NoViolet Bulawayo Introduces New Names, Gets The Oprah Thumbs-Up!

She is an exciting and fresh new voice on the literary scene. Born in Tsholotsho, author NoVioletBulawayo moved to the United States at the age of 18. In 2011, shewon the prestigious Caine Prize for African Writing for her short story Hitting Budapest. She earned her MFA at Cornell University where she was a recipient of the Truman Capote Fellowship and a lecturer of English. She is currently a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University in the United States.

In July of this year Bulawayo became the first Zimbabwean to be longlisted for The Man Booker Prize for Fiction for her debut novel We Need New Names. The Man Booker Prize is the United Kingdom’s premier literary prize awarded annually for the best original full-length novel, written in the English language, by a citizen of the Commonwealth of Nations, Republic of Ireland or Zimbabwe.

Robert Macfarlane, this year's chair of judges, said: "This is surely the most diverse longlist in Man Booker history: wonderfully various in terms of geography, form, length and subject."

The 13 longlistedtitles come from authors from seven different countries. Bulawayois the only African nominee. This year’s shortlist will be revealed in September and on 15 October the winner of the £50,000 prize will be announced.

We Need New Names has also been selected by Oprah Winfrey as one of "Nine Must-Read Books for June 2013."Parade Woman EditorRumbiKatedza recently caught up with Bulawayo after her UK book tour as she was preparing to travel home to launch her critically acclaimed novel in Zimbabwe.

Parade Woman (PW): NoViolet, it’s wonderful to connect with you. Congratulations on all your recent success.

NoVioletBulawayo (NB):Thank you. Parade was one of my favourite magazines when I was still at home. I read it through my teen years. There was Parade and Horizon, so it’s good to hear that Parade is back!

PW: We Need New Names has recently been released in Zimbabwe. How do you feel about finally presenting your labour of love to home audiences? NB: I’m quite excited. They say charity begins at home and I feel like my journey began at home being raised by storytellers. Even if I studied creative writing abroad, I feel like everything ties to home from my beginnings to the kind of stories I’m telling.

I feel like I’m writing to an open audience of course but the Zimbabwean audience will always have a special place in my heart. I feel like my writing is kind of conscious of that in a way. It’s an exciting time for Zimbabwean writing. People are producing interesting works and I’m just glad to be part of it.

PW: What do you hope Zimbabwean audiences will take from your book?

NB:Like someone who’s writing from outside, I feel like the Zimbabwean story is multifaceted. Our voices from outside are still part of the equation of Zimbabwe just as much as the voices on the ground are.

PW: We Need New Names is a very important book that has its own style and language. How did you find the voices and characters that would ultimately inhabit this book?

NB:In terms of finding voice, I feel like voice was a process that began way before I even conceived the book, when I started writing short stories. I was understanding myself, figuring out how I wanted to sound on the page. Then the book itself, fortunately or unfortunately, came from the things that were happening in the country. I was interested in telling the story and telling it from a very engaged perspective, given that some of us who were out here were aware of the media and how the Zimbabwean story was playing out.I was aware of the real dynamics on the ground and just wanted to tell an alternative narrative.

PW: There is a new crop of Zimbabweans writing in English who are developing a new kind of language for their characters – most striking to me are your book and Brian Chikwava’sHarare North. Do you feel a need to create a new Zimbabwean voice or is your process more organic?

NB:My use of language is not something conscious. It’s tied to an identity. It’s just how I write. I don’t set out to specifically carve out a new language. With Harare North it would have been a conscious choice. I love Brian Chikwava’s work in terms of how he’s handling language. I think it’s a very conscious decision there, but for me I use language the way I talk. For me that was kind of important especially as somebody who grew up on British literature and thinking that writing in English should be a certain way. Then I came to the US and encounteredwriters on the margins like Junot Diaz and Sandra Cisneros, who wrote the way they talked. So I guess, in a sense, my writing is just celebrating my identity and my native language and just marrying it to English.

PW: You often talk about the importance of names in our culture. How did you come to naming your characters?

NB:With my characters I came with that consciousness that names have to mean something, so I tried to capture that. Some of them are really ordinary, you know, names like Darling. I had a friend named Darling growing up.Then there’s names like Godknows and Bastard.

When we were kids,the playground itself was a site of identity building. We gave each other names depending on our characteristics. Bastard is somebody who gets his name because of the kind of guy he is. Then you have the crazy names like the pastor’s name for example. It comes from the same space in the sense that it loosely has to refer to who the character is. But I also push the envelope. Humour is important to me too, and with characters like him, I took that license to just go over the top with it but still try to capture the essence of his character.

PW: Darling and the other characters are both comic and tragic, something I find in every day life. Did you consciously choose to include humour in the book?

NB:For me humour is important. I come from a place of laughter. Even when things are hard, people just don’t forget to laugh. I was struck by that, andI feel like it is a humanising element. Laughter is one of those things that reminds us that people are still living and hoping. It’s interesting how the kids can afford to be happy with very little when their American counterparts, or some rich kids in the West, can never attain that standard of humour even with better circumstances. It’s just my way of showing different sides of life. Even with limited circumstances, it doesn’t mean that people’s humanity is totally corroded. Beyond that, I was aware that I was dealing with very dense material. It’s important to balance tragedy and humour so that the work can still be digested.

PW: Do you have a favourite character in the book?

NB:It’s certainly not Darling. (Laughs)I would say Godknows. Godknows is my favourite character. He’s simple-minded, he’s naïve and he’s just off. I do kind of miss him. I was telling a friend how it feels to finish the book. It’s like a part of you is gone because I worked on the book for four years. These characters stayed in my head and now I have to disengage somehow.

PW: Is it difficult to disengage?

NB: It is difficult but I think I’ll keep on working on the characters, especially Darling. The book ends when she’s just starting college and she has a whole world waiting for her and I’m really keen on exploring her story. I may not be done with them.

PW: Are any of the characters or places based on your personal experience?

NB: Absolutely not personal. I was out here (in America) so it’s all fiction. However,I’m also interested in fiction that rings true, so I was talking to people at home and just getting a sense of how things were going. I watched documentaries and then tried to render things as truly as I could knowing that there were people on the ground experiencing some of the things I was working with.

PW: You have lived outside of Zimbabwe for about 13 years now – do you think living abroad allows for a freer introspection of the issues in Zimbabwe without being encumbered by the distractions of every day life?

NB:I feel like being away gave me clarity and gave me the distance that I don’t think that I would have been able to achieve had I been writing from home. The kind of stories that people on the ground take for granted for me are very interesting and urgent. That said, I don’t think the distance should be over emphasised because the world is getting smaller. I’m talking to people on Skype, calling home everyday. I’m very much in touch with what is happening.

PW: The book to me is both a historical novel and a coming-of-age story. Did you want to talk about a certain pocket in recent Zimbabwean history?

NB: The story came about organically because I was telling a story from this period in history. I’m also interested in literature that mirrors where we are, that mirrors life as we know it, because those are the kinds of things that people are going through. I felt that those conversations were very necessary. It’s important that we get the full picture of the Zimbabwean experience both at home and abroad and marry them.

PW: What’s on your bookshelf at the moment? Who are you reading?

NB: I’m reading The Polygamist by Sue Nyathi. I’ve just reread The Hairdresser of Harare. I met with Tendai (Huchu) in London and I got his book. I’ve also been reading In the Skin of A Lion by Michael Ondaatje, The Farming of Bones by EdwidgeDanticatand The People Forever Are Not Afraid by ShaniBoianjiu.

PW: How do you decide what you want to read? Do you have a preferred genre?

NB:It depends on my mood. Right now it’s been really stressful so I’m trying to read light stuff, which is why I’m enjoying The Polygamist. It’s very light and entertaining but still a compelling read.So is The Hairdresser of Harare. I like recovering on books that make me laugh, that are sort of light. And I’ll go back into my next project the way I normally do by reading Yvonne Vera and Toni Morrison.