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We Need New Names

NoViolet Bulawayo adds her own striking voice to the rich tradition of immigrant literature.

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We Need New Names,
by NoViolet Bulawayo,
Little, Brown,
296 pp.

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Propelled into motion by the rippling aftershocks of colonialism, Africans have spent much of the last half-century writing history with their feet. And as they have scattered around the globe, their literature too has reflected this push and pull, giving rise to a rich tradition of stories, novels, and memoirs that leap across  continents and cultures.

In her debut novel, We Need New Names, Zimbabwean writer NoViolet Bulawayo adds her own, striking voice to this tradition, while also telling a kind of story familiar to many American readers: that of a newcomer, struggling to negotiate the curious particulars of identity in a place where few Americans can even locate the immigrant's country of origin on a map.

“When they asked us where we were from, we exchanged glances and smiled with the shyness of child brides,” she writes. “Africa? We nodded yes. What part of Africa? We smiled. Is it the part where vultures wait for famished children to die. We smiled…. Where people run about naked? We smiled … oh my God, yes, we’ve seen your country; it’s been on the news.”

“We Need New Names” begins when its narrator, Darling, is a 10-year old living in a Zimbabwean township called Paradise. With the brisk directness of a child, she cuts a narrative path through the ruin of early 21st-century Zimbabwe, a place where school is a receding memory and she and her friends spend long afternoons stealing guavas from the wealthy suburbs to keep their hunger at bay.

The citizens of Paradise, whose names – Godknows, Bornfree, Lovemore, Messenger – are unbelievable only if you have never been to Zimbabwe,  wear ripped Western hand-me-down T-shirts emblazoned with inscrutable text like “Google,” “Cornell,” and “Don’t be mean, go green,” which they receive in monthly handouts from a group Darling calls “the NGO people.”

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