Notes on Books: We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

I’ve been eyeing NoViolet Bulawayo’s book ever since it was launched early last year. The striking name of the book coupled with the catchy name of the author, this was book that was screaming to be read. Finding the first chapter online as a short story that won the Cain Prize for African writing also helped. The funny thing is – I don’t own a copy. I have gifted it to two people and read the library copy. It seems some stories come to me without the book.

Let me not make you wait: The story starts in Zimbabwe reeling under years of colonialism followed by internal instability. It’s the year the US starts searching for its former ally Bin Laden. The kids of Paradise, a ghetto somewhere in Zimbabwe, turn this bit of news into a game ‘Finding Bin Laden’ to fill their days which were formerly spent being at school. As the society fractures bit by bit, schools are closed, homes destroyed and livelihoods snatched. Adults become a shadow of themselves and the children think of leaving the country to a better life in America. Several mentions of ‘things falling apart’ made me think of Chinua Achebe.

Darling, our ten year old narrator, tells us her story. She tells us of the adventures which she finds along with the boys, quiet Stina, know-it-all Bastard and talkative Godknows and the girls pretty Sbho and pregnant Chipo as they roam through Paradise (which is anything but) and visit Budapest, the rich neighbourhood to steal and eat guavas to satiate their gnawing hunger. These guavas hang over the Durawalls of the richest homes and are too tempting to resist. Darling and her friends spend what they don’t know to be the best years of their life. In spite of eleven year old Chipo being pregnant, The Sickness (AIDS) running amok, no hope of any future except the shimmering mirage of America. Darling dreams of a comfortable life with her mother’s twin Aunt Fostalina who works in ‘Destroyedmichigan’ as a nurse. When she gets there, she discovers the cold, an America that’s not quite what it is made out to be and an ache that she cannot quite get rid of.

The book is divided into two sections: the first one is in Zimbabwe and the second in America. It’s more a mental division rather than a physical one. In Zimbabwe, Darling’s life is rich even though she does not have any physical comfort at all. Her mother works in another city and visits rarely and when she does she has boyfriends who spend the night with her in the same bed as her daughter. Her father is a broken man who couldn’t handle their destitution and went to work in South Africa but comes back broken in mind and body. Darling is looked after by Mother of Bones, her grandmother. When she gets to America her illusion shatters, she gets used to the American way of life, one she finds sterile but which she cannot escape for legal reasons.

Our precocious and perceptive narrator’s story is in the first person. Interspersed with the chapters that deal with Darling’s life are chapters spoken by a multitude of voices in the first person plural. They tell a story of a community. They tell the story that Darling might be too far away or too close to understand. I heard a chorus of voices as I read those chapters. They function somewhat like the Greek chorus, which comment on the action on stage.

Repetition and rhythm in these first person plural narratives give a folklore-ish feel to the chapters.

Look at them leaving in drives, the children of the land, just look at them leaving in droves. Those with nothing are crossing borders. Those with strength are crossing borders. Those with ambitions are crossing borders. Those with loss are crossing borders. Those in pain are crossing borders… (Bulawayo, 145)

And when they asked us where we were from, we exchanged glances and smiled with the shyness of child brides. They said, Africa? We nodded yes. What part of Africa? We smiled. Is it that part where vultures wait for famished children to die? We smiled. Where the life expectancy is thirty-five years? We smiled. Is it where dissidents shove AK-47s between women’s legs? We smiled. Where people run about naked? We smiled. That part where they massacred each other? We smiled… (Bulawayo, 237)

The repetition makes each of these chapters seem like a chant. A chant of pain, loss and suffering.

The non-linear narrative has no neat divisions. Keeping Darling story central there is the broad division – before Paradise and after. Darling’s memories, her flashbacks, her thoughts take us from the insipid present to her intense past with regular frequency.

The idea of home or homes or homelessness is a running theme. In one passage, Darling talks about the different kinds of homes that people carry around in their head. She has two homes – one before Paradise and one after. Before Paradise she used to go to school, had food on the table and her parents were happy. After Paradise, she has no food, five friends and Mother of Bones. Her mother has three homes – one after independence from white rule, one before Paradise and one after. Her grandmother Mother of Bones has four homes – one before independence from white rule, one after independence from white rule, one before Paradise and one after. Darling says one has to listen hard to know the home that each refers to.

The arc of the story connects several states of homelessness. Darling loses her physical home first when the men come and destroy her home, then she makes Paradise a home and that is lost as well when she moves to America. In deciding to move, she loses the connection to the land – another loss of a home. Finally, in America, she creates this imaginary homeland of her memories which towards the end of the book is destroyed when Chipo confronts her. Over a Skype call, Chipo taunts Darling about leaving and therefore abandoning Zimbabwe, her homeland. And since she has abandoned it, Darling can no longer call the country her home. When she hears this, Darling loses all sense of herself and throws the laptop. She has been tolerating all kinds of loss but this loss of her mental home i.e. her homeland Zimbabwe is the last thing that can cannot bear.

This gets me thinking of Salman Rushdie’s Imaginary Homelands. He suggests that we accept the situation of the exile even though it is painful and not try to ‘return’ to the country which is futile because when we leave we can never come back to the country we have left. The state of being in exile can be claimed as a home of sorts.

Holding it altogether is the sparkling language that Bulawayo excels at. There is nothing like biting into the richness and meatiness of her similes and metaphors. They are so unique and striking that I forget the story and concentrate on her language. I could read the book again just to be able to bite into that language another time. Just look at this description:

‘I look closely at her long hand, at the thing she is eating. It’s flat and the outer part is crusty. The top is creamish and looks fluffy and soft, and there are coin like things on it, a deep pink, the color of burn wounds. I also see sprinkles of red and green and yellow, and finally the brown bumps that look like pimples.’ (Bulawayo, 6)

‘The color of burn wounds’: I won’t be able to eat another pizza without thinking of this phrase again. The entire book is full of startling descriptions like this and which force me to look at my world again. And be surprised each time.

Read NoViolet Bulawayo because she speaks of loss and suffering in such beautiful language and through such sad stories.

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