Reviewer: Catriona Troth
What we thought: We Need New Names is a novel that pulls no punches.
The first part takes place in an unnamed Southern African nation as it undergoes violent disintegration. As in To Kill and Mockingbird, we see all this through the unquestioning eyes of a young child. But Darling and her friends – Bastard, Chipo, Godknows, Sbho and Stina – have no Atticus to protect them and provide them with a moral compass. Their fathers are dead or away working in South Africa and their mothers are working constantly just to survive. Schools have long since closed and they are perpetually hungry.
These are children who have been robbed of a childhood – Lord of the Flies in a war zone. Faced with horror after horror, they translate what they see into the games they play.
Darling dreams of going to live with her aunt in ‘Destroyedmichygan.’ Eventually, as a young teenager, she is sent to live in the USA – ‘the big baboon of the world.’ There she must deal with a whole new set of challenges. Her longing for the taste of guavas that she and her friends used to steal from trees along the roads where the whites lived. The shallow ignorance that lumps the diversity of Africa’s fifty-some countries into one amorphous mass. The sexualisation of childhood. And the loss of language.
Bulawayo describes the process of trying to make yourself understood in a language that is not your own – how you must think what you want to say, then find the words and arrange them in your head and say them to yourself before you speak them out loud. “And when you get to the final step, something strange has happened to you and you speak the way a drunk walks. And because you speak like falling, it’s as if you are an idiot.”
Darling and her family are illegals, unable to leave the US for fear they will never be allowed back. As the years pass, this creates an ever increasing distance between them and the country they have left behind. As her friend Stina had warned her “leaving your country is like dying and when you come back you are like a lost ghost returning to earth.”
Bulawayo repeatedly uses the phrase “things falling apart,” echoing the title of Chenua Achebe’s seminal novel of African dissolution, Things Fall Apart. The fact that she never names Darlings’s country as Zimbabwe is in itself a powerful statement on censorship and the danger of political opposition in that country.
A powerful and often disturbing read, and a wake up call to Western complacency.
You’ll enjoy this is you liked: Half of a Yellow Sun, The Kite Runner
Avoid if you dislike: facing the brutalities of civil war through the eyes of a child.
Ideal Accompaniment: the taste of fresh guavas
Genre: Literary Fiction, Contemporary Fiction from Africa