NoViolet Bulawayo, We Need New Names (Zimbabwe)

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“I look at it like I’ve never seen a guava before, then hold it under my nose. The smell hits me where it matters, and I feel like my heart and insides are being gently pried open.”

It’s taken me way too long to write this post – initially my excuse was my book club was reading it and I didn’t want to spoil our discussion by posting my thoughts but that excuse has run dry as we met a month ago now…so I guess just chalk it up to procrastination.

It seems wrong to say the first half – where Darling and her companions roamed around, usually hunting for guavas to sate their hunger but also sometimes greeting her HIV-infected father or playing doctor for their pregnant young friend – was enjoyable. Compelling might be a better way to put it. Scenes where they watched a crowd of angry black people attack a white family in a more upscale community, and another where they spy on a high intensity funeral before re-enacting the death stand out in particular.

Later on, when Darling fulfills her dream by moving to the United States, I lost a bit of interest. There are a few reasons for that, some of which are probably not fair. The first is that, a few months ago, I read Americanah which I wrote about here. In many ways the books are similar – an African girl comes to a mundane part of the US (no flashy LA or NYC’s here) and struggles to adapt. There are of course differences too – Darling comes at a young, pre-teen age, largely supported financially by family as she navigates through elementary and high school while Americanah’s Ifemelu arrives for university largely dependent on herself.

Despite the differences part of me felt like I was reading a story I’d already heard. Some of their struggles were of course the same – winters, homesickness, and the growing difficulty of understanding the lives of those left at home. But I feel like that impatience for the story to give me something new is unfair. I’ve read countless stories about white girls growing up in middle class suburban North America and it’s not like I find their stories repetitive. Fantasy tales of Narnia and Middle Earth have a lot of similar themes but I enjoy them all on their own merit. It seems irrational to clump these stories together and say I lost interest because it felt like it had been done. Part of why I started this initiative is to read stories outside my realm of understanding. Thousands upon thousands of people go through an experience LIKE both Darling and Ifemelu, but of course their tales aren’t identical, or unworthy of telling.

Another reason I didn’t enjoy the US setting was it just made me sad. You’d think the hunger and the pregnant children of the beginning would be more melancholic but Darling’s life in the States, while improved in many aspects, also feels so lacking. Her life was by no means easy home in Africa (home being, as Darling notes, a tricky word to define) but you definitely got the sense as a reader that she fit in there – the devil you know is better than the one you don’t type of deal. Her American life is often uncomfortable and isolating, and it’s wrong to will her back to Africa on an assumption she’d be happier – she was granted more opportunities (and more meals) in the States. But I feel like that comes at a cost, and I genuinely don’t know what that cost is.

One response to “NoViolet Bulawayo, We Need New Names (Zimbabwe)

  1. Reblogged this on Typical T.O. Couple and commented:
    Here is book club member Andrea’s views on our last book (since I missed it). I mostly agree with these thoughts, though I was less enthused as a whole because I just couldn’t like Darling enough.

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