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From Mugabe’s Zimbabwe to the United States – a poignant novel of gaining a life and losing a country. 

As more and more people are forced to leave their homelands, the literature of the diaspora becomes more diverse and interesting. NoViolet Bulawayo is a Zimbabwean woman now living in America. Her stunning debut novel, We Need New Names, is no doubt at least partly based on her own experience. Bulawayo introduces us to Darling, a ten-year-old girl and her friends – Bastard, Chipo, Shbo and Godknows – living in a tin-shack shanty town, post-Independence. Darling and her friends once went to school (Darling even speaks some English), but all the teachers (along with most of the men and boys) have left Zimbabwe and the children spend their days roaming the streets, stealing guavas to assuage their hunger, and watching the world of the adults through the innocence of children’s eyes.

This is a common device for novelists, but no less effective for that. The intuitively intelligent Darling understands the adult world to a point, but there remain questions – like, how did a baby get into Chipo’s stomach and how should they get it out? Why does Darling’s father come back from working in South Africa with ‘the sickness’? Why do the adults seem so happy when they go off to vote for Change, only to fall into despair days later? Through the child’s eyes, the adult reader understands that this is life under Mugabe (he is never named), that her family and neighbours are supporters of the Opposition and that what is most galling to them is that they are homeless because of the actions of their fellow blacks – something even more incomprehensible than white colonisation.

The first half of the book, set in Zimbabwe, is written with enormous vibrancy, the cadences of language and the everyday lives of these wonderful characters bursting with life. Bastard, for instance, lives up to his name most of time, but in one of the most beautiful scenes in the book, reveals his deep humanity. Great joy and sorrow, humour and sadness sit side by side. You can almost smell the sweetness of the guavas, feel the dry dust settling in the children’s clothes, the hard earth on their unshod feet.

We just eat a lot of guavas because it’s the only way to kill our hunger, and when it comes to defecating, we get in so much pain it becomes an almost impossible task, like you are trying to give birth to a country.

But this is not some time in the long-distant past and Darling and her friends sing Lady Gaga songs and idolise Angelina Jolie and Obama. In the second half of the book, Darling’s dreams come true when her aunt comes to take her back to America. But no one told Darling about the bitter cold of the Detroit winter, about the beggars in the street, or that her aunt works two jobs just to keep afloat. And no one told her that if she wants to stay in America, she can never go back to Zimbabwe to see her mother or her friends, as she is now an illegal.

As Darling grows into a ‘regular’ American teenager she begins to understand what she has given up and to weigh the consequences:

If you come here where I am standing and look outside the window, you will not see any men seated under a blooming jacaranda playing draughts … You will not even hear a vendor singing her wares and you will not see anyone playing country-game or chasing after flying ants.

When she phones Zimbabwe, her friends don’t like her new American accent and she feels more and more distanced from them. Bulawayo illuminates the starkness of the choice so many people must make – to stay at home in abject poverty, even at risk of your life, or search for a new life and be forever a stranger in a strange land. For Darling, that choice was made for her.

In the end, we realise, Darling and her oddly named friends and family don’t need new names to fit into Western society or to forge new lives – what they need is a government and a leader with a new name, and a country at peace. We Need New Names is at once heart-wrenching, funny, and poignant.

NoViolet Bulawayo We Need New Names Vintage 2013 PB 304pp $29.95

Morgan Smith has been a scriptwriter and editor, a columnist and book reviewer. She is currently a bookseller.

You can buy this book from Abbey’s here or from Booktopia here.

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