“Stina said a country is a Coca-Cola bottle that can smash on the floor and disappoint you.” So reports Darling, the child narrator of NoViolet Bulawayo’s remarkable debut novel, We Need New Names. The fragile country in question is Zimbabwe, the homeland Darling shares with her 31-year-old creator. Through them, we experience just what it is like to grow up in a place turning to shards beneath your feet.
Darling’s world is the shantytown of Paradise, which, under the nightmarish regime of Robert Mugabe, is anything but. There are no fathers – they have all left, in a desperate attempt to find work. There is next to no food, and children survive by stealing guavas from the trees of the affluent enclaves outside Paradise. There is no school.
When Darling’s father finally returns, he is a horror, dying of AIDS, a disease people in Paradise still refuse to name out loud. “He is just length and bones,” Darling tells us. “He is crocodile teeth and egg-white eyes, lying there, drowning on the bed.” Metaphors of hunger, theft and murder haunt Darling’s language – occasionally too frequently, but always memorably. When the remaining adults go off to vote (in vain, it turns out), the children are in such a state of terrified suspense that “we so badly want to see the adults come back, it’s like we will eat them when they do.”
The horror is leavened, considerably, by Darling’s mordant sense of humour. Bulawayo shows a deft touch here, never forgetting that Darling is a child, but allowing her enough precocity to make her a darkly delightful guide. As she grows up, Darling’s love for her tough, ragtag gang of friends – and, by extension, her country – stays as fierce as any of the anger in this signally fierce book. And so we, like Darling, mourn when she emigrates to America to live in a place she has known heretofore as “Destroyedmichygen.”
Now, in place of brutality, we get the merely brutalist: malls, Internet porn, credit-fuelled addictions to the Victoria’s Secret catalogue. Bulawayo, who herself left Zimbabwe for the United States when she was 18, has admitted, in an interview with The Guardian, that she doesn’t “feel inspired by America at all,” and it shows.
America, though, is the vantage point from which Darling must confront her own complicity, her tendency to paint her memories of Africa in a wash of nostalgic exotica. Idly Skyping “home” in a lonely moment, she gets a tongue-lashing that she, and any reader who has ever moved away from anywhere, is unlikely to forget.
Such moments of stark honesty pervade this novel, making it powerfully, uncompromisingly raw, and deserving of the high praise it has received from the formidable likes of Junot Diaz and Edwidge Danticat. There are no cheaply bought epiphanies here – even the jewel-like guavas Darling now yearns for can make defecation so painful it is like “trying to give birth to a country.” Yet there is plenty of truth; and yes, there is beauty in it, even when it is shot through with ugliness. The resultant mix is formidable indeed.
Melanie Little is the author of a collection of stories, Confidence, and a novel for young people, The Apprentice’s Masterpiece.