it’s the wound that knows the texture of the pain

Dear Elizabeth,

I admit I was a bit reluctant to read your novel We need new names (2013). It covered all the topics typically considered “African” by the American imaginary (genocide, female genital mutilation, political violence, hunger, poverty, AIDS); furthermore, it was told under an overexplored narration point of view: that of an innocent child, who describes the brutality surrounding her. The book could be just one of those many novels that explore, to the point of exhaustion, and permeated with stereotypes, the aesthetic of suffering, marked by the desensitization typically promoted by western sensationalist headlines.

Thankfully, I was wrong. Contrary to my expectations, your novel, through its episodic structure and its irreverent narration style, managed to overcome this many pitfalls. The plot lies halfway between the catharsis brought on by the art and the raw representation of a reality. Darling, the protagonist-narrator, is a girl of about 10 years-old who was born and spent her childhood in Zimbabwe. In a piecemeal fashion, the girl tells us all about her daily adventures with a troupe of friends (Bastard, Chipo, Godknows, Sbho and Stina). She irreverently describes her little world, which is full of people subjugated by a hard life, people marked sometimes by anger, sometimes by resilience. “But we can see, in the eyes of the adults, the rage. It is quiet but it is there. Still, what is rage when it is kept in like a heart, like blood, when you do not do anything with it, when you do not use it to hit, or even yell? Such rage is nothing, it does not count. It is just a big, terrible dog with no teeth.” 

The narrative is fragmented into several small  intertwined stories. The appeal of using the voice of a child as narrator gives a certain dignity to the characters – who have fun despite their tribulations, and despite the brutality of the environment in which they live. However, the narration point of vie does not escape the trap of being an indirect means of inducting a certain amount of pity into the reader: the contrast between the innocence of the narrator and the brutality fo the world in which she lives only serves to artificially accentuate this brutality. Although Darling, being a child, is unaware of the entire length of deprivation to which she is submitted, we can infer, indirectly, through the images that the narrator unconsciously uses, the violence that surrounds her all around: the girl described, for example, decorations on a cake as “pink, the color of burn wounds”; the guavas she steals in the company of her friends are, for her, as “a man’s angry fist.”

The world in which our little narrator lives has just began to fall apart: the schools are closed, hospitals are on strike and people call for religious healings (paid in US dollars). Like many other families, Darling’s house was destroyed by the police, and the family was forced to move to a shack located in a miserable and crowded place called Paradise. After losing his job, the girl’s father emigrated alone to South Africa, but returned shortly after. Suffering from AIDS, he chooses to die at home. Darling’s friend Chipo, a girl of about 12 years-old, discovers that she is pregnant after having been raped by her grandfather. Amid this convulsing reality, Darling and her friends dream of emigrating to anywhere that offers a more tangible paradise: US, Europe or Dubai. With the help of an aunt who lives in the United States, Darling has the opportunity to turn that dream into reality.

As in Purple Hibiscus (2003), the reference to Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, is explicit. However, unlike the book by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which offers a more unique look about the universe it depicts, the highlight of your book does not lie in the perspective it adopts – a rather overused one -, but in its episodic and syncopated structure. Furthermore, your novel’s strenght lies in particular, in its pictorial and vivid narration style. In one of the most striking passages of the novel, which emphasizes the potentially violent and dehumanizing impact of certain acts of charity, Darling compares NGOs’ photographers to the paparazzi who besiege Paris Hilton: “The man starts taking pictures with his big camera. (…) They don’t care that we are embarrassed by our dirt and torn clothing, that we would prefer they didn’t do it; they just take the pictures anyway, take and take. We don’t complain because we know that after the picture-taking comes the giving of gifts.” 

The book’s title is a reference to two events in the book: the moment when Darling and her friends, still in Zimbabwe, need to invent new names for themselves, because of a rather serious game; and a moment when the narrator, now living in the US, desbrides the internal struggle suffered by immigrants who decide to give their children names which are different from the ones adopted in their culture, so that these children can “belong” to the local culture in the US. Like all immigrants, Darling “needs new names,” needs a different accent, and has to reinvent herself in this new country.

The lively language, the intersected structure and the predominance of the use of the present indicative give immediacy and urgency to the narrator’s voice, and ensure this voice’s colorful, sometimes strange but captivating ressonance. It is this voice that leads the plot beyond the free description of acts of violence – political, domestic, physical violence -; this voice subverts the theme of suffering as a means of maturing, and unmasks, albeit timidly, the illusion of the American dream. Darling, who had seen in her homeland, hunger, disease, poverty and all forms of violence, only loses her innocence when she moves to the comfort of her imaginary paradise, a land where there should always be food and wealth: the USA. There, she’s forced to confront her illusions with a more subtle form of violence, the harsh reality of the lives of many immigrants.

Darling’s loss of innocence and her alienation from American culture are reflected by an abrupt change in narrative style, which becomes, in this part, less vibrant, more mechanical. This is the weakest part of the book, punctuated by stereotypes about the American culture and generalizations about the lives of immigrants in that country. These generalizations are marked by constant use of the pronoun “we”, with the intention of embracing the totality of immigration experiences. These, however, are not always brutal. You yourself, born in Zimbabwe, are an example of a successful experience that belies the tone of the final part of the book.

On the other hand, I think the highlight of your book is the way you managed to imbue dignity, pride and sense of humor into the narrator’s voice. Darling’s internal landscape, which is fully revealed to us at the end of the book, is much more interesting than the external realities she portrayed through her narration. The strength of your book lies precisely in the anger that feeds it; this simple and raw anger, stored between the lines: an acute kind of cry that lends to your book the brutal vitality of an animal not yet tamed.

Well done, Darling.

Yours truly,

J.


Ruud van Empel
Ruud van Empel

“You think watching on BBC means you know what is going on?
No you don’t, my friend, it’s the wound that knows the texture of the pain (…).”
― NoViolet Bulawayo, We need new names

 “And when they asked us where we were from, we exchanged glances and smiled with the shyness of child brides. They said, Africa? We nodded yes. What part of Africa? We smiled. Is it that part where vultures wait for famished children to die? We smiled. Where the life expectancy is thirty-five years? We smiled. Is it there where dissidents shove AK-47s between women’s legs? We smiled. Where people run about naked? We smiled. That part where they massacred each other? We smiled. Is it where the old president rigged the election and people were tortured and killed and a whole bunch of them put in prison and all, there where they are dying of cholera – oh my God, yes, we’ve seen your country; it’s been on the news.”

― NoViolet Bulawayo, We need new names

“Look at them leaving in droves, the children of the land, just look at them leaving in droves. Those with nothing are crossing borders. Those with strength are crossing borders. Those with ambitions are crossing borders. Those with hopes are crossing borders. Those in pain are crossing borders. Moving, running, emigrating, going, deserting, walking, quitting, flying, fleeing – to all over, to countries near and far, to countries unheard of, to countries whose names they cannot pronounce. They are leaving in droves.  When things fall apart, the children of the land scurry and scatter like birds escaping a burning sky (…) Look at the children of the land leaving in droves, leaving their own land with bleeding wounds on their bodies and shock on their faces and blood in their hearts and hunger in their stomachs and grief in their footsteps. Leaving their mothers and fathers and children behind, leaving their umbilical cords underneath the soil, leaving the bones of their ancestors in the earth, leaving everything that makes them who and what they are, leaving because it is no longer possible to stay. They will never be the same again because you cannot be the same once you leave behind who and what you are, you just cannot be the same.” 

― NoViolet Bulawayo, We need new names


About the book

  • Chatto & Windus, 2013, 290 p. Goodreads;
  • Vintage, 2014, 304 p. Goodreads;
  • This book was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize (2013), and won the PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award (2014);
  • My rating: 3 stars.
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