I first heard of this book at Hay Festival in 2013. As you might remember from my other Hay blog posts, the festival puts on regular talks called ‘Fictions’, where one or two authors are probed about the latest novels they are promoting. NoViolet Bulawayo was in front of a tiny audience (with Meike Ziervogel promoting Magda) talking about We Need New Names; the book sounded vaguely interesting at the time, but I didn’t really consider picking it up. Then, a few months later, the book – her debut novel – was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Up against the mammoth contender The Luminaries it’s not overly surprising she didn’t scrape the top spot, but to be shortlisted is a pretty respectable start to a literary career, it’s got to be said. It wasn’t until last year that I had a chance to read it – no spoilers below.
The book follows 10-year-old Darling, a young girl growing up in Zimbabwe before being taken to the USA and spending her teenage years stateside. There’s no doubt an autobiographical element to that; Bulawayo also grew up in Zimbabwe, though she didn’t move to Michigan until she was a litte bit older. The novel is told in the voice of Darling, written in a simplistic style that’s easy to read – I raced through it in a matter of days – which is something particularly characteristic of African fiction written in English. In fact, certain sections reminded me of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (and the phrase ‘things fall apart’ was often used to describe the deteriorating state of Zimbabwe in WNNN).
At their Hay talk, Bulawayo and Ziervogel talked about writing about history from a fictional standpoint. In literature, you have to forget about facts and statistics, and instead submerge yourself into the story. Bulawayo said that writing about a crumbling society through the eyes of a child is powerful, as often children are the most vulnerable due to their ignorance and lack of control over what is happening around them. A child’s eye depoliticises a situation, meaning that the writer (and reader) must suspend their disbelief and look at the scenario through innocent eyes (even if they themselves have a lot of knowledge about it). It’s an effective technique but, personally, I’m not totally in love with it. It’s all right when you’re already familiar with a situation, but as an outsider with little or no knowledge it’s tricky to follow current affairs through the perspective of a child, considering children often have a warped understanding of what is happening or are simply uninterested in it. If I had done more research, maybe I wouldn’t feel that way about We Need New Names.
But then does that take away the point? There’s a poignant part in WNNN when the children take a local tragedy and turn it into a game, re-enacting it like a play. Darling’s voice becomes very adult at that point and we are subject to an astute description of the attackers, the victim, and the stoic faces watching the violence unfold with the knowledge that they are powerless to prevent it. When a BBC crew asks the children what game they are playing, one of her friends replies with (paraphrasing): ‘a game? No, this is real life.’ Seeing innocent children accept horrific violence as part of their normality is disturbing, to say the least.
My only criticism of the book is that it feels slightly rushed. It’s not very long, and if each character, very vivid in their own right, was given their due attention, it might feel a little more fleshed out. By the time the book ends we have only seen a brief glimpse into Darling’s life in America – I would have liked to have seen more of it, more of the trials and tribulations she faced there, as well as the generally confusing experience of growing up and going through puberty. Another thing that misled me was the timescale. When Darling was 10 and living a poverty-stricken life in Zimbabwe, her friends were talking about singing Lady Gaga, indicating that at that point in time, Gaga must have been fairly famous (to reach impoverished children in Zimbabwe, at least). However, a fair few years later (maybe 4 years?) when Darling is in America, she mentions a very recent scandal – when Rihanna was beaten up by her boyfriend Chris Brown. Lady Gaga released Just Dance (and began her climb to fame) in 2008, yet Rihanna was attacked by Chris Brown in 2009. Sure, it’s pedantic of me to point out, but given that there were very limited hints as to when the book was set, I relied on these cultural references to give it a framework. It felt a little jumbled.
Bulawayo mentioned at Hay that she was working on a collection of AIDS stories, again addressing a silence and taboo with a creative voice, on another subject that is personal to her. AIDS is touched on in WNNN, with it being described as ‘the sickness’ and presented as a real epidemic. I’m looking forward to seeing her approach to building stories around it, whenever it may appear.
Goodreads, then: four stars. It was written so well but the abruptness of the ending took it down a notch. I should be on the Booker committee at this rate.
[Coming next: The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel]