NoViolet Bulawayo’s debut, We Need New Names, is a book that has been on my list awhile. While I was aware of its critical acclaim (shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize), it was only last summer at a capacity crowd reading for the VONA program faculty that I received the ever important endorsement from a trustworthy source. Apart from sharing an alma mater in Cornell, Junot Díaz also selected NoViolet for the National Book Foundation’s 5 under 35 in 2013 and chose the novel’s first scene for publication in Boston Review. At the reading, Junot gave NoViolet a shout-out, saying that We Need New Names was, quite simply, the best. I remember NoViolet raising a sheepish hand in thanks. I remember being excited to have a new, Junot-approved, writer on my radar. Now, having finished We Need New Names, part of me wonders what took me so long to read it in the first place.
We Need New Names is the type of book where I knew within the first few pages that it was something special. Split between Zimbabwe and the United States, we follow our narrator, Darling, through her childhood and adolescence, centering on the friends and family that she has in both places. The first part of the book takes on both colonial history and current events through the eyes of a group of childhood friends. It examines the traumas and delicate hope stored away in the adults, the homes, the very land where Darling and her friends dwell. There is humor and playfulness in the children’s games and dialogue, which allowed me, as an outsider to the history of Zimbabwe, to better understand their world. Darling and her friends’ youth acts as a lens for the reader, lending clarity where there might be complexity, allowing outsiders access to the story without sacrificing its emotional power. As Darling grows older, this simplicity fades, and as we enter the United States and the world I found to be more familiar, Darling seems more and more out of place and less sure of what lies ahead. The notion of place, of trajectory and identity, are themes expertly used throughout the novel. When Darling speaks in her native tongue, NoViolet provides no translation, no italics to signify that this is somehow distinct from speaking English. There is only context. It is a statement of identity, of humanity. That in not knowing, we admit we are not the ultimate or best, that we are all forced to yield to powers that are not under our control.
The storytelling is brilliant. The writing is brilliant. We Need New Names has made me significantly revise my previous list of favorite books. Part Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and part Toni Morrison’s Beloved, NoViolet has created an impeccable account of an individual navigating the shifting nature of the systems that oppress us, the haunting of tradition and obligation as Darling pushes forward for something new without knowing if it is something better. This is a book overflowing with truth. Her sentences are precise. Like a syringe, they extract from the vein that raw and necessary essence to give her words life. Down to the very chapter titles, there is beauty and purpose which propelled me through to the very end. Make no mistake, We Need New Names was one of the best of 2013, and if you’re late to arrive upon it like I was, the paperback has come out just in time to make up for it. After that, you’re stuck with me, anxiously awaiting NoViolet’s followup to a spectacular debut.
Copies of We Need New Names are available on our shelves at BookPeople and via bookpeople.com