We Need New Names - The Standard by Tendai Huchu

Published by Weaver Press.
Reviewed in The Standard by Tendai Huchu
28th July, 2013


Darling and her friends spend their days stealing guavas from the plush neighbourhood of Budapest. They are not in school because their teachers emigrated and the forlorn adults in their shanty town, Paradise, take little interest in their antics. This is the world of NoViolet Bulawayo’s stunning debut, We Need New Names. Bulawayo, like her contemporaries, Brian Chikwava and Binyavanga Wainaina, delights in playing with the English language, bending it, distorting it, hammering it into the shape of a uniquely Zimbabwean novel, with Shona and Ndebele in the text.


While the novel is beautifully written, it also has a wonderful plot and structure that keeps the reader turning the page, desperate to find out what happens next. Darling, our narrator, is both intelligent and unsentimental, as she takes us through life in her township, and through her eyes, we see the hardship endured by Zimbabwe’s poorest and the most vulnerable.

Everything from the poverty, disease, the Chinese, clueless NGOs, and iron fist of the state is woven into this narrative, but Darling’s characteristically dark, Zimbabwean humour buoys the reader through. Some critics, notably Helon Habila (The Guardian, 20 June, 2013),  have complained that Bulawayo ticks boxes of “international interest” by writing this novel about poor African children struggling to survive in dystopian circumstances (of course one can’t help but notice the irony that Habila’s last novel, Oil on Water, which is about environmental degradation, corruption, human rights abuses, conflict, and the kidnapping of Westerners in Nigeria’s Niger delta, is perhaps a stronger candidate when it comes to “ticking boxes of international interest).These critics miss the point in that authors are not tourism PR employees, and are free to choose any topic that interests them. Africans, Zimbabweans in particular, cannot airbrush the fact that there are desperately poor people in society and the state has, with impunity, violated their rights for decades. The second part of We Need New Names explores Darling’s experiences as a new migrant settled in Destroyedmichigan (in America).

There is a laugh a page in this novel, and one of the best set pieces is the wedding of Dumi, a handsome man, marrying a fat American woman for papers. Bulawayo’s comic digression on the differences between Zimbabwean fat and American fat is hilarious: “In America, the fatness is not the fatness I was used to at home. Over there, the fatness was of bigness, just ordinary fatness you could understand because it meant the person ate well, fatness you could even envy. It was a fatness that did not interfere with the body, an arm an arm, a buttock a buttock. But this American fatness takes it to a whole ’nother level: the body is turned into something else – the neck becomes a thigh, the stomach becomes an anthill, an arm a thing, a buttock a I don’t even know what.” In this short piece, Bulawayo alludes to food shortages in Zimbabwe and life threatening excess in America, and it is this weird humour layered upon serious issues that marks her out as an author of outstanding acumen. The Americans have an obsession with the search for the Great American Novel, we can have no doubt that Bulawayo has penned the Great Zimbabwean Novel.

Tendai Huchu is the author of The Hairdresser of Harare.