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But Darling has a chance to escape: she has an aunt in America. She travels to this new land in search of America's famous abundance only to find that her options as an immigrant are perilously few. NoViolet Bulawayo's debut calls to mind the great storytellers of displacement and arrival who have come before her-from Junot Diaz to Zadie Smith to J.M. Coetzee-while she tells a vivid, raw story all her own.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2013-04-08
- Reviewer: Staff
The short story that was adapted to become the first chapter of this debut novel by current Stegner fellow Bulawayo won the Caine Prize in 2011, known as the African Booker. Indeed the first half of the book, which follows a group of destitute but fearless children in a ravaged, never-named African country, is a remarkable piece of literature. Ten-year-old Darling is Virgil, leading us through Paradise, the shantytown where she and her friends Bastard, Godknows, Sbho, and Stina live and play. “Before,” they lived in real houses and went to school—that is, before the paramilitary policemen came and destroyed it all, before AIDS, before Darling’s friend Chipo was impregnated by her own grandfather. Now they roam rich neighborhoods, stealing bull guavas and hiding in trees while gangs raid white homes. Darling and her friends invent new names for themselves from American TV and spent their time trying to get “rid of Chipo’s stomach.” Abruptly, Darling lands with her aunt in America, seen as an ugly place, and absorbs the worst of its culture—Internet porn, obscene consumerism, the depreciation of education. Darling may not be worse off, but her life has not improved in any meaningful way. When Bulawayo won the Caine Prize, she said, “I want to go and write from home. It’s a place which inspires me. I don’t feel inspired by America at all,” and the chapters set outside of Africa make this abundantly clear. In this promising novel’s early chapters, Bulawayo’s use of English is disarmingly fresh, her arrangement of words startling. Agent: Jin Auh, the Wylie Agency. (June)
A promising debut of displacement in America
In We Need New Names, 10-year-old Darling and her gang of friends roam their shantytown in Zimbabwe with the mischievous spirit of children at play. Whether they are stealing guavas or engaged in one of their made-up neighborhood games, they are argumentative and spirited: Life is a game even in these surroundings. But in her quieter moments, Darling is haunted by her memories of Before—when she lived in a house with her parents, when her father wasn’t working a dangerous job in South Africa, when she was allowed to go to school.
Author NoViolet Bulawayo is a fresh voice on the scene, exploring both the dangers and the comforts of Darling’s African home, and her uneasy assimilation to life in the West.
When Darling is sent to live with her aunt in Detroit, her adjustment is slow. America brings her increased opportunities for learning, but her sense of guilt over the country she has left behind also grows. Trips to the mall, cell phones, the perils of Internet porn—Darling navigates a world similar to that of many American teenagers, but her sense of isolation distances her from her new friends. Like so many immigrants before her, Darling is tied to her old country, even as she struggles to adapt to the new.
We Need New Names reads like a series of very good linked stories, without the structure and force of a developed novel. Though we sense what Darling has given up by leaving her home, the chapters about her life as a teenage girl in the United States lack singularity. Where We Need New Names breaks new ground is in the depiction of modern-day Zimbabwe from a child’s point of view. Bulawayo, whose writing has been championed by Junot Díaz, excels in capturing the frank voice of the younger Darling, who has a naiveté and an innocence that flourishes in spite of the dangers. Bulawayo’s sensitivity to a child’s experience and her ability to connect that to a larger commentary on contemporary Zimbabwe make her a writer to watch.