Book Review: We Need New Names By NoViolet Bulawayo

NoViolet Bulawayo - Book: We Need New Names
NoViolet Bulawayo - Book: We Need New Names

NoViolet, born in Zimbabwe, is the author of We Need New Names which was her debut novel. The novel was described as deeply felt and fiercely written by the New York Times. It follows the narrator, ten-year-old Darling and her friends as they navigate their shantytown with the exuberance and mischievous spirit of children everywhere. But they are shadowed by memories of Before. Before their homes were destroyed by paramilitary policemen, before the schools closed, before their fathers left for dangerous jobs abroad. When Darling escapes to suburban America, she finds that—far from the comforts of her childhood community—America’s abundance is hard to reach, and she reckons alone with the sacrifices and mixed rewards of assimilating.

The children are observant, inquisitive and perceptive in a way that challenges even adults to evaluate situations that they have learnt to see in a singular way. They essentially interrogate everything with brutal honesty and humour. NoViolet does not shy away from touching taboo subjects including religion and its exploitative nature, especially where the poor and desperate are concerned. We see class struggle/warfare as the starving children are forced to go to Budapest to steal guavas from rich people’s trees just to have something to fill their stomachs and end up meeting a woman who shares that she has just gotten off the Jesus diet. We see it again when their parents are forced out of their good homes by the government to the shantytown aptly named Paradise. Through the children’s eyes, we see the deadly nature of politics and the ruin that befalls those who dare to struggle and agitate for the freedom of the people.


NoViolet Bulawayo - Book: We Need New Names
NoViolet Bulawayo – Book: We Need New Names

We see the heartbreaking violence that is a constant presence in their lives. Chipo is raped and impregnated by a family member and we see the girls desperately trying to get the baby out of Chipo. We see racism and the pain and desperation fueled responses of the oppressed black majority. We see the working conditions of the black miners torn away from their families and the resultant effects including deadly HIV/AIDS. We see the relationship between the children and their parents in a way that forces you to evaluate how as African we have chosen to raise our children. The one time an adult asks the children a question, they are taken aback because adults don’t ask children anything in their experience. When Darling goes to the US, NoViolet does not shy away from touching on the holy subject of war and the consequences to those actively participating in it and their families at home. We follow Darling as she navigates this new life of abundance and excess where people’s problems include obesity.

The book is laugh-out-loud funny. The children’s honesty is equal parts eye-opening, amusing and heartbreaking. The book is filled with descriptive names including Bastard, Chipo, GodKnows, Mother of Bones who is Darling’s grandmother, Budapest the rich neighbourhood, Paradise the shantytown, Heavenway the cemetery, the Prophet Revelations Bitchington Mborro, and a child named Nomoreproblems among others. You finally agree with NoViolet’s thesis, We Need New Names.

We Need New Names (May 2013) has been recognized with the LA Times Book Prize Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, the Pen/Hemingway Award, the Etisalat Prize for Literature, the Barnes and Noble Discover Award (second place), and the National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” Fiction Selection. We Need New Names was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Guardian First Book Award, and selected to the New York Times Notable Books of 2013 list, the Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers list, and others.

Speaking of great books, check out Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

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