“What is this?” I said. “You guys fucking called me, ok? You. Called. Me.”

“Alright alright, keep your hat on,” she said, looking me up and down like I was a slave she was inspecting for Krebian digi-lice.

“I’m not wearing any lice, if that’s what you’re worried about,” I said. “Trust me, no one is listening in.”

“Yeah haven’t I heard that a million times,” she said, continuing to size me up.

“What about you, eh? What you got under that cloak?”

At this Chad turned purple. I thought his eyes were going to pop out of his damn head. “No one dares mention the cloak!” he roared.

“It’s fine, Chad, it’s fine. If he wants to see, let him see.”

Finally we’re getting somewhere, I thought. A little cooperation. I was chewed up with curiosity by that point, wonder just what the hell this famous old lady kept on her precious little head, so even though it was just a second before she unveiled, it felt like an eon.

In the end I wish it had been. For when she pulled the cloak off her head I was greeted not by typical Balthonian fur, but something wholly different. A strange little man growing straight out of her skull. “Good god,” I said. “What the fuck is that.” At this the little man turned his head — not at me, but the other way — and a knowing smile pinched across his face. And that’s when I felt it, the heat. The raging unbearable heat. “No,” I said. “It can’t be true.”

His little voice croaked out then like a toad jumping from its wee dank toad hole. “Oh but I’m afraid it is.”

Every second that passed made it harder for me to speak, as I was cooking from the inside out. “Not…not…a mind boiler?”

“Haha! Merry Christmas Earth douchebag!” he cackled. With that I collapsed under the force of the burning, flopping like a fish on rocks. I tried to ask why, but my tongue swelled and choked me out.

There was no explanation, no reason, no hope. I’d met my end among this band of diamond nabbers. GoddamnI thought. Should’ve known better than to trust a cowboy. Should’ve known… And like that I was gone.

 

Style No. 55: Reactionary

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It’s these damn kids, I’m telling you. I don’t know if it’s because their hippie parents smoked too much hash at their Marxist sit-ins when they were young, but now their wretched spawn are running around causing havoc like chickens with their heads cut off. Just today I spotted one of them blowing a whistle right in the street. Wasn’t like that in my day, let me tell you. I nearly blew a vein in my forehead when I saw that. Never mind my ears nearly falling off.

I’d say the government should do something about it, but we all know what those namby-pambies are worth. The state of society today!

I suppose I should take comfort in the fact that around the same time I happened upon a serious and respectable woman who still had the decency to hide her private business beneath a shawl on her head. Not like these young rouges roving as though they were wild beasts in heat, blowing their whistles and wantonly eyeing distant crowds. The atrocity!

And their public displays of affection — ghastly. I forgot to mention that. Yes, the whistling miscreant had a companion who was openly holding him with his arm, as though he took the street for the interior of a private residence.

You can imagine how scandalized I was, observing all of this from behind. I resolved then and there to report those rascals to the district officer posthaste. Then, not being able to withstand it any longer, and with resolve matched only by my disgust, I looked the other way.

It's those scurrilous communists, I tell you. Building their little red monuments everywhere. Dissipating the youth! Kerala, 2011.

It’s those scurrilous communists, I tell you. Building their little red monuments everywhere. Dissipating the youth! Kerala, 2011.

Style No. 44: Philosophical

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How does the epistemology of colour differ from the ontology of orangeness? The boy wondered as he conducted a phenomenological inquiry of sound’s relation to being via the medium of a whistle. His friend — or his companion, for in a lifeworld of discrete consciousnesses the relations of beings, even in the face of repeated friendly displays, remain notably ambiguous considering the chasm of lonesome individuation separating one from all — gazed at the crowd in the distance, examining it for indications concerning the verities of sociological being-in-the-world.

Meanwhile, an example of the paradox of temporality — a woman whose appearance was old and yet whose previous existence couldn’t strictly be proven due to the fictive nature of time’s linear passage — walked by with a curious object hidden atop her head.

At the same time, behind them (to speak relatively, for there absolute notion of behindness is a conspicuous falsity) a man — we won’t call him strange, for following Camus we can consider strangeness a hallmark of being and thus a vacuous vocable — looked the other way with a certain epistemological certitude.

Conventionally this inside one of the gates of Lille, France. But in ultimate philosophical terms, it's just a photograph.

Conventionally this is inside one of the gates of Lille, France. But in ultimate philosophical terms, it’s just a photo.