We Need New Names - by Associated Press

Zimbabwe author shortlisted for Booker literature prize, reflects on the woes of her homeland


By Associated Press, Published: September 23

HARARE, Zimbabwe — An African teenager living in Detroit can’t understand why her immigrant aunt is always dieting when people back home in Zimbabwe go hungry every day.

The teenager, named Darling, is the creation of the first Zimbabwean and black African woman to be nominated for the coveted British literary Booker Prize. NoViolet Bulawayo’s novel touches on the woes in her troubled homeland.

“We Need New Names” is one of six works on an annual shortlist of the finest English-language writing from Britain, Ireland and the 54-nation Commonwealth of former British colonies. The winner of the award officially known as the Man Booker Prize after its sponsor, financial services firm Man Group PLC, will be announced on Oct. 15.

Bulawayo, 31, writes on the search for identity in the United States by Africans escaping poverty and upheaval at home, and leaving behind childhood friends and what she describes as the vibrant “colors and magic” of their continent.

In Bulawayo’s book, the character, Darling, grows up in a Zimbabwean shanty town with friends with equally quirky names — Chipo, Godknows, Bastard and Sbho. The cheerful urchin gang raids the gardens in wealthy suburbs to steal fruit. The book title comes from the fact that immigrant children are given American names as they struggle to be accepted in a different world, Bulawayo said.

At home, “the kids transcend poverty and are funny and hopeful and they have spunk. But even with the American dream, Darling’s character flattens out. She is out of her geographical space and becomes lost,” Bulawayo said in an interview with The Associated Press in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital.

Bulawayo, who was visiting Zimbabwe to promote her debut novel, went to the United States to study law in 1999. Later, she earned a master’s in fine arts at Cornell University, where she was awarded a Truman Capote fellowship. She is currently on a fellowship at Stanford University.

In Zimbabwe, Bulawayo has met with her Zimbabwean publishers, the Weaver Press of Harare that specializes in promoting Zimbabwean writers and earlier published her work in a collection of short stories. She talked to aspiring writers and held signings of her novel, described by Zimbabwean media as sassy, witty, intricate and elegantly written. It also received positive reviews in the United States and Britain.

“I am overwhelmed and humbled. It’s a national win” and an inspiration for other Zimbabweans, Bulawayo said.

Born Elizabeth Zandile Tshele, her adopted name derives from her mother Violet who died when she was an 18-month-old baby. In the local SinNdebele language of her western Matabeleland province, “NoViolet” means “withViolet.” In English, it signifies deep remembrance of an absent mother and traditional family values. Bulawayo is the western provincial capital, Zimbabwe’s second city and her home town.

In America, the author said, she strove to understand political violence and economic turmoil that reached its height in Zimbabwe in 2008 and led to at least 2 million Zimbabweans fleeing the country to become diaspora communities around the world.