There’s a good chance that if our era is remembered for any of its literature, it will be as the moment that opened up to new influences on writing done in English. Despite recent nativist screaming on cable news networks, our literary institutions have lately shown a greater openness to artists who have come to us from different places and languages.
I’ve been trying to keep up with the work of young African writers, several of whom have spent time in our state and have gone on to international acclaim. None has a greater achievement than NoViolet Bulawayo. Her autobiographical first novel, We Need New Names, short-listed last year for the Man Booker Prize, has a structure that reflects both the action and the growth of Darling, its main character.
The first half of the novel follows Darling and her group of young friends, all under ten, as they run through Paradise, their Zimbabwean neighborhood, stealing guavas, pilfering what they can from the abandoned house of former Rhodesian whites, watching the country’s political collapse without understanding its causes or results, and finding what joy they can amidst poverty, sickness, and hopelessness. They jump rope like kids everywhere, but after their school closes, they also invent their own games to fill the empty hours, like “Find bin Laden.”
After that extraordinary evocation of a lost African childhood, Bulawayo interrupts her narrative with a sad but lyrical hymn to the contemporary diaspora: “Look at them leaving in droves, the children of the land, just look at them leaving in droves … 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.” After passing through “Destroyedmichygen” (Detroit) Darling finds herself living with an aunt in Kalamazoo. The contradiction to her homeland is as stark and as troubled as you might imagine.
The second half of We Need New Names follows Darling through her teenage years in Kalamazoo, where she never quite feels at home. She is a good student who works two or three jobs to help support her aunt’s family and to send a little money back to Zimbabwe. Like her American counterparts, she is sucked in to social media, but her life is different from theirs. Although she works hard to learn a precise, unaccented American English, she knows her English will always be different. Africa, Zimbabwe, and Paradise remain at the center of her imagination. When her new American neighbors ask what the displaced Africans left behind, the losses cannot be hidden: “Our smiles melted like dying shadows and we wept; wept for our blessed, wretched country … wept like widows, wept like orphans.”
NoViolet Bulawayo’s novel is a tragic and essential addition to that great ongoing American tradition–the story of immigration. She reads from We Need New Names at UMMA on Thursday, February 11.