NoViolet Bulawayo’s spoke last week as part of the Summer Common Reading (SCR). Her book, We Need New Names, told a young girl’s experience during her journey from the slums of Zimbabwe to the frozen tundras of Michigan.
During the first half of the novel, the main character, Darling, lives in a slum called Paradise. The name is ironic, and it’s also juxtaposed to the extravagantly wealthy neighborhood called Budapest. However, the barrier between the two communities does not exist for Darling and her group of friends—who have names like Bastard, Chipo, Godknows, Sbho, and Stina.
Bulawayo’s vivid language painted the group’s adventures with imagination and color. Though the reader is taken to the slums in Zimbabwe in the first half of the novel, Bulawayo said in the SCR discussion that the location is not as relevant as the universal problem of living in poverty.
And Darling provided more whimsical interpretations of living in poverty—they make new games instead of new names. She lived in a tin house and ate food scarcely. Yet, the viewpoint of a child is more innocent than what would have been a more analytical narration by an adult protagonist.
Although the content of this fictional story can be dark, it was lit with wonder. Hilarity ensued when the NGO workers arrived and were mercifully mocked; delight brimmed when the children stole guavas from the wealthy; confusion struck when the group decided to take the shoes of a young girl who committed suicide; and sadness gloomed when the girls attempted to abort young Chipo’s child.
Just as readers become comfortable with the setting of Paradise, Darling arrives in Michigan, or what she called “Destroyedmichygen.” Darling lives with her Zimbabwean Aunt, and Ghanaian Uncle and cousin in Detroit and Kalamazoo. During her time in Michigan, Darling’s transition to American society was explained by her fear of snow, by her bewilderment for American customs, and by reports of the daily rituals of her family.
Yet with time, Darling’s gleeful expectations of America diminish, as do Bulawayo’s vivid descriptions. The routines of daily life slowly take over, new friends are made, and her past in Zimbabwe remains in the past.
The sharp contrast in writing styles not only expressed the mood she desired to set for the two settings, but also her skill as a writer. She brilliantly united the divide between the two settings and writing styles in her conclusion.
Bulawayo combined playful writing with painful truth. Through these tales, readers apprehend the intimate truths of modern poverty in the Third World and compare it to our lives in the United States. Done in a manner that is felt rather than taught.