Darling is ten, growing up in the ironically-named Paradise, a hastily constructed shanty town in Zimbabwe “all tin and stretch(ing) out like a wet sheepskin nailed on the ground to dry.” She hangs out with a motley collection of friends, Bastard and Godknows, Sbho, Stina and 11-year-old Chipo who is pregnant an occurrence that raises little more than mild curiosity amongst the group. There is no longer any school. They pass most of their time playing games that involve just their vivid imagination or stealing guavas from the trees in the nearby wealthy white suburb, Budapest, full of bravado.
Darling’s father, like many of the adults, has gone away to South Africa to find work ostensibly to support his family, but they have heard nothing from him. Not long before, Darling’s family had lived in a proper house, had gone to work and school. They had aspired to the life the black politicians had promised once they had wrested power from the white elite. But a crackdown by the Government of Robert Mugabe, fuelled by new rivalries and corruption, saw the community literally torn apart, brick by brick.
Now the families rely on ingenuity, make-do and hand-outs from charity groups. “They just like taking pictures, these NGO people, like maybe we are their real friends and relatives … they don’t care that we are embarrassed by our dirt and torn clothing, that maybe we would prefer they didn’t do it …We don’t complain because after the picture-taking comes the giving of gifts.’’
Darling, like most of the inhabitants of Paradise, dreams of escaping the relentless poverty. She is lucky, she has an aunt in America and the second part of the book focuses on her life there. However, the America in which she eventually finds herself is not the stuff of her dreams. Her aunt avoids her marriage by disappearing into TV dieting and exercise shows, Darling and her new school friends (who she doesn’t really like) are working through the A-Z of online porn with dispassionate curiosity. She adopts a pseudo-American accent because she is embarrassed at her Aunt’s difficulty in being understood. But even as she enjoys the relative opulence of her new existence she is haunted by the question of whether Paradise will be the same when she returns.
NoViolet Bulawayo tells her story through Darling’s voice, alternately childlike and wise beyond her years. She has a wonderful eye for description, an often picaresque view of her life coupled with a lightning-paced line in banter
We Need New Names is a powerful and unflinching debut novel by Zimbabwean Bulawayo, now a resident in America, and was recently long-listed for the 2013 Booker Prize which has established a reputation for shining the spotlight on new talent. It was built on the bones of a short story for which Bulawayo won the important Caine Prize for African writers.
It paints a bleak picture of life for both the people in Zimbabwe and those who have fled overseas, many of whom remain international non-people, officially unrecognised anywhere. But amongst the horror and deprivation there is the resilience, the all-pervading sense of hope, whether real or just wished-for by readers from wealthier, more stable countries. There is the humour, the unexpected acts of humanity, like her friends’ reaction to the secret of Darling’s dying father, not just the deprivation and brutality.
At the heart of We Need New Names is the question of cultural identity and belonging. Darling increasingly realises she is trapped in her new home, alienated not just from her country but increasingly from what she sees as her real life. She is stunned when she is taunted by her old childhood friend Chipo as they talk on Skype: “But you are not the one suffering. You think watching on BBC means you know what is going on? No, you don’t, my friend, it’s the wound that knows the texture of the pain; it’s us who stayed here feel the real suffering.’’ Darling has joined those millions of displaced people who have left the ‘’bones of their ancestors in the dust.’’
I’m too early in my annual Booker Prize marathon to rate NoViolet Bulawayo’s chances of snatching the main prize but, by any comparison, We Need New Names is an exciting and highly satisfying read.