We Need New Names
A Novel by NoViolet Bulawayo
2013 / 304 Pages
We all have problems. I get that. As adults it’s much easier to get caught in the trap of complaining about any given hardship that we encounter or bump in the road that we might face than it is to work towards a realistic solution to whatever the source of our current woe might be. We’re only human. We often get stuck in endless cycles of bad behavior, unable to rescue ourselves for torments that are mostly of our own creation. Sometimes we fail. Other times we succeed. Both the highs and the lows can be wild, emotional roller coasters.
Children are different though, right? They’re tiny little politically aware activists for change. They’re miniature sized socially conscious beings with fierce agendas that they want to ram down our throats at every opportunity. They exist to constantly remind us of all of the hardships endured by people the world over.
No? That’s not what your ten-year-old daughter is like? Well then, your kid is a whiny, spoiled, entitled bitch when compared to Darling, the narrator of NoViolet Bulawayo’s debut novel We Need New Names, and Ms. Bulawayo isn’t afraid to remind you of this fact at every single page turn.
It’s oh-so-easy to poke fun at a culture or a society, to call it out from a distance, to pinpoint its so-called problem areas. I’m all for it in fact if you want to be balanced about it, but in the world according to Darling there are no decent American people. There are fat ones. There are cheating ones. There are anorexic ones. There are creepy ones. There are linguistically challenged ones. There are exercise obsessed ones. But no hard working, kind, compassionate ones. Every single American presented is a stereotype and none of them seem to appreciate just how good their life supposedly is.
And Darling as a character, where do I begin? As a ten-year-old living in Zimbabwe during the first half of the book she’s knows what paparazzi are and can name check celebrities, yet she has no idea what a small dog is when she encounters one? Child please.
The most interesting parts of the book actually occur before Darling’s aunt arrives and whisks her away to live in America, but even the most gripping of moments feels sadly incomplete. At one point Darling and her friends collect rocks and a rusty coat hanger so that they can perform an abortion on a young girl. Of course their attempt itself is aborted. At another point the children witness a horrible crime from up in a tree and even when one of the perpetrators of the act stops at that very spot and whips his “big thing” out to take a leak, they still aren’t spotted. Five kids all siting in a tree together, who could possibly see them?
The novel closes with the most uninspired, manufactured, flawed argument imaginable as Darling Skypes home with a friend who accuses her of running away from their country and tells her that she has no right to be concerned about its welfare. Yeah right. I’m sure her friend would act that way. Darling was 10 when she left. She was taken by an aunt. It’s not like she had a lot of choice in the matter. What was the girl supposed to do?
But you are not the one suffering. You think watching on BBC means you know what is going on? No, you don’t, my friend, it’s the wound that knows the texture of the pain; it’s us who stayed here feeling the real suffering, so it’s us who have a right to even say anything about that or anything and anybody, she says.
The weird thing is Darling repeatedly WANTS to go home at several points throughout the novel, but doesn’t because her visitor’s visa to the US has expired and once she leaves the country she’ll never be able to return. She hates everything about her life in America, never mentions even a single upside to living in the country, but she doesn’t want to miss out on…what exactly? Even working a simple job at a local supermarket seems beneath her, even though thousands of kids across the country, who were born here, do just that every day after school to earn money for themselves and their families.
Whatever it is this girl is looking for, expired visa or not, she’s clearly not going to find it in Zimbabwe, the United States, Canada, Iraq, Guam, or Mars. She has no home, no place that she can feel safe and comfortable in, and maybe that’s the point, that danger exists everywhere the world over, just in a myriad of different forms.
There’s got to be a better way to get that point across though, no?