Africa's Best Book: Unconvinced

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:

As a new wave of female fiction emerges from Africa, are we going to respond by lumping female writers together, as if they speak in one homogenous voice?

I ask because a great deal is being made about the similarities between We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo (Zimbabwe) and Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Nigeria).

I have no idea why. Apart from them both dealing with the immigrant experience, the books are poles apart.

Adichie’s narrative is told with wry adult humour; Bulawayo’s with intense childlike naivety. Adichie explores a return to Africa; Bulawayo looks at leaving.

Adichie almost flippantly unfolds an addictive, episodic love story about the nuances of cultural stereotyping. Bulawayo consciously constructs a dark fable of politics, poverty and violence, and then drops a brick on her narrative, ranging it across time and continents.

Adichie normalises the African female narrative voice, which makes her third novel both slight and important.

Bulawayo does the opposite. Her debut is very much a first novel that you are likely to either love or hate. Her impressive narrative energy is compelling at first – a description of hell through innocent eyes.

But it overstates itself, trips itself up and stumbles headfirst into a string of clichés about African suffering and the tyrannical reign of Bob Mugabe.

As it turns out, Bulawayo has been long-listed for the Man Booker Prize and not Adichie.

Again, I’m not sure why. Possibly, the world is more comfortable with reinforcing the simplistic African story. Perhaps the Caine Prize – which Bulawayo won for her development work on the novel – is also culpable.

Certainly the Caine lends more weight to expatriate and diasporan writers than writers living on African soil. It’s an issue that clearly also troubles Bulawayo, who lives in America.

There’s a powerful scene where her narrator, Darling, hurls her MacBook against a wall.

She’s living in America and talking over Skype to her friend Chipo, who has had a baby and called her Darling too, neatly replacing the heroine in her motherland. Chipo mocks her for talking about Zimbabwe – she left, she knows nothing about the country, is it even hers any more?

There are other powerful scenes in the novel that compel the reader forward – a genius wedding scene, for example – but there is a cartoonish quality in the Zimbabwe section, especially in the naming of characters, which jars and overstates.

That would be okay, but the novel then yanks itself from Zim and the narrator’s tone changes fundamentally as she ages, but not believably. The last third of the novel doesn’t know what it wants to be. It’s part immigrant alienation, part political sermon.

We Need New Names shows huge promise, but ultimately needed stronger editing.

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