In a shantytown called Paradise resides a ten year old girl, Darling, from whom we get the story of We Need New Names, NoViolet Bulawayo's debut novel. There is aching loss and poverty and hope that balances precariously over an abyss of despair, yet Darling, together with her ragtag friends - Bastard, Sbho, Stina, Godknows and Chipo - embark on thrilling experiences that make everything piercingly alive from the inside of their adventurous hearts.
Very quickly, you learn that Paradise is far from the serenity and bliss the name suggests. The reality is that its inhabitants live in tin shacks; a microcosm of unemployment, hunger, political violence and the elusive search for change that splits families up as fathers depart to neighbouring countries to find work. It is not so long ago when they lived in real houses, when the kids went to school and learned to read English, when the fathers didn't spend all their time under the jacaranda playing draughts or the women just talking and doing each other's hair. When her father returns from an unsuccessful sojourn and is suffering from AIDS, Darling is unforgiving and resentful of the bony man rotting away in her mother's bed. Still, for their posse, life is fun and there are more pressing needs to see to. Like stealing guavas from the plush homes in Budapest to line stomachs gone hungry from not having any breakfast that day, even if it means they will feel like their anuses are being ripped apart with constipation later when they squat under the trees to defecate. The memories of their real homes being bulldozed by the police, forcing them to move into the tin shacks, is a different kind of horror to the realization that eleven year old Chipo is pregnant with her grandfather's child.
He did that, my grandfather. I was coming back from playing Find bin Laden and my grandmother was not there, and he got on me and pinned me down like that, and he clamped a hand over my mouth and was heavy like a mountain.
Chipo, hitherto to this moment, had long ago stopped talking as her stomach began to show, though she is not mute-mute. As the words burst from her, she is met with a helpless, almost desperate do you want to go and steal guavas, from Darling, who, despite grasping the terror of what's happened to her friend, could only hurtle with childlike speed toward the safety of an activity they enjoy. She is but a child herself, after all.
Days are spent thus; petty thefts, playing games, remembering the time before, and wondering how to get rid of Chipo's stomach once and for all, the last being the activity that gives the novel its eponymous title. They dream of escape to the real paradise of the USA, Canada and Europe - or failing that, South Africa, maybe even Botswana.
To play the country-game, we have to choose a country. Everybody wants to be the USA and Britain and Canada and Australia and Switzerland and them. Nobody wants to be rags of countries like Congo, like Somalia, like Iraq, like Haiti, and not even this one we live in - who wants to be a terrible place of hunger and things falling apart?
For Darling, this dream becomes a reality when her long bragged about Aunty Fostalina in Destroyedmichygen (Detroit, Michigan) comes for her and a new life in America begins.
Bulawayo displays finesse in capturing the effervescence in Darling's narration, often rhythmic and funny in its bluntness, as well as her mischievous mind. She pinches a baby her neighbour dumps on her laps at church without her permission because he is an ugly baby; his face looks shocked, like he has just seen the buttocks of a snake. The child obediently howls and the mother comes rushing back to collect him, fearing reproach from the other churchgoers. Job done.
America is big and the food plentiful. The men under the jacaranda are no longer there, nor the vendors gustily selling their wares, and definitely no gang calling her to go to Budapest. It is just the greedy snow covering everything with a whiteness that stretches as far as the eyes can see. This is America, yo, you won't see none of that African shit up in this motherfucker, her cousin TK informs her.
There is a delicate shift in Darling's tone by the second half of the story. A budding teenager, her views are less playfully expressed and more cynical, yet sharp as ever, as she observes life in America: white liberals breezily lumping all of Africa and its problems into one big country like it isn't a continent of over fifty nations, the conduct of an African marriage outside the confines of Africa, the ease of access to pornography online, the obsession with weight against the ever widening crisis of obesity in the West.
In America, the fatness is not the fatness I was used to at home. Over there, the fatness was of bigness, just ordinary fatness you could understand because it meant the person ate well, fatness you could even envy...
But this American fatness takes it to a whole 'nother level: the body is turned into something else - the neck becomes a thigh, the stomach becomes an anthill, an arm a thing, a buttock a I don't even know what.
The first part of the novel checklists raging issues in our continent such as the plight of street children, AIDS pandemic, political violence, hypocritical preachers as represented in Prophet Bitchington Mborro, child rape and over-dependence on foreign aid (etc..)...
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 come the giving of gifts.
...so that without the light, sometimes caustic voice of Darling floating over all this as a narrator, We Need New Names would have been a hugely depressing read that fans the idea that Africa is the world's charity case and is to be pitied.
In America, the story takes a predictable turn - in the heroine's disenchantment with the place she thought would be her Nirvana; being faceless in the system as an illegal immigrant doing mind numbingly boring jobs; the decline in the hope of ever going 'back home' without correct paperwork for re-entry into America; the weird mixture of estrangement and longing for the childhood friends who now think her a traitor for abandoning her burning house rather than dousing it with water, and finally, the restlessness and resignation that come with accepting that she'd rather be 'stuck' in that situation than go back home to nothing; an even bigger failure.
Props to the author for laying down these issues, though, perhaps childishly, a part of me wishes everything could have been neatly tied to set Darling up for her happy-ever-after. In this regard, the novel bordered on anti-climatic for me. But of course, as we all know, happy endings only happen in utopia.
We Need New Names unsettles and moves - and makes you more than a little sad. A good read, nonetheless.