We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

I came across this title by NoViolet Bulawayo when it made the long list for the Man Booker Prize 2013.  A new voice and it comes across as fresh, bold and unique. Though I was disappointed not to see Americanah on the list, I was curious to read this book, as it had been suggested it had a similar premise, narrated from a younger character’s point of view and a different country, the protagonist, Darling, is from a rural Zimbabwean village (Ifemulu came from the Nigerian city of Lagos in Adchie’s book).

NoVioletIf there are similarities, it is that they both describe a life before and after they traverse an ocean to live in the new land, however in Darling’s case, her overstaying means that unlike Ifemulu in Americanah, she will not return, for to return having broken the rules is to limit one’s future options – all this despite the grand sacrifices that will be made, in order to live in the land of dreams, they refer to as Paradise.

Their styles are very different though, the only similarity being that geographic shift and the associated perception of another culture as an outsider.  In terms of the reading experience, I find something more in common between the voices Donal Ryan channels in The Spinning Heart and NoViolet Bulawayo’s voice of Darling.  They both have a way of portraying their characters that invokes a feeling  like someone standing too close to your face, they make you feel like you need to step back to get a better view, somewhat difficult when reading for the first time.



We meet Darling with her friends as they are heading over to Budapest (a wealthier neighbourhood) to pick guavas, to relieve a few trees from the burden of their fruit, to steal.  The first half of the book follows this group of friends and their daily life in a small village, where they now live in much rougher conditions despite the promises of independence, due to the destruction of homes by a government set on destroying what is deemed unsightly or was it an act of revenge against the tide of discontent. Either way, their home is now one room, their father is absent but they have each other.

“If you’re stealing something it’s better if it’s small and hideable or something you can eat quickly and be done with, like guavas. That way, people can’t see you with the thing to be reminded that you are a shameless thief and that you stole it from them, so I don’t know what the white people were trying to do, stealing not just a tiny piece but a whole country. Who can ever forget you stole something like that?”

Running alongside the events of the children’s’ lives are the undercurrents of a changing political situation, an increasing frustration with the democratic process, the heightened anger of communities and mobs; eventually Darling is sent to America to live with her Aunt.

“When things fall apart, the children of the land scurry and scatter like birds escaping a burning sky. They flee their own wretched land so their hunger may be pacified in foreign lands, their tears wiped away in strange lands, the wounds of their despair bandaged in faraway lands, their blistered prayers muttered in the darkness of queer lands.”

zimbabwe mapAn American Dream?

America isn’t what she expects, her cousin is not like her friends, the snow and coldness are not like the village, the sky is not like the sky, her thin Aunt pacing the room exercising in front of the TV is not like her mother and her Uncle who comes home, watches sport and shouts Touchdown, unlike her father or the men from the village either.

They are  invited to a wedding, a day that might be a metaphor for the entire immigrant and cultural experience, all the misunderstandings and reminders of a past life wrapped up in one anecdote after the other, they manifest in the drive there, the interactions with guests, and those unspoken rules of engagement in a foreign culture, which Darling will be reminded of before the night is over.

Darling misses her friends and family and wishes to visit them, a topic that her Aunt either avoids or addresses in a vague manner. She will come to understand what she couldn’t know when she left, that it is unlikely she will ever return home. She consoles herself by calling.

“Well, what is happening over here is that your mother is finishing cooking istshwala and macimbis, and Sbho is standing there watching her and eating a guava. When Chipo announces this, I get a strange ache in my heart. My throat goes dry; my tongue salivates. I am remembering the taste of all these things, but remembering is not tasting, and it is painful. I feel tears start to come to my eyes and I don’t wipe them off.”

BulawayoNoViolet Bulawayo creates an unforgettable voice in her protagonist, a lens through which we witness part of what feels like an at times frightening and yet exhilarating childhood, with a naive awareness of the greater political events that will affect their futures.

The life they live is not an easy one, and it may never be as appreciated as it will become through the act of leaving it all behind, as so many do, believing they are heading towards Paradise.  But even in America, when there is a lack of guidance and care, something similar occurs, the only difference being the kinds of activities unsupervised teenagers get up to in a modern city compared to a rural town or village.

Raw and in your face, each chapter is like a scene playing out as you read from the branch of a tree,  just out of danger.  Bulawayo invokes fear and dread in the reader as we encounter each episode and in the end, we are unsure which is preferable, a half lived life in  Not Really Paradise or that volatile, explosive community, still trying to find itself in Zimbabwe.

Further Reading

Interview NoViolet Bulawayo talks to Irenosen Okojie about being a writer in diaspora, her writer’s process and the importance of the Caine Prize.

My Reviews of Zimbabwean Literature

Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga

The Book of Not by Tsitsi Dangarembga

This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga

House of Stone by Novuyo Rosa Tshuma

Note:  This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

24 thoughts on “We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

  1. Like minds think alike. I’m waiting for this book to come at the moment. I just got back and have to go pick up all the packages that have come since we’ve been gone. I hope this one is in it. Your review is making me want to read it now. Question. Shouyld I read this one or Americanah first?


  2. Wonderful review, Claire! I enjoyed reading your comparison of Bulawayo’s book with Adichie’s book. I also liked very much that passage on the heroine remembering the taste of things. The guava is not my favourite friend but it is definitely one of the fruits I like very much. When I was a child and were living in our grandparents’ place for a while, whenever our mother bought guava, there used to be a competition at home on who would get to eat the red ones. The thing was that unless you cut the fruit, you can’t tell whether it is white or red inside. We used to play a game and try to guess on whether a particular guava was white or red. For feeling nostalgic when I read about the guava in your review 🙂 Thanks for this wonderful review.


  3. Claire, I read “We need new names” because it was on your Booker long list. I thought it was very interesting, particularly the parallel between the children’s lives and the political situation. The only thing I didn’t like was the overly long description of the pornographic movies that Darling and her friends watched when she went to America. I really couldn’t see the point and thought it simply made it commercial – if it doesn’t have sex, it won’t sell.


    • I agree, dwelling in their activity was unpleasant and distasteful and I thought about that later and actually saw it almost as an equivalent to some of the frightening things we read about in their childhood in the village, to me it was suggesting that though we may find certain cultural images horrifying, and Bulawayo dishes up enough of those (the pregnancy of their fiend and what they try to do about it for example), it exists in all societies if we dig deep enough. Watching those films was another example of what people get up to when their activities are not under scrutiny, it reminds us to look in our own backyards, at least that was my take on it – I didn’t see it as a commercial thing at all, its more of a warning perhaps. Unpleasant in the extreme for sure. Thanks for coming back to comment.


      • It was the prolonged detail that bothered me, not the allusion or even the initial references. The way she dealt with “the stomach” was much stronger because of the stark way in which the child described what happened. The same was true of the would-be abortion. You felt the horror without any detail being necessary. I glossed over the movie scenes – that’s the advantage of a book of course. I’ve just read the new Australian best seller “Burial Rites” by Hannah Kent. Very, very good. I’d love to your thoughts on it. And thank you for your website. You’ve inspired me in so much of my reading.


        • I’ve just been in London and keep seeing Burial Rites everywhere, Waterstones had a promotional postcard on it “our choice for next month” which I picked up and I’ve recommended it to my Aunt, as she just came back from Iceland and will be returning to design a new TV series Fortitude which is partially set there. Burial Rites looks like it could be turned into a film as well. Definitely on my list to read and thanks for letting me know how you found it, that’s reassuring.

          Thank you for the feedback on my blog, it’s comments like yours that motivate to continue, I just wish I had more time to indulge the passion!


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  6. It was interesting to read your comparison of the two books. I didn’t love Americanah but I felt it was the more accomplished of the two books and more deserving of a place on the shortlist.

    I also agree about your points on the pornography above – what was the point of that?! I found its inclusion a bit weird.


    • Just to be shocking perhaps, or an indictment on the new society, showing that it’s not the great paradise that it’s been dreamed to be. It was like saying that everywhere is the same its just the activities that kids and teenagers up that are different. I found it too much, it laboured the point.


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