I had read a lot about NoViolet Bulawayo’s, We Need New Names, prior to reading it. As, upon its release, it had garnered a lot of media buzz. So, when I finally settled to read, as you would expect, expectations were high. Did I say High? They were REALLY HIGH. I’m taking near-perfect-not-acceptable type expectation. The no-excuses-valid type of high expectation. The already high stakes were further heightened due to a very busy schedule. I had deadlines hanging over my head. Sincerely, a part of me was hoping the novel would fall flat from the very beginning. I just needed any excuse whatsoever to drop the novel and move on. The novel could not afford to just be okay. It was either good or nah. And We Need New Names was good. Once I started, I couldn’t wait to flip the last page.
The first thing that reeled me in as I began to read were the unconventional names of characters and places. Character names like Bastard, Mother of Bones, Messenger, Darling. Places like Destroyedmichygen, Paradise, and Budapest. We Need New Names is divided into two by separate phases of Darling’s, whose life it journals, life. The first phase of the novel takes place in her homeland. The second on foreign soil as an immigrant.
The first part of the novel follows the lives of Darling, Sbho, Stina, Godknows, Chipo and Bastard. This group of teenagers, reduced to miscreants by unfavorable circumstances, wander around with little expectations. Their major concern being how, by any means necessary, and with what to fill their almost always empty stomachs.
The writer does not hesitate to expose the reader to the grittiness of their world. A world that is both gritty and interesting at the same time. Paradise – their home – here is not what you would exactly expect of a paradise. Paradise here is not pure white gowns, shiny faces and angel wings. It isn’t golden pavements and houses built of precious stones. The paradise Darling and her friends find themselves isn’t one of sound health and mirthful celebrations.
The Paradise Darling and her friends are stuck in is one of abject poverty. One of dusty clay roads and dunghills. A paradise of squat zinc rooms where bric-a-bracs suffice. It is one where the general atmosphere is drab from the underlying despair that fills its inhabitants. It is a paradise devoid of any form of luxury whatsoever. A paradise filled with everything “unparadisely” in nature. A paradise the protagonist constantly seeks temporal and permanent escape from.
Events in the second part of the novel unfold in Detroit, Michigan. Or Destroyedmichygen as Darling repeatedly mispronounces it in the earlier part of the novel. Darling is now thrown into a whole new world and she has no choice but to navigate it. It is a world away from all she has ever known. As opposed to her home, this land possesses cultures and practices that are completely alien to her. And, most importantly for her, a world without Sbho, Stina, Godknows, Chipo, and Bastard. Here, life turns out to be a whole lot better for Darling. Darling eventually finds all the comfort that had so far eluded her. But then it requires her to sacrifice a whole lot more than she ever imagined.
One can say in this part of the novel, Darling did find something close to a true “paradise.” A paradise that she had always eagerly yearned for. But even at that, it turns out not being as perfect a world as she had expected it to be.
I really enjoyed reading We Need New Names. It saw me put Homeland Reviews’ Adebiyi Temilade’s advice of reading in a BRT to practice. It was so good. I had never attempted it before – I hardly even surf in public transport, at best I plug my ears to music. And I would say, it would only take a good book for this to work. We Need New Names was that book for me. (P.S. Now I take full advantage of my BRT rides by burying my head in a book)
The novel reads like a journal, Darling’s journal. For this reason, the stories sometimes feel disjointed. If you care too much about plot progression, turns, and twists, there is a chance you wouldn’t enjoy this novel. But if enjoy taking a peek into other people’s worlds and experiences then you should pick up We Need New Names.
Book Title – We Need New Names
Author – NoViolet Bulawayo
Publisher – Reagan Arthur Books
Date Of Publication – May 21st, 2013
Genre – African Literature
Pages – 298