Title: We Need New Names
Writer: NoViolet Bulawayo
Reviewer: Tinashe Mushakavanhu
I have always wanted to read myself in contemporary Zimbabwean literature. We Need New Names does just that for me and more. It evokes songs of my childhood, games we played and other familiar memories such as falling off a neighbour’s guava tree. And nobody who has ever lived in a township forgets — the buzzy streets, the jostling humanity, the smells and sounds, the vivacity and the infinite variety.
NoViolet Bulawayo harnesses all her creative energy and formidable command of craft to produce a debut novel full of rhythm and much hope.
Of late, the Zimbabwean novel has been suffering a protracted growth. But in NoViolet we witness the imaginative maturity of the born-free generation, Zimbabwe’s post-colonial offspring. This is a generation whose maturation is evidently coming to light (Lawrence Hoba, Novuyo Rosa Tshuma, and Phillip Chidavaenzi). Their sensibility and world outlook is shaped by different historical forces that shaped early Zimbabwean writing.
At some point, the political crisis paralysed the Zimbabwean imagination. We began to believe and recycle the stock images of ourselves that the world created for us. New Zimbabwean literature needs deeper exploration of the human psyche and stripping away all those easy attitudes we have been fed for so long like black-versus-white, reactionary-versus-progressive, Zanu PF versus MDC, dragging literature into that shallow battlefield. We need to explore those reasons that affect our day-to-day dreams, longings and needs.
NoViolet steps up at the right time to produce a novel written with so much intimacy and care. The characters that people the book are not mere cardboard cut outs strutting lifelessly through the pages, but “real” people who though sometimes weighed down by the neglect and insult of the world, proclaim insistently their determination to survive, to step out of the shadows and be counted.
Every character evolves as the book progresses, turning into someone the reader had not quite expected — for instance, the actions of these ordinary children, Darling and her small gang, are spontaneous and impulsive, mere reactions to internal and external forces.
And there are reminiscences of Yvonne Vera in the young writer’s confidence and technique. It is easy to forget this is her first book because of the accomplished skills she exhibits that are so hauntingly assured. This specifically Zimbabwean story will surely have a lot of resonance for many African readers. Though evoking a specific time and place vivid in its particulars, NoViolet draws universal lessons for all.
We Need New Names is a disarmingly playful, devastatingly candid novel that is at once classic and utterly original, with a power all on its own. The narrative is witty, multi-layered, intricately constructed, deeply informed, elegantly written. We Need New Names is a great beginning to NoViolet ’s literary career and a significant contribution to Zimbabwean literature.