I’ve often thought that the very best writing is really just controlled chaos; the creative right brain guided by the analytical left brain, like a wild horse ridden by a professional jockey. NoViolet Bulawayo writes like this – she knows when to give the horse its head and let it run, but she is skilled enough at her craft to control its course, making the powerful experience of reading her work meaningful.
We Need New Names (Reagan Arthur Books/Little, Brown and Company, 2013) is told in two distinct halves by Darling, a young girl who spends the first ten years of her life dodging the political violence of Zimbabwe and the next part of her life living with an aunt in ‘Destroyedmichygen’. Darling’s Africa is full of physical poverty and spiritual splendor; her America is full of physical abundance and spiritual emptiness.
This contrast is reflected in Bulawayo’s language: the first half of the book is rich, magical, dark, steamy, and bursting with energy- Darling is fully alive, using all of her senses to survive. Bulawayo, like the Darling and her friends (Bastard, Godknows, Sbho, and Chipo) doesn’t always distinguish between the real and the imagined; one can create the other, she seems to be telling us, at least in Africa. In one of the most wrenching scenes in the book, a BBC reporter catches Darling and her friends acting out the murder of a friend in a graveyard in Zimbabwe. He asks: What kind of game were you just playing? and Bastard answers: Can’t you see this is for real?
In contrast, the second half of We Need New Names is controlled, dulled, and static; as if Darling is seeing everything through a dirty pane of glass. But it is still Darling’s voice, it is still compelling and honest, and she is as bewildered as we are as to how two such diametrically opposed realities can exist at the same time, on the same planet, and in one person’s experience.
We Need New Names is current and urgent. It’s as real as it is fictional. It is a small black hand wiping the grime off of the windows of the world. It says ‘Look! Here is what is happening in Zimbabwe! In America!’. We Need New Names fully deserves the honor of being long listed for the 2013 Man Booker prize for Fiction for 2013. It also deserves to be widely read by as many people as possible, and I highly recommend it.