Author: NoViolet Bulawayo
Home is where one lives as a member of a family or community. For Darling, the protagonist in We Need New Names, home is Paradise, a slum in an unnamed African country where vibrant life and intense lack exist side by side. Paradise is where the poor of the land live in shacks; it is where dreams hang high, and residents stand on tiptoes hoping to catch one and set it ablaze.
Darling and her gang of friends, Chipo, Godknows, Bastard, Stina, and Sbho, are children growing up in Paradise. We get to see and hear about life, gender, politics, wealth, and religion through their eyes and voices. NoViolet Bulawayo invites us into the lives of little children growing up in a country where hope is alive and shares space with poverty, death, faith, and invasions by both a corrupt government and white people. Every day we spend with Darling and her friends is an adventure, and they are exuberant like only kids can be. However, we also see into the pains and dreams of the adults who had known a good life before fate dealt it cards.
And then there is Budapest, a next door opulent community where white people and rich Africans reside. Budapest is in sharp contrast to Paradise! The homes are solid houses with amenities, fences, and gates. Guava trees line the streets, and stealing the fruit is one primary reason to visit Budapest. Darling and her friends go often to quench their hunger pangs.
Budapest and Paradise are different because of who occupies them and the history that births them. However, one key difference outside of the opulence in Budapest and the poverty in Paradise is the vivacity of one over the other. Budapest comes with the artificial silence that the white world emanates and Paradise, though lacking in wealth, is energetic, alive and colorful. When you scratch the poverty away, Paradise is Africa…vibrant, alive and colorful.
It is in these two neighborhoods that the first part of the book plays out. Bulawayo tackles the universality of the human need for love, belonging and security, and the things and places we turn to for rest. Darling and her friends denounce the idea that poverty envelopes you and holds you back from having the depth of insight into your own life and the world. Lacking self-deprecation and bouncing with childlike exuberance, they share insights on NGOs and their white workers, the Chinese invasion of their home and the cheap offerings they bring, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and even the frailties of love, sex, death, and marriage.
However, simmering in the background and often bursting through the seams at different points in the book is the topic of migration. Many residents of Paradise left home because it literally takes from them to find respite in a different land. Everyone, it seems, was trying to get to South Africa, Dubai, America etc. in search of the life that home refuses to give them.
And Darling did get out and came to America to live with her Aunt Fostalina, a common-law wife to a Ghanaian man with a teenage son from another woman. Life is a lot more different, and the worries a lot more inconspicuous as she focuses on snow, culture, drive-by shootings, working odd jobs and finding a place to belong. In America, Darling explores the shopping malls and sex with new friends and experienced the stripping away that only immigrants can know and understand. The love for home beats fiercely and side by side with the newness of America, and as days turn into weeks and weeks into months and years, the love for home beats beneath the acceptance that well, “This is America! Don't catch you slippin' up.”
The latter part of the book highlights the urgency of self-reinvention; a new place demands loyalty while the brain tries to hold on to the memories of the land one may never return to. Each turn of the page descends into an expectation of a life that is not met with answers. Bulawayo’s description and language in the second half of the book, though still vibrant, lacked buoyancy. America, in a sense, mimicked the dearth of life in Budapest.. Part two in America is different from part one in Paradise and Budapest, both in the content of Bulawayo’s writing and in the way the writes.
However, her use of language through out books was the most delightful part about reading. Language is a beautiful thing, and Bulawayo uses it beautifully. She wrote and used English in the novel like only an African would. I settled easily into her words as she blends the English language into the tongue of an African. Reading her words was familiar, and I knew deep within my guts that she wrote this book for us and with us in mind. Her use of language is strong, energetic, witty and funny. Though We need New Names is a poignant read, it was also a pleasing one. She tackled some hard topics, but also made me laugh A LOT. I am still amazed at how much I giggled while reading this book. Her sense of humor especially in translating English into the layered nuances of an African-speaks was impressive. Above all, she wrote and spoke the characters without condescension…she wrote the world of Darling and her friends with strength and assurance of who they were and the world they occupied.
I give We Need New Names 4.5 stars.