Monday, August 5, 2013
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
Allow me in deadpan fashion to outline the early sections of Zimbabwe-born American-resident NoViolet Bulawayo’s debut novel We Need New Names.
10-year-old Darling and her brother Bastard live in a miserable slum in Zimbabwe, perversely called the Paradise. They run with a gang, which includes Chipo, Godknows, Sbho and Stina. They spend much of their day stealing guavas and getting into trouble. Darling’s father is absent working in South Africa. The kids’ lives are at the starvation level. It seems clear that Darling’s mother gains some income as a prostitute.
The kids see terrible things.
They see a woman hanging dead from a tree – apparently a suicide, who preferred a quick death to a long one from a debilitating disease. When father eventually returns home he is wasting away with AIDS. There is the possibility that one member of the kids’ gang has been raped. A girl plays at performing an abortion on herself with an unbent coat-hanger, as seen on American TV shows. Exorcism rituals in the local African Pentecostal church come close to being a form of abuse in themselves. Then the kids witness the spectacle of government goons beating up a white couple and expropriating their house. (They are obviously Robert Mugabe’s goons, but the dictator’s name is given only as “our president” in the text.) Later the grown-ups, part of the democratic opposition to Mugabe, go to the polls in the hope of changing things for the better. They are stomped on. The kids are at the funeral of the ironically-named Bornfree, who has been murdered by the Mugabe crowd.
By now, you are convinced that this is a depressing novel of unrelieved sordor, aren’t you?
But here is the paradox. In spite of all these terrible things that are depicted, the first-person, present-tense narration of Darling is vibrant, almost buoyant. Among much else, We Need New Names is about the resilience of children. We feel with Darling. We do not pity her. She is growing up with an observant eye and we are aware that there is a certain pitilessness in the gaze of children who have to observe the worst of life at close quarters. It is their defence mechanism and shield.
With unblinking gaze, Darling watches the Chinese contractors bulldozing slum homes so that the government can “relocate” people. Her attitude to visiting foreign reporters, who come to photograph the slums, is strictly ironical. So is her depiction of the Pentecostal church, which announces itself in capitals on a billboard thus: “HOLY CHARIOT CHURCH OF CHRIST – IT DOESN’T GO BACKWARDS, IT DOESN’T GO SIDEWAYS, IT DOESN’T GO FORWARDS. IT GOES UPWARDS TO HEAVEN. AMEN!” (Chapter 2 Pg.30)
In the worst possible circumstances there is laughter and there is possibility and there is life, even if it takes the grotesque form of the kids acting out Freeborn’s murder at his funeral. There is also the no-nonsense kids’ game that is part of the reason for the novel’s title, and that shows an unsentimental appreciation of the realities of power. The kids gather to play the game:
“But first we have to fight over the names because everybody wants to be certain countries, like everybody wants to be the U.S.A and Britain and Canada and Australia and Switzerland and France and Italy and Sweden and Germany and Russia and Greece and them. These are the country-countries. If you lose the fight, then you just have to settle for countries like Dubai and South Africa and Botswana and Tanzania and them. They are not country-countries but at least life is better than here. Nobody wants to be rags of countries like Congo, like Somalia, like Iraq, like Sudan, like Haiti, like Sri Lanka, and not even this one we live in – who wants to be a terrible place of hunger and things falling apart? If I’m lucky like today, I get to be the U.S.A., which is a country-country; who doesn’t know that the U.S.A. is the big baboon of the world?” (Chapter Three, Pg.49)
Darling’s desire to go to America (as the author did) is signalled early in a passage of free-flowing conversation that is a good example of NoViolet Bulawayo’s ability to link ideas and tensions with a child’s physical experience:
“I’m going to America to live with my aunt Fostalina, it won’t be long, you’ll see, I say, raising my voice so that they all can hear. I start on a brand-new guava; it’s so sweet I finish it in just three bites. I don’t even bother chewing the seeds.
America is too far, you midget, Bastard says. I don’t want to go anywhere where I have to go by air. What if you get there and find it’s a kaka place, and get stuck and can’t come back? Me, I’m going to Jo’burg, that way when things get bad, I can just get on the road and roll without talking to anybody; you have to be able to return from wherever you go.
I look at Bastard and think what to say to him. A guava seed is stuck between my gum and my last side tooth and I try to reach for it wit my tongue. I finally use my finger: it tastes like earwax.” (Chapter 1, p.14)
Among the skilful things in this early passage is the way possible disillusion is raised (“What if you get there and find it’s a kaka place?”). This will loom larger in the second half of the novel.
Ms. Bulawayo is generally careful in sustaining a child’s-eye perspective and keeping Darling’s observations ones that a young girl could plausibly make. There are times, however, when she comes close to spelling out the oppressive political situation, and the disappointment of the hopes that black independence had encouraged, in more adult terms.
Here is Darling watching the grown-ups going off to vote, with little hope that the ballot will remove Mugabe:
“ The day that the adults go to vote, we stand at the edge of the Paradise, near the graveyard, and watch them leave. They are silent when they go, none of that talk-talk of the days before. We are quiet because we’ve never seen them silent, not like this. We want them to open their mouths and speak. To talk about elections and democracy and new country like they have been doing all along. We want them to look over their shoulders and tell us they will know what we are doing while they’re gone. We want them to say something but they are just silent like they are suddenly unsure, like something crept upon them while they slept and cut out their tongues.” (Chapter Four, Pg.68)
And here is a four-way conversation among the adults that spells out the disappointment of hopes and loss of pride:
“Wasn’t it like this before independence? Do you remember how the whites drove us from our land and put us in those wretched reserves? I was there. You were there. Wasn’t it just like this?
No, those were evil white people who came to steal our land and make us paupers in our own country.
What, aren’t you a pauper now? Aren’t these black people evil for bulldozing your home and leaving you with nothing now?
You are all wrong. Better a white thief do that to you than your own black brother. Better a wretched white thief.” (Chapter Five, Pg.75)
At almost exactly midway through the novel, Darling’s dream comes true and she goes to live in Detroit, Michigan, with her Aunt Fostalina. But the real U.S.A. is not necessarily the U.S.A. of her dreams, and Darling’s maladjustment to the new environment is overlaid with the persistence of her formative myths. As she remarks early in the novel’s “American” half:
“With all this snow, with the sun not there, with the cold and dreariness, this place doesn’t look like my America, doesn’t even look real. It’s like we are in a terrible story, like we’re in the crazy parts of the Bible, there where God is busy punishing people for their sins and making them miserable with all the weather. The sky, for example, has stayed white all this time I have been here, which tells you that something is not right. Even the stones know that a sky is supposed to be blue, like our sky back home, which is blue, so blue you can spray Clorox on it and wipe it with a paper towel and it wouldn’t even come off. And other thing: you won’t see them from where I am standing but there are tokoloshes too in that snow. At night I dream they come out of it and they say, Hey, do you want to make a snowman? How are you doing? Where are you from? Then they say, Do you like High School Musical or That’s So Raven? They say, do you want McDonald’s or Burger King? They say, Do you like Justin Bieber? I shout at the tokoloshes to go away.” (Chapter Eleven pp.150-151)
It’s not my intention to spike all the novel’s surprises by summarising the whole plot, but I can say that the second half of We Need New Names circles around the whole issue of cultural identity. In America, Darling discovers that not all Africans have the same culture or see things the same way. Her Uncle Kojo is Ghanaian. A Zulu, with rather stereotypical conceptions of his African homeland, figures prominently in the story. More distressingly, American-born blacks – “Afro-Americans” – are often completely ignorant of the real condition of Africa. Some of them even praise the “anti-white-colonial” posturing and rhetoric of “our president” Mugabe. Darling also has to take on, and reacts against, the funny way some of them speak English and their demotic notion of “Ebonics”.
Then there is the pressure of American consumerism and waste. An opulent American wedding is described in anthropological terms. People over-eat and get fat. Kids gorge themselves silly from the icebox and the microwave, and they cuss their parents with four-lettered words. And there is the pull of the American media. There is not only mainstream programming, which Darling’s friends ape. There is also readily available pornography. A long and detailed chapter gives graphic descriptions of the porn Darling’s friends watch while their parents are out.
America is not Paradise; but the Paradise in Zimbabwe was not Paradise either. This is the unresolved situation young Darling is in by novel’s end: still uncomfortable with America despite all its material attractions, still homesick and nostalgic for Zimbabwe despite everything she knows about it. The between-two-worlds condition of all immigrants and refugees.
We Need New Names is a vivid and urgent novel, despite some moments of awkwardness. There is a disconcerting change of narrative voice in a short chapter linking the novel’s two “halves”. Later Bulawayo abandons Darling’s first-person voice for a couple of chapters so that she can give the collective voice of the African immigrants’ experience in America. The polemical bits are sometimes a little contrived.
For all that, this is forceful writing, which has a sense of authentic experience. Even if it is not always for the faint-hearted.