Startling us in a way the news cannot: We Need New Names
Although they comprise only a little over half of the text, the scenes in Africa—the funny along with the tragic—feel like the heart of the book. Later, Darling will move to “DestroyedMichigan” to join her aunt, but Africa is where she first learns about family, country, and the world through stealing guavas, observing the adults, and playing games. We hear the names of these games—Andy Over, Country-Game, Find bin Laden—numerous times because Bulawayo uses them for multiple purposes. For one thing, they remind us that although the children witness horrors well beyond their years, they are still creative, playful children. On the other hand, the names of the games, particularly Country-Game and Find bin Laden, place the children and their “non-country” into a larger, globalized world. This Africa is not the bush, isolated from modern conveniences and the rest of the world. Its citizens go to South Africa to find work. The Chinese are building a shopping mall nearby. In “country-game” we are given a sense of the children’s understanding of their relationship to this world. In a game where each person has to choose a country,
Everybody wants to be the U.S.A. and Britain and Canada and Australia and Switzerland and France…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?
The children accept what the adults either don’t understand or don’t bother to explain: that to be a “real” country means playing, and being taken seriously, on the world stage.
I’ll admit it: because of the terrible things she saw in Africa—death and destruction and illness and poverty—I felt relieved when Darling finally got to America. In America, where she lives with her aunt Fostalina, Fostalina’s common-law husband, and his son, Darling has food and shelter and friends and the Internet. In a brilliant move that again references the strange globalized world in which we are all now living, Darling and her teenage friends, an immigrant from Nigeria and an African American, learn about female genital mutilation by watching a clip on the Internet. The strangeness of this scene and yet its absolute probability was entirely convincing to me. I thought yes, of course, that is what would happen. Because the girls are safe from a similar fate themselves—in a warm basement in Kalamazoo, Michigan—the reader is able to appreciate the horrible beauty of the juxtaposition, the meeting of impossibility and reality.
NoViolet Bulawayo. “We Need New Names” startles us out of established notions in a way the news cannot.
At the same time, while Bulawayo acknowledges that Darling is removed from African tragedies, she is now exposed to others in the land of freedom. There are shootings in the neighborhood; students bring guns to school; Darling and her friends watch Internet porn to learn about sex and, obviously, see some pretty awful things (and others that Darling categorizes as “creepy, nasty, scary, embarrassing, dirty, strange, crime-like, exciting, quiet, interesting”). The point is, of course, that Darling’s dreams of wealth and luxury are not borne out by the reality of life in the United States.
ulawayo’s choice of making the narrator at first a child and then a teenage girl is incredibly effective in showcasing a truth unvarnished by adult rationalization. Darling reports what she sees, but her feelings about it are not fully formed, thus allowing readers to take their own meaning. Bulawayo really blew me away, though, when she diverged from this formula, in a chapter towards the end called “How They Lived.” In this chapter alone the voice switches from Darling’s “I” to the collective “we,” speaking for all Africans who have moved to America:
We wept and wept and they pitied us and said, It’s okay-it’s okay, you are in America now, and still we wept and wept and wept and they gave us soft little thingies and said, Here is some Kleenex, here, and we took the soft thingies and put them in our pockets to look at later and we wept still, wept like widows, wept like orphans.
Many literally are widows and orphans, but the breaking up of this line with the unexpected “soft little thingies” which they “put in [their] pockets to look at later” is the most heart-breaking. We expect widows and orphans in a situation like this, but to see those widows and orphans unable to take advantage of the small kindnesses offered them is a shock.
Although it’s a bit odd that this chapter is dropped into what is otherwise Darling’s story, it makes sense as a way for the reader to see Darling as part of a larger group. The question of placing her story within a larger context is an important one for Bulawayo. After all, a book like this raises questions about authorial responsibility. Does an author writing for an American audience about a foreign culture have an obligation to teach? At first I felt concerned that one did, and that this book wasn’t, until I got to America with Darling, and particularly until I got to the “we” chapter. Other writers have argued that Bulawayo moralizes too much. In a review in The Guardian, Helen Habila wrote that many of the scenes are reminiscent of the “poverty-porn” we see in the west on the news. “We are talking child soldiers, genocide, child prostitution, female genital mutilation, political violence, police brutality, dictatorships, predatory preachers, dead bodies on the roadside,” Habila writes. According to her, such an overload of tragedy has the effect not of making the reader/viewer more caring, but of desensitizing us to suffering.
Certainly that’s true to an extent, and sometimes as I read We Need New Names my reaction was similar to what I often feel when watching the news: What am I supposed to do with this? But in unexpected lines like the one about the Kleenex in “How They Lived,” Bulawayo manages to startle us out of our established notions in a way the news cannot. And the point is surely not to do anything, but rather to see more clearly.
Emily Burns Morgan is a writer, editor, and professor in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The Raleigh Review, Killing the Angel, and The Montreal Review, among other publications.