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 across though, no?
NoVoilet Bulawayo’s Man Booker Prize shortlisted novel starts off with a lot of promise compared to some of this year’s other contenders. It is immediately readable with a storyline that promises poignancy and individuality, but like so many other 2013 MBP nominees, We Need New Names ultimately disappoints.
Our narrator, Darling, is ten years old and living in her home country of Zimbabwe when the story opens. While she and her friends spend their days stealing guavas and wandering the streets, they all long for something more. Even amidst poverty, hunger, and disease, Darling and her friends are deeply aware of what they’re missing out on. When they think of America and Western life, they think of Kim Kardashian, Lady Gaga, and Lamborghinis. But as Darling soon finds out, American life isn’t all glitz and glamour.
When Darling moves in with her aunt and uncle in Detroit, she expects her days to be filled with leisure and luxury, but much to her disappointment, Michigan isn’t the America she dreamed of. It’s here where We Need New Names loses its credibility with me. I understand that the book is about reality vs. expectations and that it explores themes of displacement, national identity, and the idea of home, but the intentions fall flat in the execution. For one thing, Darling’s character is incredibly inconsistent and directionless. In Zimbabwe she was frightened of men and disgusted by their ability to conquer and impregnate women. She even tries to help her friend Chipo have an abortion with the help of another clueless adolescent with a rusty coat hanger. In America, Darling and her new friends spend their days watching hard core porn and sexual torture videos. They aren’t necessarily proud of it, but that doesn’t change their behavior.
Back home, they repeatedly discussed the importance of names and identity, yet when Chipo tells Darling via Skype that she named her daughter after her, Darling is unimpressed. She says:
[T]hey claimed they decided to name her after me so there would be another Darling in case something happened to me in America. It’s kind of cute, but I don’t know how to feel about it, somebody being named after me like I’m dead or something.
Really? Who wouldn’t be completely touched that their best friend named their child after you? Apparently not Darling. In fact, nothing really impresses Darling. She hates the snow and cold of Detroit, is bored by the internet, tired of going to school and jaded about her jobs. I understand that America isn’t all milk and honey, but does she even remember what her home country was like? Let’s recap: She and her friends had to steal guavas to avoid starving, her father died a slow and painful death from AIDS, her best friend was raped and impregnated at 10 years old, and the country is constantly in fear of the military. But hey, at least she didn’t have any biology homework there!
With this novel, Bulawayo has the opportunity to thoughtfully explore the notion of home, roots, and identity, but instead, I was completely distracted by Darling’s obnoxious attitude and character inconsistencies. It’s just such a transition from the Darling we meet in the first half of the book. I know that moving to a completely different country is sure to change people, but Darling goes from likeable and compelling to spoiled and bratty in a matter of a few chapters. Darling’s displacement and loneliness is heartbreaking, but it’s hard to sympathize with a girl who has nothing but disdain for her American life. Sure, she might not drive a Lamborghini or look like Kim Kardashian, but she’s not the only immigrant who’s ever had to struggle to find a sense of home and belonging. Detroit may not be paradise, but she was given a life of nourishment, leisure, pleasure, and shelter and the only thing she does is complain about it. And I have very little patience for such an ungrateful and disrespectful narrator – especially one who’s voice feels so contrived and inorganic.
We Need New Names
A Novel by NoViolet Bulawayo
Reagan Arthur Books