NoViolet Bulawayo – We Need New Names (#10 of 26)

Date of Purchase : 11th October 2014

Date of Completion : 4th June 2016

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I’d bought this sometime in late 2014 on one of those Amazon binges, probably paired with some other books happily ‘suggested’. I assume it was released around then. It then moved from bookshelf to cardboard box to bookshelf to bookshelf in the interim, for a reason I can’t really put my finger on (I also realise now that there were other books like this in that set!). I mean there are some books which you consciously don’t read, or give up somewhere through despite being impressed (*cough* Alain de Botton *cough*). With this book, I never even started…and I don’t have a clear reason for why I deferred either – maybe it was the excessively colourful cover? Anyways, some form of shame around the number of unread books you have lying about and yet buying more made me pick it up once again in this Summer of ’16 (FYI – Bryan Adams sung that song 47 years ago!!).

There were two reasons I can now recall having bought this though! One was I was coming of a Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie marathon and was in love with her style and work, thirsting for something more – something beyond the UK and the US perhaps? And secondly, Zimbabwe. I’ve always maintained sport has taught me more geography than everything else put together and in no case was that more true with cricket and Zimbabwe. This is a country which is quite far removed from the mainstream, which could easily have become one of those southern African countries that we all confuse with each other. But as a cricket playing nation, it has a unique identity in Indian society – one that is mourned by every cricket fan thirsting for more opposition. And thanks to this anchor laid in my younger days (the 1996-97 SA-Zim-India tri-series remains an epochal event in my childhood memories), I’ve followed Zimbabwe in the news through all the upheavals, the political crises, the infighting and civil war, the hyper-inflation and much more. So there was always a curiosity to hear a voice from that part of the world that is not Liam Brickhill.

The book in itself is unconventionally written, seemingly on the surface about a kid’s world – yet hitting hard in places while seemingly maintaining an irreverence about the extremely prickly issues it speaks about. We’re transported to life in a shanty-town from the view of a young girl and her friends, and how a life which is agonizingly unfair and difficult for an outsider, is looked at by those for whom have to live it themselves, for those for which this is ‘normal’. It’s not a unique narrative style I’m sure, but an incredibly powerful one, one which allows the author to shock and cause us to count our blessings, without ever seeming like sermonising. The protagonist in the second half moves half-way around the world to the United States, to become part of that world of immigrants which then helps us look at the First World from the view of the Third World, and the pains of the immigrant’s journey. Again, not unique – but NoViolet Bulawayo’s style, her characters and her observations make it seem very fresh.

This is also one of those books where the moments stay with you longer than the story. Stealing the shoes of a girl who’s just hung herself, watching a white family being slammed out of their ivory towers, what people at the other side of an NGOs camera feel, what young kids and non-believers would be thinking in the middle of a religious fervour, the attempts at home (field?) abortion, the AIDS, the rape, the political murders, the killing of hope – these parts will haunt and stay for sure. The second half of the book is more reflective – the immigrant’s travails, the WTFness of #FirstWorldProblems and the transition for what once seemed your’s suddenly doesn’t remain so and how you become what you thought you weren’t. I loved this part, I’ve read a lot about the Indian and subcontinental immigrant experience thanks to Jhumpa Lahiri, Sandip Ray, Khaled Hosseini et al..but this – without the papers, the legal status and the complete inability to go home is obviously a different one. It all comes up in a magnificent chapter towards the end titled ‘And how they lived’ which should be worth the price of the book just in itself.

I note the major criticism of the book online is that it takes a checklist of Third-world/Africa issues and ticks them off one by one. Uhh, I think that’s absolutely kaka(!). Those checklists, those lists of horrors exist for a reason – the narrative of the book allows them all to fit in and it is not too difficult to imagine that the protagonist would have had cause to experience them.

Entertainment Quotient : ★★★★
Education Quotient : ★★★★★
Readability : ★★★

PS : I was unable to make up my mind about what I felt about the language. I came about this on the author’s website which seemed so wonderfully apt 🙂

“Let no one be fooled by the fact that we may write in
English, for we intend to do unheard of things with it”

Chinua Achebe

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