Exquisite artistry exhibited in 'We Need New Names'

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On the back of the advance reader's copy of NoViolet Bulawayo's novel, "We Need New Names," the author writes: "Those of us who give up our homelands live with quiet knowledge nestled in our blood like an incurable disease; even as we are here, we are tied to somewhere else." Ms. Bulawayo delivers the beating heart of what that feels like packed inside a coming-of-age tale in her terrific debut.

The story begins in Zimbabwe around the year 2000, in the aftermath of years of enormous corruption and social upheaval. Then, like now, the southern African nation was struggling under the thumb of the corrupt dictator Robert Mugabe and other forces vying for power.


By NoViolet Bulawayo
Reagan Arthur ($25).

But make no mistake: This is no dry tutorial on post-colonial Africa. Rather, to enter this story is to step inside the skin of young Darling, a Zimbabwean girl, and to get a sense of what it feels like to be her at a particular moment in time.

Through her eyes, we see, specifically, the Zimbabwe neighborhoods in which she's growing up, but we also catch a glimpse of the wider world and what it looks like through her eyes. More than a glimpse, really -- Ms. Bulawayo's artistry is such that we can't help but see ourselves in that wider world. And sad to say, through Darling's eyes, we are not always pretty; what we are is mostly clueless, sometimes worse.

When we meet Darling, she is 10 years old and living with her grandmother in a small tin makeshift house in a shantytown called Paradise. We learn she had a real house once, "real walls, real windows, real floors. ... Everything real."

That is, up until the bulldozers came and tore her house down, a time that still gives her nightmares: "The men driving the bulldozers are laughing. I hear the adults saying, Why why why, what have we done, what have we done, what have we done?"

We glimpse the horror of the AIDS epidemic, the lasting, widespread effects of racial inequity, political corruption, deep-rooted poverty and more, but to say that all is bleak in Darling's world would be to get things very wrong. Darling is a dazzling life force with a rich, inventive language all her own, funny and perceptive but still very much a child. Witness her giving her friend "a talking eye" when he acts like a jerk. Watch her watch her grandmother count her money every day "like somebody told her it lays eggs overnight." Hear her giggle at a woman singing in church "because she was making like God told her she is Celine Dion."

It would be hard to overstate the freshness of Ms. Bulawayo's language, with words put together in utterly surprising ways that communicate precisely.

Darling also gives us a sense of what it feels like to be one of those children staring out of those photographs charitable organizations trot out to get you to give money to African causes. That, and what it feels like to be caught by the lens of CNN or the BBC at a bad moment. (Hint: not good.)

It is by no means incidental that, at one point, a child named Godknows asks, "What exactly is an African?" In one way or another, a good portion of the book seems to be asking this question, while other parts point to the question, What makes an American?

In the second half of the novel, Darling moves to Detroit to live with relatives. There she discovers that America isn't quite what she imagined. There are dangers here she could not possibly have foreseen, and struggles, and disappointments. In fact, to watch Darling come of age in America is to see things like you have never seen them if you have not come here from someplace very foreign. It is also a little like being poked again and again with a stick. Which is to say, it is uncomfortable sometimes.

At one point toward the end, the author switches briefly into a collective "we" voice, to illuminate the broader immigrant experience: "Because we were not in our country, we could not use our own languages, and so when we spoke our voices came out bruised. When we talked, our tongues thrashed madly in our mouths, staggered like drunken men. Because we were not using our languages we said things we did not mean; what we really wanted to say remained folded inside, trapped."

With this gem of a novel, I can only hope this gifted writer is satisfied she said what she wanted. It sure came out sounding right to me.


Judy Wertheimer, a writer living in Squirrel Hill, reviews first novels for the Post-Gazette (wertheimer.jb@gmail.com).


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