The début novel of NoViolet Bulawayo, We Need New Names is a series of linked short stories that portrays the coming of age of a young girl named Darling, initially in Paradise, a shantytown in her native Zimbabwe, and then, under the guardianship of her Aunt Fostalina, in ‘Destroyedmichygen’ (Detroit, Michigan).
On the dirt streets of home, she runs with a crew of colourfully-named friends, Godknows, Bastard, Stina, Sbho and Chipo, ready to raid the affluent nearby community of Budapest for its luscious supply of guava, a delicious but constipating fruit.
The country is in trouble, men are without work, crime is rife, and an election is looming. Chipo, a child herself at 11, just a year older than Darling, is pregnant.
She runs and plays with the others but has been struck mostly mute.
Darling’s father has returned from South Africa, “sick and all bones” with AIDS.
Another woman that the children discover hanging from a cluster of trees has left a note also admitting to the ‘Sickness’.
They respond by stealing her shoes to sell so that they can buy bread.
This is the lowest reach of the Third World, one where innocence and horror coexist. America is — initially — wonderful. Darling starts school and shines as a straight-A student, she makes new friends, adopts an accent and embraces her new society’s excesses, the endless choice of food and clothes, the pop music and mall existence, even the parade of online pornography.
All is done with the same humanly selfish, wide-eyed innocence, but she also realises that she is changing, that she has lost something of herself. She feels homesick, and misses those back in Zimbabwe, but when she speaks with them by phone, distance has come to define their relationship.
She is, they tell her, no longer Zimbabwean, because she abandoned the burning house rather than trying to help quench the flames. So she is an exile, and an alien, no longer one thing, not yet another.
From the opening chapter, ‘Hitting Budapest’, a story that won the 2011 Caine Prize for African Writing (often considered the ‘African Booker’), the first-person narrative achieves a breathtaking vibrancy, ambition and pathos.
The voices and characterisations are wonderful, the prose a masterclass in sustained and developed voice. But it is the perspective that most impresses, the way two countries, two separate worlds can be contrasted for their joys and failings.
We Need New Names, finally available in paperback, has already enjoyed considerable acclaim, earning a slew of honours including the PEN/Hemingway Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Award.
It was also shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize, the first time a Zimbabwean writer has done so. For a writer this good, it is bound to be simply the beginning.