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Darling is only 10 years old, and yet she must navigate a fragile and violent world. In Zimbabwe, Darling and her friends steal guavas, try to get the baby out of young Chipo's belly, and grasp at memories of Before. Before their homes were destroyed by paramilitary policemen, before the school closed, before the fathers left for dangerous jobs abroad.
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 Zadie Smith to Monica Ali to J.M. Coetzee - while she tells a vivid, raw story all her own.
We Need New Names
We are on our way to Budapest; Bastard and Chipo and Godknows and Sbho and Stina and me. We are going even though we are not allowed to cross Mzilikazi Road, even though Bastard is supposed to be watching his little sister Fraction, even though mother will kill me dead if she found out; we are just going. There are guavas to steal in Budapest, and right now I'd rather die for guavas. We didn't eat this morning and my stomach feels like somebody just took a shovel and dug everything out.
Getting out of Paradise is not so hard since the mothers are busy with hair and talk, which is the only thing they ever do. They just glance at us when we file past the shacks and then look away. We don't have to worry about the men under the jacaranda either since their eyes never lift from the draughts. It's only the little kids who see us and want to follow, but Bastard just wallops the naked one at the front with a fist on his big head and they all turn back.
When we hit the bush we are already flying, scream-singing like our voices will make us go faster. Sbho leads: Who discovered the way to India? and the rest of us rejoin, Vasco da Gama! Vasco da Gama! Vasco da Gama! Bastard is at the front because he won country-game today and he thinks that makes him our president or something, and then myself and Godknows, Stina, Sbho, and finally Chipo, who used to outrun everybody in all of Paradise but not anymore because somebody made her pregnant.
After crossing Mzilikazi we cut through another bush, zip right along Hope Street for a while before we cruise past the big stadium with the glimmering benches we'll never sit on, and finally we hit Budapest. We have to stop once though, for Chipo to sit down because of her stomach; sometimes when it gets painful she has to rest it.
When is she going to have the baby anyway? Bastard says. Bastard doesn't like it when we have to stop doing things because of Chipo's stomach. He even tried to get us not to play with her altogether.
She'll have it one day, I say, speaking for Chipo because she doesn't talk anymore. She is not mute-mute; it's just that when her stomach started showing she stopped talking. But she still plays with us and does everything else, and if she really, really needs to say something she'll use her hands.
What's one day? On Thursday? Tomorrow? Next week?
Can't you see her stomach is still small? The baby has to grow.
A baby grows outside of the stomach, not inside. That's the whole reason they are born. So they grow into adults.
Well, it's not time yet. That's why it's still a stomach.
Is it a boy or girl?
It's a boy. The first baby is supposed to be a boy.
But you're a girl, big head, and you're a first-born.
I said supposed, didn't I?
Just shut your kaka mouth you, it's not even your stomach.
I think it's a girl. I put my hands on it all the time and I've never felt it kick, not even once.
Yes, boys kick and punch and butt their heads. That's all they are good at.
Does she want a boy?
No. Yes. Maybe. I don't know.
Where exactly does a baby come out of?
The same way it gets into the stomach.
How exactly does it get into the stomach?
First, Jesus's mother has to put it in there.
No, not Jesus's mother. A man has to put it in there, my cousin Musa told me. Well, she was really telling Enia, and I was there so I heard.
Then who put it inside her?
How can we know if she won't say?
Who put it in there Chipo? Tell us, we won't tell.
Chipo looks at the sky. There's a tear in her one eye, but it's only a small one.
Excerpted from We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo. Copyright © 2013 by NoViolet Bulawayo. Excerpted by permission of Reagan Arthur. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Like the main character of her debut novel, We Need New Names, NoViolet Bulawayo is brave, scrappy, and not likely to back away from a fight. In these linked stories, she tackles - among other issues - poverty, political oppression, corruption, violence, women's rights, the class systems of Zimbabwe and the United States, and the problems of alienation at home and in a foreign land. The novel begins in Zimbabwe in 2008, during the months surrounding the country's failed elections and post-election violence. In less skillful hands, such a thematically dense work could easily come across as self-pitying or mired down in the bogs of the "African tragedy." Bulawayo confronts these challenges by giving us Darling, a no-nonsense ten-year-old narrator who stomps through life with a heart-wrenching, naked innocence.
It is easy to see why the first story, "Hitting Budapest," won the Caine Prize for African Writing. Darling's voice pops and sizzles. From the first paragraph, it grabs the reader by the throat and pulls her into the narrative:
We are on our way to Budapest: Bastard and Chipo, Godknows and Sbho and Stina and me. We are going even though we are not allowed to cross Mzilikazi Road, even though Bastard is supposed to be watching his little sister Fraction, even though Mother would kill me dead if she found out; we are just going. There are guavas to steal in Budapest, and right now I'd rather die for guavas.
Darling and her friends live in a shantytown aptly called Paradise, and it may as well be a different country from the affluent neighboring affluent community of Budapest. Paradise was created, we find out in later stories, when the government bulldozed the homes of Darling and her friends, most likely in Operation Murambatsvina, which in Shona means, "Getting rid of the filth." During this highly controversial campaign, the government demolished hundreds of thousands of structures, displacing between 300,000 and 1,000,000 people, largely poorer urban dwellers. It is widely claimed that the hidden agenda was to drive opposition-leaning urban dwellers into impoverished rural areas supportive of Mugabe. "They appeared with tin, with cardboard, with plastic, with nails and other things with which to build, and they tried to appear calm while putting up their shacks
" With fast-paced dialogue and straightforward prose, Bulawayo lays Darling's life bare. She and her friends are hungry. They are angry. Eleven-year-old Chipo is pregnant. They can no longer go to school because the teachers have all left the country. "We shout and we shout and we shout; we want to eat the thing she was eating, we want to hear our voices soar, we want our hunger to go away
[we] shout till we smell blood in our tickling throats." And always in the background is Zimbabwe, a country in the process of unraveling economically, socially, and politically.
"Sustaining adult interest in young protagonists is Harper Leehard," states Publishers Weekly in their review of Ru Freeman's On Sal Mal Lane. Bulawayo accomplishes this feat with grace, confidence, and humor. In the case of Darling, it is precisely her innocence and the startling, constantly surprising, persistently hopeful lens of her vision that allows Bulawayo to tackle so many issues without it seeming like a litany of misery. "It allowed me to play on the naivety and innocence and frankness of children to handle dense subject matter with an ease that may have otherwise been a bit more difficult had I been dealing with adult characters, " she says in a Los Angeles Review of Books interview.
What Darling searches for in the pages of theses stories is a home where she can feel at home. Her alienation begins when Zimbabwe plunges into economic free fall, and she and her family are driven from their original residence into Paradise. Even though Darling is closely bonded with her friends - the first part of the book is written in first person plural point of view - poverty excludes them from any hope of a future in their native land. Darling dreams of leaving Zimbabwe and following her aunt Fostalina to "Destroyedmichygen." Although she and so many others see the US as a cornucopia, her friend Bastard warns her about leaving: "you have to be able to return from wherever you go."
Darling does end up going to the US. From the moment she lands in Detroit, Michigan and sees a landscape of snow, she realizes that life in America will not be the Paradise she sought. "This is America, yo, you won't see none of that African shit up in this motherfucker," her cousin TK tells her. From this moment, too, Darling begins to understand that the notion of home is as complex as her relationship with her beloved Zimbabwe:
There are two homes inside my head; home before Paradise and home in Paradise; home one and two. Home one was best. A real house. Father and Mother having good jobs
And then home two Paradise, with its tin tin tin.
There are three homes inside Mother's and Aunt Fostalina's heads: home before independence Home after independence, when black people won the country And then the home of things falling apart, which made Aunt Fostalina leave and come here. Home one, home two, and home three.
But even though America has serious challenges, even though Aunt Fostalina and her family struggle to keep their heads above water, even though Darling feels far more alienated in her new home than she did in her native country, she never gives up hope. She confronts life, whatever it brings, head-on. Darling is a survivor, and from her survival, we all take hope. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award, We Need New Names is NoViolet Bulawayo's love letter to Zimbabwe, and Darling is a character the reader will love long after the covers of the book have been closed.
Reviewed by Naomi Benaron
Rated of 5
We Need New Names
Bulawayo’s style is impressive. She manages to capture Zimbabwe and the United States through the eyes of Darling, a 10 year old girl. Bulawayo's words paint a clear yet lyrical message of life in Zimbabwe, a country in turmoil for decades under autocratic rule. We follow Darling as she assimilates to life in the United Sates - a country so strange to Darling in every way. Searching for her identity far away from home has an air of sadness as well an endearing quality as Darling navigates her way through her new home while yearning for her homeland, family and friends. We Need New Names is a powerful and unforgettable story.
How Emmanuel Sigauke Found African Literature and Founded a Magazine
A conversation between Naomi Benaron and Emmanuel Sigauke
Emmanuel Sigauke is a Zimbabwean writer. He is an English professor at Cosumnes River College in Sacramento California and is the editor of the on-line Munyori Literary Journal which has published the work of both NoViolet Bulawayo, author of We Need New Names and Naomi Benaron.
Naomi Benaron: For my first question, I would like to know something of your own history as a writer in Zimbabwe. How did you come to writing? How did politics and writing intersect for you? Who were some of your early influences?
Emmanuel Sigauke: I started writing at thirteen in Mototi, a village in Southern Zimbabwe. Since then, I have always thought of myself as a writer, and I have written in different genres. When I began, I didn't even think of publishing, because I had an immediate readership of friends and schoolmates who demanded more work. The work was talking about a land they knew, portraying lives they were familiar with. Initially, my writing didn't consciously focus on the political, but later, through writers like Chinua Achebe and Ngugi waThiongo, I would learn that even when you are not being political, the work, in a place like Zimbabwe, cannot help but be political. I often center on family matters, but those matters are heavily impacted by the political. Some of my early influences are Gore Vidal (since I didn't have children's books in the village, Vidal's Burr was one of the books I had early contact with), Aaron Chiundura Moyo, a Zimbabwean writer who writes in Shona, Charles Mungoshi, Dambudzo Marechera, DH Lawrence, Thomas Hardy (I remember reading Far From the Madding Crowd by the fireside), William Faulkner and many others.
NB: It's interesting what you say about political writing and how it is unavoidable in a place like Zimbabwe. This strikes me as quite similar to what NoViolet Bulawayo said in her Poets & Writers First Fiction conversation: "What was heartbreaking was the pre- and post-election violence in 2008, and the extent of it drove me to write, and to do so in despair and anger." To that I would add that if a writer is aware of what is going on the world, he or she cannot avoid being political to a greater or lesser degree.
Your eclectic mix of influences interests me, and you mentioned two of my favorite writers besides Faulkner: Chinua Achebe (of course) and Ngugi waThiongo. I absolutely adored The Wizard of the Crow and found it quite instrumental in shaping Running the Rift. Decolonizing the Mind got a cameo appearance in RTR.
Were works by African writers readily available to you in Zimbabwe? Did you study African literature in school? WaThiongo, for example, seems a rather incendiary writer to be included in the canon.
ES: Availability of books was an issue in the rural areas. Our schools didn't have libraries, so we only had access to those books that were strictly on the syllabus, which we shared as students. But somehow books like Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe just appeared in the village, either brought to the village by people returning home from the cities, or students who attended distant boarding schools. So Things Fall Apart was one of the first African books written in English that I read. There was higher availability though, of novels written in Shona, some of which were read on the national radio. Rural people were more familiar with works of literature written in Shona (and sometimes Ndebele) than those written in English.
But here is where things got a bit complex: In the rural areas you were likely to be more aware of the British writers than the local ones who wrote in English. So I knew of Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad, Charles Dickens before I knew about Amos Tutuola, Njabulo Ndebele, Ngugi, Achebe... Later, when I started visiting the cities and discovered libraries, I continued to expand my reading of the foreign works written in English, while ignoring the sections containing African writers. Here is the hierarchy of the literatures I was reading: British, followed by some American, followed by Russian, followed by African writers from distant countries like Kenya, Ghana and Nigeria, with a few Zimbabwean writers at the bottom (Marechera, Mungoshi, Chenjerai Hove).
But this is in regards to literature in English. As for Shona, I continued to read as many novels and plays as I could, yet it never occurred to me, and to others, that they were part of "literature". We were reading them for entertainment.
The real discovery of African literature (in English) happened when I reached the university and was influenced by my enthusiastic instructors to embrace Afrocentrism. For the first time I could go through a semester without reading a work by Shakespeare. I finally discovered and really read all the big names, Wole Soyinka, Ngugi, a lot of Achebe (finding out there was more beyond Things Fall Apart). I was finally able to look at African literature in English as equal to other literatures, but continued to enjoy the works written in Shona as separate from the literature written in English. There was this stigma against embracing works written in indigenous language, which we got over deep into our university careers. To this day, I think works written in local African languages are ignored, unless they are by Ngugi, who has translated his to English.
NB: Were you restricted in what you wrote in Zimbabwe?
ES: I didn't get the sense that I was restricted in what I wrote. I actually believe that early on, my teachers let me get away with a lot, since no one censored what I wrote. I remember shocking an audience of teachers and students at Gwavachemai Secondary school with what I now think was a very erotic story, but I was one of the best students in English, so the teachers seemed grateful to have someone who could write well than worry much about the content of the writing. I have never felt that sense of danger that some say may come with writing of the political kind, although I have been censored more by the cultural more than the political. I remember at the University of Zimbabwe we performed some really political poems, and although there were rumors that government agents attended such events, it was never a concern. And especially since perhaps we were not as famous as Chenjerai Hove, who would later escape the country. We felt the dangerous people were too busy to read our works, or that if the work was that dangerous, it would just not get published. And there was a time when I didn't care about publishing more than I cared about expression and enjoyment of the art.
NB: And now it seems you care about it all: expression, the enjoyment of the art and publishing. I want to acknowledge the role of Munyori Journal in both NoViolet Bulawayo's and my own writing careers. In my case, you were the first editor to recognize my writing on Rwanda, and I want to thank you for that. You gave me hope and courage to continue.
Emmanuel Sigauke: Thank you, Naomi. You put Munyori on the map.
NB: I believe it was the other way around. Munyori put me on the map. I thank you for that, and I thank you so much for this interview, Emmanuel!
Naomi Benaron is a fiction writer, a poet, and a social activist - all entwined. She has worked extensively with the African refugee population in her community, has been involved with aiding Rwandan genocide survivors and is committed to working to end genocide on a global scale. Her short story collection, Love Letters from a Fat Man, won the 2006 Sharat Chandra Prize for Fiction. Her novel, Running the Rift, tells the story of Jean Patrick Nkuba, a gifted Rwandan boy, from the day he knows that running will be his life to the moment he must run to save his life, a ten-year span in which his country is undone by the Hutu-Tutsi tensions. It won the 2010 Bellwether Prize for Fiction and was shortlisted for the 2013 Commonwealth Book Prize. Her short story The Weight of Grace can be found in the September 2013 issue of the Munyori Literary Journal and her short story The Geology of Ghosts was also featured in Munyori which, as Naomi puts it, was the first recognition she got for her work about Rwanda.
First photograph of Emmanuel Sigauke by Ivor W. Hartmann
Second photograph of Chinua Achebe from Pen.org
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