In NoViolet Bulawayo’s shattering debut novel, We Need New Names, proper nouns contain continents. Paradise is the ironically named Zimbabwean shantytown where the book’s ten-year-old protagonist and narrator, Darling, lives with her fractured family and gang of friends, whose names include Bastard and Godknows. Budapest is the rich part of town, where the hungry children escape to gorge on stolen guavas, ingesting so many guava seeds that they constipate themselves, making defecation “an almost impossible task, like you are trying to give birth to a country.” Among the other inhabitants of Paradise are Nomoreproblems, Bornfree, Forgiveness, and MotherLove, and some with African names—Chipo, Stina, Sbho, Vodloza. (Bulawayo herself is a “Bornfree,” a member of the generation born after Zimbabwe’s transition to majority rule in 1980.)
The author’s blend of English proper nouns, which carry so much hope for the future, and African names evokes a world in which the proud dream of postcolonial independence has been shattered. The people are bereft of basic necessities and depend on handouts from abroad for sustenance. Their homes have been bulldozed by paramilitary policemen and their children no longer attend schools. Many of the parents of the children in the novel have left the country for South Africa or the United States. AIDS runs rampant, and, when Darling and her cohort find the dead body of a woman hanging from a tree, they learn that she killed herself to avoid dying a slow and painful death from the dreaded disease. Later in the novel, Darling’s own father, also stricken with AIDS, comes home from South Africa to die.
To Darling, it feels as if the whole world bears witness to Zimbabwe’s shame at being dependent on foreign aid. When NGO representatives arrive with handouts, the adults who live in Paradise “complain about how the NGO people have forgotten them, how they should visit more often … like maybe the NGO are their parents.” Dissatisfied with the small amount of food offered, they “look at the tiny packages like they don’t want them, like they are embarrassed and disappointed by them, but in the end they turn and head back to the shacks with the things.” Darling gets sweets, as well as a Google T-shirt and a toy gun from America.
In Zimbabwe, Darling starved. In America, there is plenty of food to eat but nothing seems to sate her appetite for the life she left behind.
Like children in extremis everywhere, Darling and her friends amuse themselves with what little they have, playing “country-game” on a big circle drawn on the ground and divided up according to the number of player-countries. The rules call for running and jumping and successively “counting out countries” until “the last country standing wins.” But before the game begins comes the fight over the country names. The most desirable ones are the USA, Canada, the European countries, and Russia. Less desirable are Dubai, South Africa, Botswana, and Tanzania, and “nobody wants to be rags of countries like Congo, like Somalia, like Iraq, like Sudan, like Haiti, like Sri Lanka, and not even this one we live in—who wants to be a terrible place of hunger and things falling apart?”
Playing with names again, Bulawayo releases Darling from Paradise and places her under the care of her Aunt Fostalina in Destroyedmichygen, her first stop in America. Darling is part of a flood of people leaving Zimbabwe, people who “will never be the same again because you just cannot be the same once you leave behind who and what you are.” It soon becomes clear that America is neither Paradise nor paradise. As awful as life in Zimbabwe was, life in America lacks community, as well as a sense of urgency, of belonging—“this here is not my country; I don’t know whose it is.”
At a wedding, Darling encounters a fellow guest in the bathroom who asks her to say something in her native tongue. When Darling complies with the word sa-li-bo-na-ni, the woman tells her that it sounds beautiful and then remarks, “Africa is beautiful.” She asks, rhetorically, “But isn’t it terrible what’s happening in the Congo?” and tells Darling about her redheaded niece who’s joining the Peace Corps and “going to Rwanda to help.” Everywhere, Darling encounters similarly vapid clichés about Africa. She works at a supermarket sorting recyclable bottles and cans where Jim, her boss, “always speaks as if Africa is just one country.” Another boss, Eliot, after seeing the Kony 2012 video, treats her sympathetically, “like I’m from Uganda, like I’m one of the heartbreaking kids in the film.” Darling is not seen and not heard. No one has a grasp of where she’s really from, or any inkling of what her life was like.
Deftly and painfully, Bulawayo confronts the paradox of immigration head-on. In Zimbabwe, Darling starved. In America, there is plenty of food to eat but nothing seems to sate her appetite for the life she left behind—“I find the food does nothing for me, like I am hungry for my country and nothing is going to fix that.”