Review of We Need New Names - New York Times by MICHIKO KAKUTANI

New York Times
May 15 2013

A Child of Two Lands
‘We Need New Names, ’ by No Violet Bulawayo
Published: May 15, 2013

“When things fall apart, the children of the land scurry and scatter like birds escaping a burning sky,” NoViolet Bulawayo writes in her deeply felt and fiercely written debut novel. “They flee their own wretched land so their hunger may be pacified in foreign lands, their tears wiped away in strange lands, the wounds of their despair bandaged in faraway lands, their blistered prayers muttered in the darkness of queer lands.” They leave behind their mothers and fathers and “the bones of their ancestors in the earth” — they leave behind “everything that makes them who and what they are, leaving because it is no longer possible to stay.”

The place they are leaving, in this case, is Zimbabwe, that African nation brutalized by more than 30 years of malignity and neglect under the autocratic rule of Robert Mugabe — a country reeling, as the journalist Peter Godwin noted in his powerful 2011 book “The Fear” from unemployment, hunger, inflation, AIDS and the government’s torture and violent intimidation of all political opposition. The place many of them are hoping to flee to is the United States — the destination of the novel’s young narrator, Darling, who will begin a new life there with her aunt.

Darling is 10 when we first meet her, and the voice Ms. Bulawayo has fashioned for her is utterly distinctive — by turns unsparing and lyrical, unsentimental and poetic, spiky and meditative. It is the voice, early on, of a child — observant, skeptical and hardhearted in the way children can be. She pinches a sick baby she does not want to hold in church so that he will cry and she can hand him back to his mother, and she is coldly standoffish when her long-absent father returns home from South Africa, having become sick with AIDS.

Darling processes the misfortunes of Zimbabwe and its politics through the eyes of a child — talk of elections and hopes of change are something grown-ups engage in; she and her friends are more concerned with filling their empty stomachs with stolen guavas and inventing games to pass the time. School belongs to the time Before — before the police came and bulldozed their houses, before they were all forced to move into tin shacks, before their fathers lost their jobs and life changed.

Using her gift for pictorial language, Ms. Bulawayo gives us snapshots of Zimbabwe that have the indelible color and intensity of a folk art painting: “men huddled like sheep and playing draughts under the lone jacaranda,” the blooming purple flowers almost make them “look beautiful in the shade without their shirts on,” sitting there, “crouched forward like tigers”; the women doing their best to look pretty, wearing “a bangle made from rusty, twisted wire,” a “flower tucked behind an ear,” “earrings made from colorful seeds,” “bright patches of cloth sewn onto a skirt.”

There is desperation here, however. As it becomes clear that elections have failed to bring about any kind of change, as men leave home in search of work and families fracture, young and old alike dream of escape — to America or Europe, or failing that, South Africa, or maybe Dubai or Botswana, someplace where “at least life is better” than in this “terrible place of hunger and things falling apart.”

Thanks to her Aunt Fostalina, who lives in “Destroyedmichygen” (Detroit, Michigan), Darling does make it to the United States. At first she is surprised by the astonishing variety and plenitude of food, by the wealth of everyday choices (“Do you prefer this or that? Are you sure? — as if I have become a real person”) and by the silent mystery of snow: it’s like “we’re in the crazy parts of the Bible, there where God is busy punishing people for their sins and is making them miserable with all the weather.”

Once she is a teenager, she quickly adopts the habits of friends from school, even if she doesn’t exactly care for them — listening to Rihanna, trying on armfuls of clothing at the mall (and leaving them in huge messy piles in the dressing room) and watching pornography online. She acquires an American accent, gets A’s in school (“because school is so easy in America even a donkey would pass”) but resists her aunt’s efforts to goad her into pursuing a career in medicine.

Darling promises her mother that she will come home for a visit soon, even though she knows she won’t because she doesn’t have the proper paperwork to return to America again. She misses the friends she grew up with, but at the same time feels estranged from them. One of them, Chipo, tells her on a Skype call that she can’t refer to Zimbabwe as her country anymore, since she treated it as a burning house and ran away from it instead of trying to put out the flames: “Darling, my dear, you left the house burning and you have the guts to tell me, in that stupid accent that you were not even born with, that doesn’t even suit you, that this is your country?”

Ms. Bulawayo gives us a sense of Darling’s new life in staccato takes that show us both her immersion in and her alienation from American culture. We come to understand how stranded she often feels, uprooted from all the traditions and beliefs she grew up with, and at the same time detached from the hectic life of easy gratification in America. We hear her anger at white liberals who speak patronizingly about the troubles of “Africa,” lumping together all the countries on that continent as though they were interchangeable parts of one big mess. And we come to understand the bittersweet emotions involved in the choice that many immigrants make to give their children names that will “make them belong in America.”
At one point, in an effort to make Darling’s experiences broadly representative, Ms. Bulawayo writes an entire chapter using the plural pronoun “we” — speaking of the move to America, and the bitterness so many immigrants feel, as they are forced to take menial jobs or find their hopes frustrated:

“When we got to America we took our dreams, looked at them tenderly as if they were newly born children, and put them away; we would not be pursuing them. We would never be the things we had wanted to be: doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers. No school for us, even though our visas were school visas. We knew we did not have the money for school to begin with, but we had applied for school visas because that was the only way out.”

Such generalizations are the one misstep in this otherwise stunning novel. Not only because they try to project one point of view onto the experiences of a wide and varied group of immigrants, but also because they are not always true. For instance, the remarkably talented author of this book, the novel’s jacket tells us, was “born and raised in Zimbabwe,” and moved to the United States, where she earned an M.F.A. from Cornell and is now a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford — which sounds very much like a dream achieved.