We Need New Names

  • NoViolet Bulawayo
  • Little, Brown and Company
  • 304 pp.

Stretching from Zimbabwe to Michigan, the hardship and rootlessness of a young girl’s life is the focus of this debut novel.

Despite the claim on the cover of NoViolet Bulawayo’s debut, We Need New Names, that the book is a novel, it would have been more accurate to label it as another example of that wonderfully complex hybrid, a novel in stories. As in other novels in stories, such as Olive Kittredge and A Visit from the Goon Squad, each chapter has its own title and can stand alone; read together, however, Bulawayo’s collection successfully weaves together a more intricate story of powerlessness, displacement and the devastation wrought by the failed state of Bulawayo’s home country of Zimbabwe.

As the author of a novel in stories and an avid reader of the short form, I am puzzled by the apparent preference for novels over story collections that compels publishers to market books such as Bulawayo’s as a novel. When I query my novel-reading friends why they don’t read short stories, they offer up two reasons: first, they want a plot that pulls them in quickly and strings them along through the entire book; second, they become emotionally attached to the characters and don’t want to have a new protagonist appear and disappear every 10 or 20 pages. 

We Need New Names is for readers who fall under the latter of these two categories, because all but two of the stories feature the same protagonist, Darling Nonkululeko Nkala. In the opening story, she is 11 years old. We watch her grow over the remainder of the book as she hangs out with her pack of friends in the ironically named Zimbabwean neighborhood of Paradise, and later after she moves to Michigan to live with her aunt. This character, rather than a plot, keeps the reader turning the pages. 

Despite her name, Darling is neither a sweet nor an endearing child. She is rough, tough and at times even cruel, shaped by circumstances that are unfathomable to most Americans: an absent father who returns home only to die, a mother who is often missing as well, no school to attend because the public schools have been closed, precarious and unhealthy living conditions, a failed system of government that subjugates and disenfranchises the adults in her community, and the constant presence of hunger and death. What can Darling and her friends Bastard, Chipo, Godknows, Sbho and Stina do other than play games like “Find bin Laden,” steal guavas and chase after the car of a fictional nongovernmental organization that dispenses aid in the unlikely form of toy guns?

With each of the stories set in Zimbabwe, Darling faces a new calamity: encountering the body of a woman who has recently hanged herself, discovering that her 11-year-old friend was impregnated by the girl’s grandfather, watching her father slowly die of AIDS, or witnessing a group of men terrorize a white couple and haul them from their home. The U.S.-set stories, however, seem less distinguishable from each other, in that they each relate a similar tale of the rootlessness and difficulties of adaptation faced by immigrants. Two of these stories (“How They Left” and “How They Lived”) are even told in plural voices, no longer telling Darling’s individual story but rather the collective story of a nameless body of immigrants. As a result, the Zimbabwe stories are by far stronger and more visceral than the Michigan-set stories, capturing a voice that is infused with brash, surprising humor even as it creates an unnerving conflict within the reader: while we want to care for Darling because she is a child, we are repelled by some of the things she says. 

Take this excerpt, for example, from “Shhh,” the story in which her father returns from South Africa to die: “When the coughing finally ceases he is sweating and breathing like somebody chased him all the way from Budapest, and when he says, Water, in that tattered voice, I make like I don’t hear him because I am hating him for making me stop my life like this. In my head I’m thinking, Die. Die now so I can go play with my friends, die now because this is not fair. Die die die. Die.”

Bulawayo understands that this conflict, and therefore Darling’s childhood in Zimbabwe, is the real heart of her book, because she brings the reader back to that time in the final scene. By juxtaposing a moment of suffering against child-like wonder, the memory she relates provides a chilling but perfect summary of all the pages that came before it. 

Susi Wyss is the author of The Civilized World, a novel in stories set across Africa that was largely inspired by her 21-year career in international health. In addition to receiving the Maria Thomas Fiction Award, The Civilized World was named a “Book to Pick Up Now” by O, the Oprah Magazine.

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