What first struck me about NoViolet Bulawayo’s novel of coming of age in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, We Need New Names, were the brilliant insults. Ten year old Darling, and her gang of friends – Bastard, Stino, Sbho, and Godknows (not Chipo, though—she hasn’t said a word since she got pregnant)—run through the shanties and guava orchards relentlessly haranguing each other. Cabbage head, they sneer. Chapped buttocks. Goat teeth. Dumb donkey.
Darling and her friends have plenty reason to be brutal with each other. Life in their slum, Paradise, is unrelenting. In the first of the novel’s episodic chapters, the children steal the shoes off a corpse hanging from a tree to buy one loaf (“maybe even one and a half”) of bread. Darling’s voice – unsentimental, intelligent without any cloying precociousness – gives the book a wild energy. With Darling we are running through Paradise, where people are dying of AIDS, where children are attempting to perform abortions from what they learned watching television. We are with her making fun of the NGO workers, the Bible-thumpers, the Chinese contractors building high-end malls, and we are with her yearning for America, with its Lady Gaga, its Barack Obama, its endless food. We tumble breathlessly with Darling through sentences like, “And then we are rushing, then we are running, then we are running and laughing and laughing and laughing.”
The beautiful rush of the book’s first half slows considerably in the second. Darling moves with her Aunt Fostalina and Uncle Kojo to Detroit (which she hears, perhaps not inappropriately, as Destroyedmichygen). While Zimbabwe is vividly realized, all Bulawayo offers of Detroit is the snow. And like lake effect snow, Darling’s thoughts about it become mind-numbingly endless (“It is also very, very cold,” she unnecessarily reminds us). Even when Darling’s thoughts about her new life in Detroit begin to get interesting (“It’s like we’re in a terrible story, like we’re in the crazy parts of the Bible –”) she circles back to the snow( “– there where God is busy punishing people for their sins and is making them miserable with all the weather”). The only Detroit voice comes from Darling’s baggy-pantsed, chubby cousin TK, who tells her, “This is America, yo, you won’t see none of that African shit up in this motherfucker.” Not only does this veer toward a disappointing stereotype, it sounds oddly outdated, like scrapped dialogue from Do the Right Thing.
The novel gathers momentum again when the family moves to Kalamazoo. The shock of the Midwest landscape subsides, and adolescence pulls Darling out of her homesickness. The Paradise gang is replaced with two girls, African-American Kristal and Nigerian Marina, and while their shenanigans are much more suburban, the urgency in Darling’s voice keeps the tension high. The girls work through the alphabet of internet porn, from amateur to milf to she-male. They steal Marina’s mother’s car to drive to the mall after a boy with a gun shuts down their middle school for the day. With a biting, vulgar wit that nods to Junot Diaz, Bulawayo is brilliant at capturing adolescent sass. Driving in that stolen car, Darling hears Rihanna on the radio and complains, “I know her crazy boyfriend beat her up but I don’t think she had to be all over, like her face was a humanitarian crisis, like it was the Sudan or something.” Her friends are as much under her acerbic scrutiny. She observes, “Ever since Kristal got this chest like she’s going to breastfeed the whole of America, she has this thing about bossing people around, like somebody made her queen.”
There are multiple references to Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, and Bulawayo is well aware of her novel’s postcolonial predecessors. The older and more articulate Darling becomes, the more her homesickness is complicated by politics and anger. As Darling works sorting pop cans at a grocery store (in Michigan, bottles get a 10 cent return) and cleaning the house of a wealthy white man, her parallel worlds of Michigan and Zimbabwe collide. All of Darling’s observations of America—her Aunt Fostalina struggling past her accent to order a Victoria’s Secret bra on the phone, the school shootings, the endless fast food, the spoiled children – crystallize as she watches her boss’s daughter carefully place five raisins on a plate. “You have a fridge bloated with food so no matter how much you starve yourself, you’ll never know real, true hunger,” she lashes at the girl.
The novel leaves Darling in a strange place—she’s not quite a Michigander, but she’s also not allowed to cast her lot with her mother country’s suffering. It’s the once-quiet Chipo, a mother now, who articulates what Darling has sacrificed by leaving. On a Skype call, Chipo chastises her, “You left it, Darling, my dear, you left the house burning and you have the guts to tell me, in that stupid accent that you were not even born with, that doesn’t even suit you, that this is your country?” It’s a truth that leaves so much unanswered for Darling, so much for her to reconcile. As Bastard told Darling back when they were stealing guavas in Paradise, “You have to be able to return from wherever you go.” The struggle, Bulawayo seems to be telling us, is how this can ever be possible.
By Kelsey Ronan