‘We Need New Names,” a debut novel by NoViolet Bulawayo, straddles Zimbabwe and the United States — the two countries the author has called home — and nearly collapses under the strain. The novel’s narrative voice, while faithfully reflecting its owner’s tender age — Darling is a 10-year-old girl in Zimbabwe, and later a teen in the United States — almost inevitably remains simplistic and superficial. Crucially, “We Need New Names” is not intended as a young adult novel. Instead, the story seems to rest on the fanciful assumption that a child is not merely an adult in the making, but a separate breed altogether, with greater perspicacity and even a different value system, as exemplified by narrator Darling’s claim that “lying . . . is what adults will do sometimes because they are adults.”
Throughout, Darling’s broad-ranging but captious commentary — too many things are described as “kaka,” or crap — generally proves irritating. When, at the beginning of the novel’s second half, she moves to Michigan to live with her Aunt Fostalina — first in Detroit, and then in Kalamazoo — the stage is set for a host of observations concerning her new home. But they prove disappointingly run-of-the mill: the biting cold; the smorgasbord of food available for purchase at supermarkets; Americans’ ignorance of the diversity of Africa; the cultural coexistence between obesity and obsession with skinny women as a feminine ideal; commercialization of sex through pornography; and the new names immigrants give their children to “make them belong in America.”
To be sure, “We Need New Names” is intermittently amusing and occasionally poignant. In Zimbabwe, after Darling recounts security forces’ demolition of homes in her neighborhood, forcing residents to move to a shantytown ironically named Paradise, Bulawayo pans back for a larger view of the internally displaced. The chapter, narrated in the third person, includes this moving image: “Generally, the men always tried to appear strong. . . . But when they went out in the bush to relieve themselves and nobody was looking, they fell apart like crumbling towers and wept with the wretched grief of forgotten concubines.”
And in America, Darling’s (too often frivolous) accounts of her difficulties with acculturation are interrupted by a chapter that poetically encapsulates the plight of the unmoored. On speaking in English, the unnamed — but clearly adult — narrator observes: “When we talked, our tongues thrashed madly in our mouths, staggered like drunken men. . . . When we were alone we summoned the horses of our languages and mounted their backs and galloped past skyscrapers. Always, we were reluctant to come back down.”
Also notable is Bulawayo’s prodding of Darling’s childhood clique into situational shenanigans that subtly reveal Zimbabwe’s socioeconomic breakdown, even though the name of the country and its ruler, Robert Mugabe, are never uttered in the novel. (The capital, Harare, is mentioned once.) Darling and friends have abundant free time for outdoor games because their schools have shut as teachers scramble to leave the country. She and her cohorts eat guavas they snatch off trees in private gardens belonging to residents of the upscale Budapest district — “I keep expecting the clean streets to spit and tell us to go back where we came from” — in order to supplement their meager meals.
Bulawayo is hardly the sole Zimbabwean novelist around today. (Aside from Nobel Prize-winner Doris Lessing, who has written about growing up in what was then called Rhodesia, think: Charles Mungoshi, Shimmer Chinodya, Tsitsi Dangarembga, J. Nozipo Maraire, Brian Chikwava, and Ian Holding.) She is also not the only one to depict the country’s (ongoing) social and economic collapse. Ironically, the unique angle of her novel, namely that which explores a Zimbabwean teen’s arduous negotiation of life in America, is saddled with unoriginal and trite musings on Americans, as well as predictable instances of culture clash. Of course, the (limited) strengths of “We Need New Names” deserve attention and measured praise, but for them to carry the novel is an onus too burdensome to bear.
Rayyan Al-Shawaf, a writer and book critic in Beirut, can be reached at email@example.com.