For NoViolet Bulawayo: We need new names
by Ikhide R. Ikheloa
Look at them leaving in droves, the children of the land, just look at them leaving in droves. Those with nothing are crossing borders. Those with strength are crossing borders. Those with ambitions are crossing borders. Those with hopes are crossing borders. Those in pain are crossing borders. Moving, running, emigrating, going, deserting, walking, quitting, flying, fleeing – to all over, to countries near and far, to countries unheard of, to countries whose names they cannot pronounce. They are leaving in droves. (p 145)
- We Need New Names, NoViolet Bulawayo
In the 21st century, in the age of twitter and Facebook-induced ADHD, when a hard copy book is able to engage you nonstop for two days until you get to its end, all you can do is stand up at the end and give the author of such a miracle a rousing standing ovation. NoViolet Bulawayo’s debut book, We Need New Names is such a book. Let’s just say the book did not make me cry but it certainly aggravated my allergies, something in the pages made a mess of my tear ducts. Bulawayo kicked this one way out of the ball park; dear writers, this is the book to beat. It is a beautiful book, in every sense; every sentence is pretty, you want to take each word home and cuddle up to it. The book may be dying, but Bulawayo is going to ensure that it doesn’t go down without a great fight. I have always thought that thanks to technology, the book at best would be relegated to an archival role, of dead history, etc. Nope, not with Bulawayo, this book is the most contemporary piece of literature I have read in a long time, it situates itself firmly in the 21st century, firmly in our sitting rooms, in our laptops, tablets and smartphones and connects communities, countries and continents with muscle – and Skype. Now, that is how to write a book. Yes.
We Need New Names punches gaping holes in Africa’s boundaries and oozes lovely echoes of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. So, what is this book about? Defiantly starting with the winning short story that ticked me off during the 2011 Caine Prize competition (see How not to write about Africa), Bulawayo takes the reader through the enchanting, disturbing and amazing journeys of six urchins growing up in a place one suspects is in Zimbabwe. Six ten-year old urchins dressed in NGO castoffs – Bastard, Chipo, Godknows, Sbho, Stina and the protagonist Darling, dream of escaping their hell, a place called, you wouldn’t guess it, Paradise. Paradise is hell, a desolate shanty town with a street pregnant with despair named Hope, a place where people simply wait to die, nothing but death and misery happens here. In this part of the world, children are born and they endure waves of war that they did not ask for. Example: Chipo is pregnant – with her grandfather’s baby – at age ten. They are always hungry and they raid the wealthy enclave of Budapest to steal guavas and fill their stomachs until they are too constipated to be hungry. I will never look at a guava the same way again, ever. You imagine six ten-year olds, dressed in the detritus of the West (used Google T-shirts, etc), one pregnant, feet dusty from constant trekking, exploring their devastation, dreaming and scheming of America, a world away where they think there is no hunger, and your heart stops, just stops, this is so wrong. Paradise. Hope. Despair. A deadly joke resides in there somewhere:
We all find places, and me, I squat behind a rock. This is the worst part about guavas; because of all those seeds, you get constipated once you eat too much. Nobody says it, but I know we are constipated again, all of us, because nobody is trying to talk, or get up and leave. We just eat a lot of guavas because it is the only way to kill our hunger, and when it comes to defecating, it becomes an almost impossible task, like you are trying to give birth to a country. (p 16)
We Need New Names is an unusual work of fiction – in a delightful sense. Every chapter has a name and the book reads like a collection of eighteen short stories, whose titles strung together collectively tell one delectable story: Hitting Budapest. Darling on the Mountain. Country-Game. Real Change. How They Appeared. We Need New Names. Shhhh. Blak Power. For Real. How They Left. Destroyedmychygen. Wedding. Angel. This Film Contains Some Disturbing Images. Hitting Crossroads. How They Lived. My America. Writing on the Wall.
And what a story. Each sentence throbs with understated passion. Bulawayo doesn’t use quotes; she employs a delicious neat trick – the dialogue melts into the prose. In effortless dialogue, remarkable since Bulawayo dispenses with the use of quotes, Bulawayo connects the West with Africa in the universality of wars and dysfunction. When the protagonist escapes the hell that was her Africa, she comes face to face with America and her issues, wars that are just as savage as the one she just left behind. And she wails about it in some of the best prose poetry I have ever read in my life. Paradise is hell, Budapest is hope and America, and the road that connects them is named Hope:
After crossing Mzilikazi we cut through another bush, zip right along Hope Street for a while before we cruise past the big stadium with the glimmering benches we’ll never sit on, and finally we hit Budapest. (p 2)
Budapest is the America that the children see on television:
Budapest is big, big houses with satellite dishes on the roofs and neat graveled roads or trimmed lawns, and the tall fences and the Durawalls and the flowers and the big trees heavy with fruit that’s waiting for us since nobody around here seems to know what to do with it. It’s the fruit that gives us courage, otherwise we wouldn’t dare be here. I keep expecting the clean streets to spit and tell us to go back where we came from. (p 4)
These are stories that tell of triumph over the basest of adversities. We Need News Names is unflinchingly disturbing and dark (there is an attempt at abortion by the ten year olds, and there is female genital mutilation). The old ways of Africa can no longer carry her burdens, and her proverbs and sayings are increasingly effete in a new world of twitter, unmanned drones and Wal-Mart. This is a very dark place, most of it a consequence of the rank incompetence of black rule, post-apartheid and independence, many thanks to the selfishness and self-absorption of the intellectual and ruling class. There is deep darkness in this book. Bulawayo’s mind draws intensely dark portraits; a dead woman hanging from a tree, for instance, and children stealing her shoes to go buy bread. Quietly the anger seethes and seethes and seethes in the pretty sentences.
There are daddy issues here, there are no real men here. There are strong whiffs of misandry; there are no real men here, Men are chief baboons in this zoo called Paradise, hapless men fleeing women and children to go to South Africa only to come home, not with bread but with AIDS, prosperity preachers, and men that impregnate their granddaughters and clueless men in the Diaspora shuffling about aimlessly. It is what it is. Here comes Virginia Woolf ululating out of the shadows, chasing men away from the playground:
Generally, the men always tried to appear strong; they walked tall, heads upright, arms steady at the sides, and feet firmly planted like trees. Solid Jericho walls of men. But when they went out in the bush to relieve themselves and nobody was looking, they fell apart like crumbling towers and wept with the wretched grief of forgotten concubines.
And when they returned to the presence of their women and children and everybody else, they stuck hands deep inside torn pockets until they felt their dry thighs, kicked little stones out of the way, and erected themselves like walls again, but then the women, who knew all the ways of weeping and all there was to know about falling apart, would both be deceived; they gently rose from the hearths, beat dust off their skirts, and planted themselves like rocks in front of their men and children and shacks, and only then did all appear almost tolerable. (p 77)
But then, with her enchanting way with words, she draws and paints harrowing pictures of a hell that strips men of their families and dignity with her evocative words. Hear her:
Two years ago, Makhosi went away to Madante mine to dig for diamonds, when they were first discovered and everybody was flocking there. When Makhosi came back, his hands were like decaying logs. He told us about Madante between bouts of raw, painful coughs, how when he was under the earth he forgot everything. He said all he knew inside that mine was the terrible pounding of the hammer around him, sometimes even inside him, like he had swallowed it. (p 23)
Bulawayo wrote this book with every ounce of her blood, the prose is so intense and personal, especially when she is writing about America, the protagonist’s adopted land. Bulawayo’s mind is a riot; it is as if she is a brainy lunatic. I love her quiet confidence, she does not italicize African terms and words, does not go all out to explain them either, reader do the research. I love that.
In We Need New Names, Bulawayo recreates the death of childhood innocence expertly. The details, seamy and dirty, seep out like shy determined children peeping at the world from behind walls of harried, abused mothers and at the end of the book, the portrait is complete – of human triumph over utter devastation. Rich complex imagery expertly folds into the reader’s consciousness in a manner that is just a wee bit more than matter-of-factly. The children’s studied indifference to pain is deliberate, as if to hunt, haunt and hurt the reader. It is what it is. Here are children raising themselves with the help of their mothers. In Bulawayo’s world, the fathers are absent, whenever they are around, they are no-good.
Bulawayo builds each character brick by brick like a master-builder and when she is done you are awed by the muscle of her gift. Bulawayo’s humor is quiet but insistent and once you think about it you burst out laughing in the darkness. Here is a hilarious riff on the absurdity of imperial domination:
If you are 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. (p 20)
And the entire book is exquisite prose-poetry; here are my two favorite lines:
Paradise is all tin and stretches out in the sun like a wet sheepskin nailed on the ground to dry; the shacks are the muddy color of dirty puddles after the rains. (p 34)
It’s light rain, the kind that licks you. We sit in it and smell the delicious earth around us. (p 89)
Steely-eyed and square-jawed, this pretty book that snarls takes careful aim at NGOs, liberal do-gooders and displays Bono-charity devastation on everyone’s conscience with exquisite attention to detail. Here is the new church, the new Christianity run amok. And her eyes do not miss Black Africa’s share of the caricature, of charlatanry. In this book, the new Christianity and AIDS link arms to bulldoze communities and countries. With the awesome power of words, Bulawayo performs a rare feat of bringing AIDS into the reader’s living room:
We don’t speak. We just peer in the tired light at the bundle of bones, at the shrunken head, at the wavy hair, most of it fallen off, at the face that is all points and edges from bones jutting out, the pinkish-reddish lips, the ugly sores, the skin sticking to the bone like somebody ironed it on, the hands and feet like claws. I know then that what really makes a person’s face is the meat; once that melts away, you are left with something nobody can even recognize. (p 101)
We Need New Names seems to go nowhere and it is on purpose. Like a hungry, angry urchin, it sort of wanders around with a certain poetry, the reader follows these children of many wars, wandering, wondering, what manner of God would allow this perversion? Bulawayo is the master artist of grief. This is a complex book, just like life. Here she documents the coming of the Chinese to Africa – the new conquerors:
It’s just madness inside Shanghai; machines hoist things in their terrible jaws, machines maul the earth, machines grind rocks, machines belch clouds of smoke, machines iron the ground. Everywhere machines. The Chinese men are all over the place in orange uniforms and yellow helmets; there’s not that many of them but from the way they are running around, you’d think they are a field of corn. And then there are the black men, who are working in regular clothes – torn T-shirts, vests, shorts, trousers cut at the knees, overalls, flip-flops, tennis shoes. (p 42)
Dambudzo Marechera lives in this book, primly flicking ash off the cigarette he bummed off his white benefactors. Bulawayo is edgy, unflinching, eyes dead set on your conscience until you gasp and look away in shame and disgust. This book can “pinch a rock and make it wince”, so says the book. The book makes it clear: The poor have inherited a new burden after apartheid and post-colonialism – home grown tyranny. Africa’s leaders are in a hurry to build Paris out of the slums, on the backs of the dead poor. Bulawayo describes the bulldozing of a shanty town in a voice so clinical you hurt from the pain. Yes, much of black rule is black on black crime. Bulawayo is supercilious, kneading condescension into the reader’s consciousness. You learn to hate Africa’s benefactors, as poverty monkeys for the NGO cameras. Fuck Bono, her muse seems to mutter in rage. Bulawayo’s skeptical eyes see everything and point out all the adjectives, Africa is about pejoratives and isms: Commercialism, capitalism, consumerism, rampant consumption and materialism, the clutter. There is a looming devastation; Africa is the nuclear waste dump of the West’s offal and detritus, a hellhole where the West’s bad ideas and products go to die.
Exile awaits migrating sprits as Africa empties herself of her beautiful children. When Darling the protagonist escapes Paradise for America, she soon finds that suffering and despair are universal conditions of mankind, exile is not much better than the hell that was Paradise in Africa. The second half of this book about life in America is what the gifted writer and fellow Zimbabwean Brian Chikwava should have written instead of his Harare North. Here, Bulawayo’s prose fairly sings, breaks into a beautiful trot and belts out haunting truths about life in Babylon for many immigrants. Even the entry is jarring:
A few days before I left, Mother took me to Vodloza, who made me smoke from a gourd, and I sneezed and sneezed and he smiled and said, The ancestors are your angels, they will bear you to America. Then he spilled tobacco on the earth and said to someone I could not see: Open the way for your wandering calf, you, Vusamazulu, pave the skies, summon your fathers, Mpabanga and Nqabayezwe and Mahlathini, and draw your mighty spears to clear the paths and protect the child from dark spirits on her journey. Deliver her well to that strange land where you and those before you never dreamed of setting foot. (p 150)
Finally he tied a bone attached to a rainbow-colored string around my waist and said, This is your weapon, it will fight off all evil in that America, never ever take it off, you hear? But then when I got to America the airport dog barked and barked and sniffed me, and the woman in the uniform took me aside and waved the stick around me and the stick made a nting-nting sound and the woman said, Are you carrying any weapons? And I nodded and showed them my weapon from Vodloza, and Aunt Fostalina said, What is this crap? And took it off and threw it in a bin, Now I have no weapon to fight evil in America.
The transition from Africa to America is expertly handled. The cultural shifts are jarring and alarming even. Even in America Bulawayo’s muse only sees darkness; there is little joy here, as if childhood trauma conferred a certain form of depression on her characters. But still there is much to laugh about. Bulawayo offers an unintended but hilarious update on Wole Soyinka’s epic poem Telephone Conversation in which Bulawayo explores the cultural and linguistic conflicts between immigrants and Americans as they negotiate the new land. (p 197) There is a good section in the book where there is an intense confrontation between two erstwhile friends; the African in the Diaspora (Darling), and the African at home (Chipo). This is simply brilliant writing, period; the most brilliant conversation on the anxieties of 21st century immigration I have ever read, again, this section of the book is Chikwava’s Harare North with depth.
Here is coming of age in America:
We are cruising like that and I’m being forced to listen to this stupid Rihanna song that everybody at school used to play like it was an anthem or something. Well, maybe the song isn’t stupid, it’s only that I just got generally sick of that whole Rihanna business, the way she was on the news and everything, 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 fucking Sudan. (p 218)
Here is alienation:
No matter how green the maize look in America, it is not real. They call it corn here, and it comes out all wrong, like small, sweet, too soft. I don’t even bother with it anymore because eating it is really a disappointing thing, it feels like I’m just insulting my teeth. (p 164)
Here is longing:
The uncles and aunts bring goat insides and cook ezangaphathi and sadza and mbhida and occasionally they will bring amacimbi, which is my number one favorite relish, umfushwa, and other foods from home, and people descend on the food like they haven’t eaten all their lives. They tear off the sthwala with their bare hands, hastily roll and dip it in relish and pause briefly to look at one another before shoving it in their mouths. Then they carefully chew, tilting their heads to the side as if the food speaks and they are listening to the taste, and then their faces light up. (p 161)
Here is culture clash:
When the microwave says nting, fat boy TK takes out a pizza and eats it. When the microwave says nting, he takes out the chicken wings. And then it’s the burritos and hot dogs. Eat, eat, eat. All that food TK eats in one day, me and Mother and Mother of Bones would eat in maybe two or three days back home. (pp. 156-157)
Now, that is brilliant, delectable writing. It gets better; you must read two chapters, How They Left and How They Lived. Bulawayo lapses into haunting, almost hallucinatory prose-poetry, the emotion and passion shake you to your core. She grieves and grieves and grieves and she will not be consoled, oh she grieves, this child that saw something awful. Read those chapters to the most stone-hearted immigration official in America and political asylum is yours. The words seep into your bones and slap you awake. Suddenly you just want to go home, except no one knows anymore where is home, the passages are so deeply emotive. America the hopeful morphs into America the prison. Illegal immigration is the lot of many immigrants and Bulawayo handles it beautifully. It is the truth, for many immigrants, exile in America is a long lament and Bulawayo beats the drums for the living dead.
Let me just put it out there: This is probably the best book I have read in a very long time, perhaps in a decade, certainly the most poignant ode to identity, alienation and longing. You simply fall in love with the writing and the characters. Boundaries, communities and nations fascinate Bulawayo endlessly and she plumbs their depths and boundaries honestly and with conviction. By the way, the characters text and IM – in an African novel, wow, what a concept. We Need New Names is the face of today’s fiction ported to yesterday’s media – the book.
There is not a whole lot to not like about the book. It is well designed and even though I had an advance review copy, there were precious few edits which I am sure would have been taken care of in the final copy. There is a sense though in which Bulawayo does not much depart from the protest art of post-colonialist literature. The book could fairly be called a political statement posing as fiction. But it is funny nonetheless even when Bulawayo is being supercilious:
I’m supposed to start teaching him my language because he says he and his brother are going to my country so he can shoot an elephant, something he has dreamed of doing ever since he was a boy. I don’t know where my language comes in – like does he want to ask the elephant if he wants to be killed or something? (p 268)
Bulawayo’s world-view is out there for all to see, she doesn’t pretend that this is just fiction and one must shy away from those things.
You should read this stunning book along with Chika Unigwe’s equally stunning essay in Aeon magazine, Losing my voice. In this intensely personal and evocative essay Unigwe gives voice to the deep anxieties faced by many immigrants like her as they came face to face with the dislocation from home. Unigwe’s experience is immediately before the muscular bringing down of all walls by the Internet and social media, both works complement each other greatly, in style, outlook and vision. The difference is that while one senses that even beyond We Need New Names, the protagonists may be still immersed in despair, Unigwe’s story ends in hope and triumph, a warrior overcoming her fears and finding the light switch in the dark. But the pain in Unigwe’s journey is heartrending:
When I left Nigeria for Belgium, I made my husband’s home my own. But homesickness lodged like a stone inside me… When I began to write again, I discovered that I was not writing the kind of fiction I would have written back home. Certainly not at first. I wrote about displacement and sorrow. The voices of immigrants filled my head and spilled out on several pages of short stories and then a novel, The Phoenix. My characters were mostly melancholic women unable to return home but lacking the tools (or perhaps the temperament) to fit into their new home. They were victims browbeaten into silence by an alien culture and an alien climate. Perhaps it was me wanting to pass on what I had suffered to someone else. Maybe it is human nature to seek revenge even when there is none to be sought.”
The writer Taiye Selasi (of Ghana Must Go) has also forcefully fought against the pigeon-holing of “Africans” into predictable labels – and stereotypes. Under her fierce and passionate watch, the term Afropolitan has taken wings, as in, we are the sum of our life’s experience. Read her powerful and evocative essay, Bye-Bye Barber, and her powerful memoir-essay on being an African and you will get the sense that a generation of Africans is breaking free from the literature of Chinua Achebe and Camara Laye. I don’t really care much for labels (Chimamanda Adichie has Nigerpolitans in her new book, Americanah) but I think it is a good thing that these writers are resisting pigeonholes.
We Need New Names is not a perfect book (but then, is there a perfect book?). Take this passage for instance:
When America put up the big reward for bin Laden, we made spears out of branches and went hunting for him. We had just appeared in Paradise and we needed new games while we waited for our parents to take us back to our real homes. At first we banged on the tin shacks yelling for bin Laden to come out, and when he didn’t we ran to the bushes at the end of the shanty, We looked in the thickets; climbed trees, looked under rocks, We searched everywhere. Then we went and climbed Fambeki, but by the time we got to the top, we were hot and bored. It was like looking for air; there was just no bin Laden. (pp. 288-289)
It is funny, but then if the book’s characters were about 14 years old in 2009 (when Rihanna was mauled by Chris Brown) they would probably have been too young in 2001 (when 9/11 happened), to be that politically savvy. Who cares? I am smitten.
Finally, I must return to my anxieties about the single story, of despair, gore and war as I expressed in my essay, The Caine Prize: How not to write about Africa. This is what I said with regard to the shortlisted stories of the 2011 Caine Prize which Bulawayo eventually won, and I stand by it:
The Caine Prize for African Writing has been great for African literature by showcasing some truly good works by African writers. The good news is that the Caine Prize is here to stay. The bad news is that someone is going to win the Caine Prize this year. This is a shame; having read the stories on the short-list I conclude that a successful African writer must be clinically depressed, chronicling in excruciating detail, every open sore of Africa, apologies to Wole Soyinka. The creation of a Prize for “African writing” may have created the unintended effect of breeding writers willing to stereotype Africa for glory.
Of Bulawayo’s entry, I said this:
Zimbabwe’s NoViolet Bulawayo has a fly-ridden piece, Hitting Budapest, about a roaming band of urchins, one of them impregnated by her grandfather – at age ten… Bulawayo would be my pick for the prize. She sure can write, unfortunately her muse insists on sniffing around Africa’s sewers… The tragedy is that these are good writers showcasing good prose and great dialogue. But to the extent that literature documents the lived life, they are stuck in the fog of stereotypes.
For too long, there has been a disturbing trend in African literature in which Africa’s history is being distorted by a powerful minority of mercenary Diaspora African writers. Postcolonial African literature has been grossly distorted and unduly influenced by the self-serving narrative-for-rent hawked by this contingent of writers. Using their access to good publishers, their mediocre thoughts hide behind pretty covers to assault Africa’s sensibilities. I remain deeply concerned about the reality that much of African literature is defined by a certain type of fiction, as articulated in books, much of it predictable poverty porn. I propose again that those who seek to catalogue the robust range of Africa’s stories must in addition to books, look to Twitter, Facebook, online journals and blogs for relief. The book alone is a wretched barometer for gauging Africa’s anxieties and triumphs. The sum total of those stories shortlisted for the 2011 Caine Prize stamped a pejorative on Black Africa and I had a huge problem with that. Apparently the Caine Prize organizers were concerned enough to declare a moratorium on submissions that smelt of poverty porn in 2012. I am happy that they listened to these concerns. Bulawayo’s debut novel in my view does not qualify as poverty porn. Everything depends on context, taken as a whole it tells a powerful story of hell, identity, alienation, longing and the restlessness of life’s journeys in both worlds – Black Africa and the West. Bulawayo proves with stunning literary muscle that there suffering and savagery are universal dysfunctions. Bulawayo will be back with more stories. This reader can’t wait.