Published: June 2013
Publisher: Chatto & Windus
Darling and her friends live in a shanty called Paradise – which of course is no such thing. It isn’t all bad, though. There’s mischief and adventure, games of Find bin Laden, stealing guavas, singing Lady Gaga at the tops of their voices.
They dream of the paradises of America, Dubai, Europe, where Madonna and Barack Obama and David Beckham live. For Darling, that dream will come true. But, like the thousands of people all over the world trying to forge new lives far from home, Darling finds this new paradise brings its own set of challenges – for her and also for those she’s left behind.
Review – ★★ (2 stars)
NoViolet Bulawayo’s short story, “Hitting Budapest” rightly won the Caine Prize in 2011 and this story is actually the first chapter of her novel, We Need New Names. I remember back in 2013, We Need New Names was very popular but I was obsessed with Adichie’s Americanah so I was in no rush to indulge in Bulawayo’s book at the time. Also, some friends who read the book told me that We Need New Names was boring, and now I understand where they were coming from.
We Need New Names is a coming-of-age story about a ten year old Zimbabwean girl named Darling and her life in the shanty town, ironically called Paradise; as well as her life in the USA after she escapes political violence to reside with her aunt Fostalina, in Michigan. Readers are introduced to Darling’s friends who also live in Paradise: Chipo (an eleven year old who is pregnant with her grandfather’s child), Sbho, Stina, Bastard and Godknows. It was quite heartbreaking to read on how Darling and her friends searched for guavas to satisfy their perpetual hunger. On the other hand, it was humorous to witness Darling and her friends argue and quarrel over trivial matters as they embarked on their adventures and games.
But to be honest, after the third chapter I was tired of the shanty life storyline. There seemed to be no plot in this novel and I was struggling to enjoy the story. I started to enjoy We Need New Names more once Darling moved to Michigan (which happens after page 150). But some stuff Darling was getting into after she moved to the U.S was absurd to me, for example, her keen interest in watching pornography with her friends. That part of the book was awkward and probably unnecessary…
Towards the end of the book, I was sick of the plethora of stereotypes NoViolet Bulawayo dumped onto the pages. In Zimbabwe, all the people and the living conditions in the shanty town were heavily stereotyped. The poverty-porn in this book is so blatant it almost seems intentional. I know poverty and the gap between the rich and the poor is terribly wide in Zimbabwe, but the lack of a solid plot in this book made it hard to ignore the excessiveness of the sad living conditions. All the people Darling encountered in Michigan were stereotyped too – especially Mr. Eliot’s (her aunt’s former employer) daughter who just had to be white, rich, spoiled, in an Ivy League school, had an eating disorder (bulimia), was depressed and had a cute dog that donned designer-dog fashions. Why did the people Darling encounter have to be tagged with all the stereotypes associated with their race, sexual orientation, nationality?
We Need New Names has been translated into many languages! Check out the book covers below.
My favorite chapter is entitled, ‘How They Lived,’ where NoViolet Bulawayo speaks generally on the African immigrant experience in the West. It seemed pretty spot-on and I enjoyed the commentary on the struggles Africans face in raising their kids abroad, naming their kids, sending money back to family in Africa, assimilating etc.
I have a feeling this book was nominated for several awards because this is what the West loves – to read a story on African struggles with excessive stereotypes (this is just MY opinion!). Don’t get me wrong, there is a uniqueness to this book, especially in the writing style. I wouldn’t say this was written ‘beautifully’ as everyone claims, but it is surely unique.
I commend NoViolet Bulawayo for using her native language (I’m assuming it’s Shona) in many parts of the book. Words in Shona and native slang are not italicized or defined at the back of the book – readers have to decipher on their own what ‘kaka’, ‘tikoloshe’ and other native Zimbabwean (slang) words mean, and I love that. I also enjoyed how Darling’s english changed from her time in Zimbabwe to her stay in the U.S. Since Darling is the narrator of this story, the diction in the book gradually changes from broken Zimbabwean-English to ‘Standard’ English, as Darling starts to sound more ‘American’ in her speech. It was amusing (even though I was cringing) to read on how Darling would practice her American accent by imitating the pronunciation of words from the television shows she watched. Other than that, this book was a struggle for me to get into and I found myself rolling my eyes a lot! If I wasn’t buddy-reading this with a friend, I would have given up after the first 30 pages.
Other African literature book bloggers loved this book! Mary of Mary Okeke Reads and Osondu of Incessant Scribble enjoyed We Need New Names. Check out their reviews to get more positive perspectives on this novel.
This was not my cup of tea, but it might be yours! Give it a try if you don’t have anything else to read.
★★ (2 stars) – Thumbs down.
Purchase We Need New Names from Amazon