WE NEED NEW NAMES
Book discussion and drama presentation
on the 30th of November2014
at the Atlantic Hall of the Hotel Presidential, Port Harcourt,
SOCIAL EXPERIENCE AS A DELINQUENT ROMP
A review by Lindsay Barrett
TITLE: WE NEED NEW NAMES
AUTHOR: NoViolet Bulawayo
PUBLISHER: Vintage Books, United Kingdom
The fragmented language and informal spontaneity of its form, which is sustained from the beginning to the end of this examination of youthful dysfunction, is both attractive and frightening. The author, a Zimbabwean young lady, has succeeded in producing what might very well be regarded as the premier example of Africa’s literary response to the internationalisation of hip-hop culture. In many ways this is a work that sets new standards and breaks new ground not only in African literature in particular but in contemporary world literature as a whole. Its setting is intensely local at the outset, but in the end it straddles the world as the latter half of the work, set in the USA, addresses the universal subject of the generation gap between rebellious teens and disenchanted adults in a community of exiles. Bulawayo portrays most of her characters as deeply flawed individuals who have been beaten down by post-colonial African society’s structural failure in her unnamed nation. In fact the conscious refusal to identify the nation in which a gang of imaginatively named young ragamuffins engage in a relentless and aimless round of wandering between their slum home and the decaying residential estates that surround it is a key symptom of the dysfunction that the central character Darling’s narrative addresses. This fundamentally distressing viewpoint is however the source of some extraordinarily imaginative reflections and it is this that gives the work beauty and resonance.
The story, to the extent that there is a central tale to be perceived in this freewheeling work of reminiscent fiction, especially in the first section of the work, is about the relentless dehumanisation that life on the edge of society imposes on these young people. Darling, a precocious child of about ten at the opening of the tale, is engaged along with her other brutalised friends, in scrabbling for scraps of food and stolen fruit instead of pursuing their education. The school system has fractured and the teachers have escaped to South Africa. Among these escapees is Darling’s father who is a mere memory to her until he returns one day riddled with AIDS and ready to die. Her mother and grandmother and their friends who bear the burden of overseeing her upbringing are desolate with frustration at their inability to cope. They cling to hope through what has virtually become their only place of social intercourse the evangelical church of one Prophet Revelations Bitchington Mborro. However the church turns out to be a charlatan’s den rather than a place of worship and eventually Darling’s family appeal to their sister in the USA, Aunt Fostalina to take her away from an almost certain descent into despair and further delinquency. Eventually the journey which had always been a childhood dream becomes an adolescent reality, but it turns out to be not an escape but a further descent into despair and delinquent distress.
The fate of some of Darling’s friends such as eleven year old Chipo, pregnant after being raped by her grandfather, and the gradual leaning toward criminality of the boys, like the aptly named Bastard, are signs of the distressing future that awaits her at home but even before she escapes she has become a wary and suspicious teen who trusts no one older than her friends. Given her deep suspicion of adult behaviour and her profound faith in the conduct of herself and her peers to help them survive the most brutal challenges thrown at them by life it is not surprising that in America she becomes an introspective and moody observer of the life around her. She observes the conditions of immigrant life not with wonder but with the jaundiced eye of one who misses even the pain of her past and regards her home as a lost Paradise (the name of one of the decayed suburbs that she once roamed in search of guavas) that she may never regain. This improbable viewpoint is given credibility and relevance by the effective depiction of Aunt Fostalina’s barely civil relationship with her Ghanaian live-in paramour Uncle Kojo. Uncle Kojo’s own befuddled relationship with his American-born son (from a previous liaison) who joins the Army and goes to fight in Afghanistan even after his father risks arrest by striking him when he announces his decision, is a beautifully realised sub-plot handled with remarkable economy and style.
The ability to say a lot with a few words is one of the major hallmarks of Bulawayo’s talent. She possesses a substantial aptitude for accurate social observation and acute analysis of the circumstances of human existence that is not confined simply to her examination of her nation’s decline. Her descriptive meditation on Darling’s first experience of snowfall is an impressive example of how to wrest profundity from simplicity. However at the core of her American disquisition the basic theme remains intact as she examines and explains Darling’s interaction with other migrant youth and some of her schoolmates. Descriptive passages cover such delinquent conduct as the clandestine watching of internet pornography, in which activity they are eventually surprised by Aunt Fostalina. It emerges that in its own way life in America compounds rather than alleviates the sense of alienation and disenchantment that the childhood trauma of living in a disturbed society had forged in Darling’s psyche at home. She begins to achieve some stability in her own existence when as an immigrant worker albeit one whose papers are, to say the least, dubious or even non-existent, she is forced to deploy the same precocity in America that gave her confidence as a child in Africa, in her dealings with naïve employers who have no idea of the true depth and traumatic resonance of her life. In facing this necessity she becomes a mature self-willed individual but one who has begun to realise that the old names might have to go.
This tale does not have a tidy end. It appears to be part of an on-going saga of growing up, in which nothing is as important as being able to hope that tomorrow will be better. In spite of the traumatic truth of her homeland’s decline and disastrous mismanagement, which she evokes emotionally rather than describing conditions through statements of political fact, Darling (and. one suspects, the author) possesses an undying love for its soul. This emerges in the passages of memory and longing that are the most poetic and sustainable links to a past that is fading in Darling’s new life but which she is determined to cling to. This entire novel is a poem. It contains the musicality of verse in its narrative form and a breathless sense of new discovery in the events that the author details. Some of the most beautifully written sections of the work tell of a life that is so relentlessly brutal that it demeans reality and yet because the voice of the narrator is also relentlessly self-confident these horror stories (e.g. the nearly murderous plan to abort Chipo’s pregnancy by the children) end up being enlightening rather than gratuitous. At the end of the tale Bulawayo leaves us hoping for more in the same way that her central character is seen as someone still waiting maybe for better times to descend on her homeland so she might return or simply for a new world of new names to evolve and make daily life more bearable for the innocent observers. This is a courageous novel and the Rainbow Book Club’s decision to make it a book of the month is a courageous one.
17 November 2014