The associations we hold with the continent of Africa are impressions that are vastly different from the reality of actually living there. The world speaks of pity and sadness in the context of those countries, while forgetting that it remains the home of millions of people, who may exist in a world fiscally poorer than ours, but by no means devoid of happiness. We Need New Names is a novel that manages to inject some of the true joy and energy of this location into its lines of prose. It opens in Zimbabwe as Mugabe tightens his stranglehold on the country, told through the eyes of Darling, a ragamuffin girl growing up in a slum called Paradise. During the course of the novel, Darling is taken by her aunt to live in America at the age of 10 to grow up in a safer world. It manages to show us a slice of the real Africa – a place where children are hungry, but play and laugh, stealing guavas from the trees of their wealthy neighbours to get by. It also shows us the reality of growing up in America as an immigrant –always grateful but never quite belonging.
For me, the novel shares similarities with books such as First They Killed My Father, a memoir set during the Khmer Rouge (which I urge anyone to read). The latter is much closer to autobiography than We Need New Names, but the themes of misplacement upon being uprooted to America from the mother country are very familiar. Another novel on the Booker shortlist, The Lowland, also deals with this proposition but in a more indirect way. The theme is fascinating though – the mistake the first world makes in assuming life will always be better for those who move here from the third world is revealed as a fallacy. People forget that home is home, whatever political situation is tearing a country apart. The contrast of vibrant, colourful Zimbabwe against the blank safeness of the US is brilliantly demonstrated in the prose, the exciting disjointed use of the children’s language in Africa juxtaposing with the much more conventional prose in the USA. The sense of being uprooted and losing a precious connection with the place of your birth is vividly realised in the novel, the author’s life experiences playing a massive part in its success. The conflagration of the two cultures inside Darling means she is inevitably trapped between the two – the author herself has admitted she now sees herself as ‘homeless’.
An aspect I really admired about the novel was in fact the ending which obviously, I CAN’T DISCUSS. So I will attempt to be very discreet in evaluating one of the highlights of the book. Bulawayo doesn’t conclude with the end of Darling’s life as she grows old in America – a few chapters from the end her story becomes a universal one. Darling becomes ‘we’, as the fate of those who dare to leave their deprived homelands for the safety and prospect of America become one. So many great novels tail off towards the end, but I found the best books on this shortlist really found successful ways round this particular challenge by inverting what we generally expect.
The tragedy of course, is the impossibility of returning home on an illegal visa – the years slipping by and the chances gone. Darling’s story is anyone’s who has been torn from a place they loved, and who has to cope with the reality that they may never return. However, throughout a book that inevitably had to be tinged by sadness, the author’s voice retains the skill of the comic. Her ability to find humour in a tragic situation brilliantly reflects the Africa rarely seen by the rest of the world.