Review of We Need New Names - by Daniel Mandishona for the Harare News

Reviewed by Daniel Mandishona for the Harare News, September, 2013

We Need New Names is a truly remarkable debut novel by a talented young writer. No Violet Bulawayo has produced a well-crafted narrative with faint echoes of other coming-of-age novels - Philip Roth’s ‘Goodbye, Columbus’, Jeffrey Eugenides’ ‘The Virgin Suicides’ and J. D. Salinger’s ‘The Catcher in the Rye - to name but a few. Like Roth’s ‘Goodbye, Columbus’, Bulawayo’s novel explores similar themes of ethnicity and assimilation in a strange country. Themes like alienation, displacement and infidelity are handled with a dispassionate candour by a master story teller.

Darling, the novel’s precocious young narrator, lives in a squatter camp with her mother and a brood of curiously named friends and neighbours - Bastard, Fraction, Godknows, Bornfree, Messenger and Mother of Bones. The shantytown, cynically called Paradise, ‘is all tin and stretches out in the sun like a wet sheepskin nailed on the ground to dry’. Living in the shantytown is a humdrum, aimless existence whose major highlights are the periodic raids into affluent neighbourhoods to steal guavas and scavenge for food. The story of how Darling and her mother ended up in the shantytown is narrated in fleeting but haunting vignettes in the novel’s opening chapters. Abandoned by her husband, Darling’s mother has an illicit affair with a faceless stranger who sneaks in and out of the shack like ‘something too terrible to be seen in the light’.

But when her Aunt Fostalina arranges for her to go and live in America, Darling’s world changes dramatically. In America, she makes new friends but her past remains an umbilicus she cannot completely sever. America might be the land of KFC, Burger King and McDonalds, but it is also inhabited by anonymous migrants ‘who will speak in dampened whispers because they must not let their voices drown those of the owners of the land’. The artificialness of her new surroundings is an eye-opening experience she is too embarrassed to share with her friends back home.

She soon realises that for her country-folk who live in America, theirs are lives stuck between rocks and hard places. For Darling, the realisation that even America’s borrowed attractions cannot make up for a deep-seated homesickness is a sobering experience. She soon realises that America, a place where people send ‘their aging parents away to be taken care of  by strangers’, can never be truly her home.

Darling cannot tell her friends back home about Tshaka Zulu, a wandering minstrel who sings traditional songs at weddings in between bouts of a pernicious derangement. She cannot tell them about Dumi, her Aunt Fostalina’s ex-boyfriend who has a sham wedding for the sole purpose of securing the ‘papers’ that will legitimise his stay. She cannot tell them that the humiliation Dumi endures at his own wedding is a small sacrifice; the prize is worth the shame.

She cannot tell them about Uncle Kojo, Aunt Fostalina’s morose Ghanaian live-in boyfriend whose emotionally damaged son TK abandons his relatively comfortable lifestyle to go and fight a war in Afghanistan that has nothing to do with him. She cannot tell them about Eliot, her aunt’s former employer who still comes to the house for illicit afternoon sex when Uncle Kojo is away. She cannot tell her friends back home that her new American friends do not raid well-to-do suburbs for guavas and garbage, but prefer more sophisticated teenage vices like sneaking from school to watch hard-core pornography, or stealing a sleeping mother’s car to go joy-riding to malls full of shops that sell items they can never hope to afford.

The novel’s major strength is the deceptively simple narrative style which is underpinned by a subtle humour and an inventive use of imagery. When Darling’s prodigal father eventually comes back from South Africa he is suffering from AIDS, a disease that is killing young people ‘like a madman with a machete’. And for those people in Darling’s country yearning for a new life in America, it is an experience ‘harder than crawling through the anus of a needle’. But ultimately, We Need New Names is a novel about the pain of enforced alienation and the fragility of expectation. It is a novel about the plaintive lament of a lost generation trapped in a political dispensation that rewards greed and corruption and punishes hope and virtue.

Daniel Mandishona is an architect and author of White Gods, Black Demons.

We Need New Names is published by and available from Weaver Press, Harare.