Africa's Best Book: Convinced

2013-08-11 14:00

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The Man Booker Prize long list has been announced and Zimbabwean author NoViolet Bulawayo’s debut, We Need New Names, is the only African book to make the cut. Two City Press staffers react:

We Need New Names is a provocative story on the plight of Zimbabweans, told mostly through the eyes of an innocent girl, Darling.

It relates her escapades with her friends Chipo, Sbho, Stina, Godknows and Bastard.

The first part of the book (which is also the best part) is filled with childlike thoughts and fantasies, accompanied by a few thought-provoking experiences. These make for some powerful and enjoyable reading.

The comparison between the Paradise slum and Budapest (a suburb for the rich not far away) is related with the innocence of a child, making the contrast all the more stark. The gang of kids roam the streets stealing guavas (their favourite pastime) or playing Find Bin Laden.

But this sense of humble innocence (the writer clearly sets up a time before “the fall”) is shattered by the violence that uproots Zimbabwean families following elections.

In the aftermath, many are thrust into poverty and hopelessness. They lose their homes and have to settle in Paradise.

Darling’s innocence is steadily eroded: among many challenges, her father returns, sick with Aids, from South Africa and her young friend Chipo falls pregnant.

The most poignant section of the book is when Darling and her friends decide to “operate” on Chipo’s tummy, as it is interfering with their games.

Chipo eventually names her baby after Darling.

In time, after Darling leaves for the US, she becomes something of a snob and looks down on her friends back home in Africa. This robs her of the strong connection she once had with the others, and she even reaches the point of not calling her own mother.

To me, this transformation is completely relevant to what the diaspora experience means and how it resonates with many of those who “made it out”.

A disastrous Skype confrontation between Darling and Chipo reveals how big a wall ends up being built between those who flee their countries in search of better lives and those who remain behind in a collapsed state.

The book’s narrative tone and even the writing style changes after Darling moves to America and assumes her rather more serious tone of voice.

This, to a degree, makes the book lose some of its appeal, and Darling’s superior attitude to some of what she encounters in America, including the noises people make in porn flicks, didn’t really work for me, although it was a fun scene that has charmed other readers. Also, it remains a convincing portrayal of just how much Darling has changed.

The book ends up dealing with a checklist of issues anyone familiar with Africa’s problems and its diaspora would be familiar with. Despite those who might feel jaded by having to read about Africa and its problems all the time, and who thus dismiss these things as clichés, these remain real issues that confront millions of Africans. This new voice deserves to be heard and applauded.

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

Random House;

304 pages;

R248; at kalahari.com

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