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REVIEW: Touring Africa

October 21, 2013

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SHORTLISTED for this year’s Man Booker Prize, NoViolet Bulawayo’s début novel makes for an eccentric read. Thematically speaking, We Need New Names navigates flamboyantly through chapters that reek with the anxieties of a début novel — in the sense that it comes across as slightly contrived and tinkering, at the brink of what some critics have referred to as “performing Africa”. The novel has a captivating pace but it can be clumsy as it flicks through each and every conceivable African issue, from aids to teenage pregnancies and from domestic corruption to the Chinese economic invasion.

Bulawayo smears such vivid colours on the tin-foil miseries of Paradise’s shack-dwellers, that rather than self-righteous pity, the reader feels an unshakeable political guilt. Set between the shack community in Paradise, Zimbabwe, and the coarse drudgery of immigrant life in Kalamazoo, Michigan, Bulawayo seems to lead her readers on a grotesque tour of scripted headlines and moral obligations. Though Bulawayo’s concerns about the state of her country echo in the background and are reminiscent of the plethora of indistinguishable news coverage on western media, she finishes the lap victoriously and vicariously — by giving a unique and distinct voice to her teenage protagonist and narrator, Darling. Along with her entourage of equally maverick friends, Darling presents a life that is bold and defined outside the parameter of their poverty despite inventing games like “Find Bin Laden” whilst waiting to join their relatives in “real countries”.

Bulawayo manages to reach under the skin of dark stereotypes and expose the fleshy colours beneath them. The thematic pressures almost suck the life out of the story, rendering a desensitised experience of exploitation, but what pumps the air back into the story is the nonchalance that the characters display towards their own predicaments.

Though the author’s thematic check-list can make the reader feel a bit patronised, she is anything but inspired and polite towards her characters. In fact, there are instances in which she seems to conspire with her characters against the reader. For example, when visitors from an NGO arrive in Paradise with some unexciting gifts, the children go into a hysterical frenzy, as if they were role-playing the barbarism that is expected and imposed on them when their poverty is being observed by foreigners.

This role-playing highlights a traumatic stage in the development of a country and its peoples. It is a submissive ritual designed to cater to the self-righteousness of those who provide urgent but ultimately petty improvements, whilst simultaneously being passive (or active) members of imperialistic systems of capitalism. However, Bulawayo maintains the dignity of her characters by presenting the ritual as a gesture of ridicule against those who auction their grief with cameras.

Darling is 10 years old when we first meet her, and she is sinisterly cute in her inability to process the horrors of her life in the shacks. It is this unawareness, which strategically or accidentally — one can not be sure — positions itself against Bulawayo’s self-consciousness as a political commentator. This dichotomy eventually penetrates through any recycled excuses we might have to not care about the desperations of the under-privileged, because Bulawayo makes us want to protect her characters.

We Need New Names is undoubtedly a coming-of-age novel and like all coming-of-age novels, this too is about the search for identity. The first half focuses on the identity of a nation and how it is manifested in the citizen, and the latter, post-migration half, explores the potential for a dynamic reciprocation of the process. When on a quest to steal fruit, the teenagers flee to the affluent neighbourhood of Budapest, which has an apparent reputation for the quality of guavas sold there, Darling is righteous in her desire and unapologetic for her crime.

She experiences the burning intensity of her desire with the stabbing bitterness of class envy, as if the fruit was not a guava but the metaphorical fruit of labour. She then proceeds to display the cyclical streak of tyranny, masqueraded as a symptomatically subversive justification (or vice versa), because “it is better to steal small things that you can hide than big things that you can’t.” Like countries. Upon taking her first bite, she is enthralled by the ripened pink flesh of the fruit, which she describes as having the colour of a “burn wound”.

Perhaps, this is superbly analogous to Zimbabwe’s transition from colonial rule under white masters to an autocratic rule by black masters — suggesting that the impotence of autocratic ‘liberations’ is a violent failure borne out of the cultural hegemony of the past.

Bulawayo’s characters inhabit the vacuum in which the old masters have fled but the legacy of shame inferred through colonial hegemony has not been overcome yet, creating a sense of panicked nostalgia for them. They can’t forge new narratives because their collective histories have all but disappeared, leaving them without any familiar ground to start from: the characters have English names that were brought to the continent by white missionaries. Shacks and neighbourhoods have the names of European cities, evoking a sense of dislocation. The place they all want to flee to is the United States.

In a delirious yearning for familiarity, they begin to fantasise about the departed masters, start making excuses for them and imagine joyous reunions. It is such a disjointed existence that they often experience the repugnance of their misfortunes through the luxurious fiction of western life.

For Bulawayo, names act like umbilical cords — they are the burden of somebody else’s expectation, societal prophecies that we’re married off to at birth. In one of the most harrowing scenes in the book, Darling and some of her friends congregate to “get rid of Chippo’s stomach once and for all,” presumably because her pregnancy (rendered by her grandfather) is a disadvantage to her participation in their communal games. Piecing together their knowledge of day-time television, they decide to take on the identities of characters from American hospital soap operas. For this purpose, one of them announces: “we need new names”. This scene is then amazingly juxtaposed with Darling’s disillusionment upon her migration to the United States.

It turns out to be nothing like what she had fantasised. Only then does Darling begin to metamorphosise. As she negotiates the cultural glut, she becomes sophisticated in her passions and develops a political inclination. It is then that her hunger — a fairly base instinct — starts to develop a ravenous diversity: “We ate like pigs, like wolves, like dignitaries; we ate like vultures, like stray dogs, like monsters; we ate like kings.”

We Need New Names (NOVEL) By NoViolet Bulawayo Reagan Arthur Books, US ISBN 0316230812 304pp.