We Need New Names is my third recent foray into works by African ex-pats. There was Ngoze Adiche’s Americanah. Before that, Peter Godwin’s memoir, When a Crocodile Eats the Sun. and now NoViolet Bulawayo brings us this lively, often painful, account of a Zimbabwean girl’s journey from her homeland to the U.S.
At first, you think you’re in Europe, because the kids are going to Budapest. It doesn’t take long to realize that Budapest is just a district, and that there are others named after other such cities. These are areas with fine homes and gardens where the children can steal guavas to assuage their hunger. It used to be better for them. It was Rhodesia, ruled by whites. Then the whites were conquered. Then Mugabe’s new black government bulldozed their homes. No explanation, but if you read Godwin’s book, you know Mugabe needs no explanation.
Everyone’s leaving to find work or a little freedom, and Darling, the narrator’s name, has an aunt on the east coast, and eventually she’s able to get there. One problem. Once her visa expires, she can’t leave unless she wants to leave permanently. So she takes menial jobs. Manages to go to school some. A scattered and hodgepodge life alienated from her closest family, friends, culture and customs–and, as the title suggests, names.
Much of the book is fun. Great teen and pre-teen hijinks both in Africa and the U.S., flavored always by context of race and nationality. Some of the scenes are horrifying, as the one where a 13-year-old’s friends attempt to perform an abortion on there to rid her of her grandfather’s fetus.
However, all the high-quality writing can’t save the book as a whole. Its episodes are not unified by voice or style. Sometimes she sounds like a twelve-year-old, other times like an adult looking back on her twelve-year-old self.