We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

68.Noviolet-Bulawayo-We-Need-New-NamesDate Read: June 28th 2015

Published: June 2013

Publisher: Chatto & Windus

Pages: 290

 

 

The Blurb

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

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And the 2015 Caine Prize winner is…

Its that time of year again! In about two weeks, the 2015 Caine Prize winner will be announced!

For those who are not familiar, the Caine Prize for African Writing, which was first awarded in 2000 is an award “open to writers from anywhere in Africa for work published in English. Its focus is on the short story, reflecting the contemporary development of the African story-telling tradition” (source).

Some notable winners of the Caine Prize include:

  • Leila Aboulela, from Sudan (2000)– author of novels Minaret, Lyrics Alley amongst other works. 
  • Binyavanga Wainaina, from Kenya (2002)– founding editor of Kwani?, author of novel, One Day I Will Write About This Place and the essay “How To Write About Africa” found in various literary magazines.
  • Yvonne A. Owuor, from Kenya (2003)– author of the novel, Dust.
  • E.C Osondu, from Nigeria (2009) – author of the novel, Voice of America: stories.
  • NoViolet Bulawayo, from Zimbabwe (2011) – author of the novel, We Need New Names

This year, the Caine Prize shortlist comprises of five talented young writers with unique short stories (left to right):

caine prize for african writing 2015

  • Elnathan John (Nigeria) for “Flying” in Per Contra (Per Contra, International, 2014)
    Shortlisted in 2013 for “Bayan Layi”
    Read “Flying”
  • Masande Ntshanga (South Africa) for “Space” in Twenty in 20 (Times Media, South Africa, 2014)
    Read “Space”
  • Namwali Serpell (Zambia) for “The Sack” in Africa39 (Bloomsbury, London, 2014)
    Shortlisted in 2010 for “Muzungu”
    Read “The Sack”
  • Segun Afolabi (Nigeria) for “The Folded Leaf” in Wasafiri (Wasafiri, London, 2014)
    Caine Prize winner 2005 for “Monday Morning”
    Read “The Folded Leaf”

(The biographies for the shortlisted candidates can be found – here).

To be honest, I was a bit disappointed that this year’s countries shortlist was more of a dichotomy between Nigeria and South Africa. I expected a more diverse pool of stories to enjoy. But hey! Its the stories that matter, right?

I read Namwali Serpell’s story ‘The Sack‘, as it is one of the short stories in the Africa39 anthology that I own. I don’t know how I feel about her story…It’s a little confusing to me! From what I gather, the story is about the protagonist (I don’t know if this is a boy or girl) having nightmares about being killed, while the men he/she lives with use a young black orphan to go fishing and later debate whether the orphan should live with them or not. There also seems to be a feud between the men in the house, as one is elderly and seems to be sick and grumpy. Humph! If anyone has read the story and understands it, please do explain!

My favorite story so far is ‘Flying’ by Elnathan John. ‘Flying’ is how a short story should be: simple yet moving. The story is about Tachio – a JSS3 (9th grade) dorm leader of a refuge home/school, who believes he can fly once he falls asleep. This feeling of flying brings him peace and joy. He shares his joy of flying with his friend Samson, but is deemed mad. Once Tachio tells foul-mouthed Aunty Ketura, who is the founder of Kachiro Refuge Home, she appreciates his belief of flying and assumes Tachio was a bat, vulture or eagle in his past life. Since Tachio is the dorm leader, he frequently cleans Aunty Ketura’s office and later finds the drawer where she keeps all the records of the boys and girls in the home. Finding out that some of his friends were initially found near trash cans, in market places and in toilets, makes Tachio (who was born in a hospital) feel like he has an edge over his classmates who have no idea of their origins. The story ends with the sudden death of Aunty Ketura, which shocks the whole school, especially Tachio. But the strange presence of a big brown chicken with a limp on their school compound gives Tachio solace, as he believes Aunty Ketura has been incarnated into this bird.

Elnathan’s use of metaphors in comparing human appearances to animals gave the story some spice. I mostly appreciated how readers can get the full scope of Tachio’s wavering feelings of being a dorm leader, wanting to be mischievous with his friends, to wanting to please Aunty Ketura, seeking advice and comfort from Aunty Ketura etc. I’m yet to read the last three stories on the shortlist, but ‘Flying’ is the most enjoyable story to me thus far. It’s simple, understandable and moving.

Which story is your favorite? Who do you think will win the Caine Prize this year?

The winner will be announced on the 6th of July at the Weston Library, Oxford, England. Good luck to all the shortlisted candidates!

Minaret by Leila Aboulela

minaretDate Read: July 21st 2014

Published: 2005

Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.

Pages: 288

The Blurb

With her Muslim hijab and down-turned gaze, Najwa is invisible to most eyes, especially to the rich Arab families whose houses she cleans in London. Twenty years earlier, Najwa, then an aristocratic Westernized Sudanese, could have never imagined this new life. She was a student at the University of Khartoum but her focus in life was on fashionable clothes, pop music, and parties. When a political coup forces Najwa’s family into exile in London, she soon finds herself orphaned and completely alone. For the first time in her life, Najwa turns to the solace and companionship among the women at the mosque, and when she adopts the hijab, she begins to see the world anew. Then Najwa meets Tamer, the intense, lonely younger brother of her employer and they find a common bond in her newfound faith and slowly, silently, begin to fall in love. Written with directness, simplicity and force, Minaret is a stunning and insightful novel about one woman’s journey toward spiritual peace.

 Review – ★★★ (3 stars)

I loved Leila Aboulela’s short story ‘Museum‘ which won the first Caine Prize in 2000. I read ‘Museum‘ from the anthology, Opening Spaces – Contemporary African Women’s Writing and I thoroughly enjoyed it, mainly because Aboulela is Sudanese and writes about Khartoum. We rarely read or hear about Sudan in the African literature scene, so Leila Aboulela’s writing excites me!

I preferred reading the beginning of Minaret: Najwa was born into an upper-class Muslim family where her father worked with the president of Sudan, and her mother came from a rich family. Najwa and her twin brother who are very secular compared to other Muslim youth went to the best private schools of Khartoum and the best university in the nation. The family had several luxurious cars, superfluous food,  partied with their rich friends regularly and enjoyed vacations in several countries, including London where they owned a townhouse. Life was great for Najwa’s family.

Since all was well for Najwa and her family, she was very oblivious to the fact that Sudan was a very poor nation with majority of the citizens under the poverty line and with a government- which her father was associated with, that was very corrupt. Things turned upside down for Najwa and her family when Sudan faced a coup d’etat, hence her family- excluding her father, were forced to escape to their townhouse in London. The storyline cuts through 10-15 years later and after a series of unfortunate events, Najwa who was once a rich, secular university student becomes a lonely, poor housemaid. As a housemaid, Najwa finally starts to take Islam seriously by wearing a hijab and going to the Mosque to pray daily.

The storyline towards the middle of Minaret gets a bit annoying. Najwa (now a housemaid), who is now about 40 years old falling in love with Tamer – her employer’s son, was a bit strange to me. Why is this 40 year old in love with a 19 year old university student? I found Tamer to be very judgmental as he felt he was a better Muslim than everyone. Towards the middle of the story, I realized Najwa was a little too naiive for my liking. Her fate was very sad as she was orphaned quite early due to political instability in Sudan, but I didn’t find Najwa to be a strong Muslim woman I could learn from. Surely, she had her strengths- she had a calm spirit, she was meek, she was very kind and regarded others’ feelings. Throughout the novel, she was trying to grow spiritually and was trying to become a better Muslim, but by the end of the novel I didn’t really see the depth of her growth. The conclusion of the novel seemed incomplete as well since Najwa’s character seemed stagnant. It was as though she was content being a housemaid and did not aspire to do anything better with her life or even go back to Sudan. I was quite disappointed that Najwa did not want more for herself.

Leila Aboulela is a great writer. I loved the calmness and simplicity of her writing in this novel. This book made me appreciate the Muslim culture and the importance of women wearing hijabs and tobes. I just wish the love story between Tamer (the 19 year old) and Najwa was more realistic and didn’t take up 3/5ths of the storyline. But I still look forward to reading more of Aboulela’s books!

★★★ (3 stars) – Good book. I recommend it, I guess.

Purchase Minaret on Amazon

And the 2014 Caine Prize winner is…

In less than a week, the 2014 Caine Prize winner will be announced!

For those who are not familiar, the Caine Prize for African Writing, which was first awarded in 2000 is an award “open to writers from anywhere in Africa for work published in English. Its focus is on the short story, reflecting the contemporary development of the African story-telling tradition” (source).

Some notable winners of the Caine Prize include:

  • Leila Aboulela, from Sudan (2000)– author of novels Minaret, Lyrics Alley amongst other works. 
  • Binyavanga Wainaina, from Kenya (2002)– founding editor of Kwani?, author of One Day I Will Write About This Place and other essays such as “How To Write About Africa” found in various literary magazines.
  • Yvonne A. Owuor, from Kenya (2003)– author of the novel, Dust.
  • E.C Osondu, from Nigeria (2009) – author of novel, Voice of America: stories.
  • NoViolet Bulawayo, from Zimbabwe (2011) – author of novel, We Need New Names. 

This year, the Caine Prize shortlist comprises of five amazingly talented young writers with unique short stories (L -> R):

caineprizeauthors-770x375

  • Diane Awerbuck, from South Africa. Read her story “Phosphorescence” here. Listen to the story here.
  • Tendai Huchu, from Zimbabwe. He’s also the author of novel, The Hairdresser of Harare (on my To-Read List!). Read his short story “The Intervention” here. [I couldn’t find the audio for Huchu’s story!] 
  • Efemia Chela, from Ghana/Zambia. Read her story “Chicken” here. Listen to the story here.
  • Billy Kahora, from Kenya. Read his story “The Gorilla’s Apprentice” here. Listen to the story here.
  • Okwiri Oduor, from Kenya. Read her story “My Father’s Head” here. Listen to the story here.

(The biographies for the shortlisted candidates can be found – here)

It was refreshing to see a Ghanaian on this year’s shortlist. Since I’m Ghanaian I’m naturally rooting for Efemia Chela. Her short story “Chicken” is a coming-of-age narrative. The story consists of three vignettes. In the first vignette, the protagonist who is at an awkward stage in her life- in her twenties, reflects on her extended African family and the meal they shared commemorating her successful graduation from university. Chela’s description of food in this story is so vivid, it makes your mouth water!

In the second vignette of the story, the protagonist gives an account of a recent sexual encounter (with a female). In the third vignette she tries to decide what path she is to take in life- whether to become a lawyer as her parents suggest or to follow where her heart leads. Chela’s writing style is heavily descriptive, but not a drag at all! I appreciated her unique style of narrating. It suited the awkward, twenty something year old coming-of-age theme!

Which story is your favorite? Who do you think will win the Caine Prize this year?

The winner will be announced on the 14th of July in Oxford, England. Good luck to all the shortlisted candidates!