I feel like I should explain the Book Club a little bit before just jumping straight into this post. At the end of May I was feeling sort of “meh” about the Goodreads book clubs I’m part of. No offence meant to them at all! I like them. But they’re just so BIG that the books I’m particularly interested in don’t often (read: ever?) get picked and there doesn’t feel like there’s enough incentive to take part sometimes. I wanted something that was smaller so, even if I’m not super jazzed about every single book, I feel motivated to read each one because I knew the other member(s) of the book club are reading too and because of the discussion that will ensue.
SO, of course, I voice messaged Claire about it and we decided on a book within the hour!
How it works is that one of use will pick the book one month and the other will pick the book for the next month. This month, was my choice: We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo.
Claire’s library hardback (left) & Nikki’s paperback (right)
Book: We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo
Publisher: Vintage, 2013
Genre: Literary Fiction
Summary: Darling and her friends live in a shanty called Paradise, which of course is no such thing. It isn’t all bad, though. There’s mischief and adventure, games of Find bin Laden, stealing guavas, singing Lady Gaga at the tops of their voices. They dream of the paradises of America, Dubai, Europe, where Madonna and Barack Obama and David Beckham live. For Darling, that dream will come true. But, like the thousands of people all over the world trying to forge new lives far from home, Darling finds this new paradise brings its own set of challenges – for her and also for those she’s left behind.
More Information: GoodReads
Nikki’s Thoughts & Rating:
*Spoilers are indicated
like this. Any struck-through text from this point on is a spoiler.
Although it initially felt a little slow for me and I had to adjust to the novel being written in the present tense, by page 30 I became somewhat invested in the story and by page 52 I was really getting into it had fully committed. The social commentary throughout the book is just really great and at those two points in particular, religion and developed nations’ attitudes towards developing nations (respectively) are called into question perfectly. This careful analysis is told from the perspective of Darling who, while very insightful, is also very ignorant. Taking only one of these aspects of her personality into consideration does her character an injustice. She has opinions which are sometimes misguided, she is cliquey like children often are, she is easily influenced by her friends and the myth of America, she is insensitive even when she gets a little older, but she can also be empathetic and she has a conscience and she can think critically about situations. She is a very realistic character which I appreciated.
Several (read: six) times throughout the novel, Bulawayo references the title of Things Fall Apart and this is no coincidence. There are certain loose parallels we could draw about Africa ‘before and after’.
Darling never actually mentions her country’s name and I think this does two things. For one, it makes you see her country more broadly. Although we are reminded not to think of Africa as a single country (or to give it a single story) and that the countries are each different and have different issues to deal with, at the same time, it doesn’t matter which specific one she comes from. In fact, she could almost be coming from a different continent altogether – certain central strains of the story would be the same – it just so happens to be a country in Africa. It is a story of immigration and the desire for better things.
Secondly, this purposeful omission seems more obvious when contrasted with all the other things Darling is very specific about: soda brands, store names, phone and laptop brands, etc. While, in general, it actually annoys me to see cultural references (especially current ones) littered throughout a novel (it dates the book and feels distracting to me), one has to assume it was done to contrast the absence of these things or the difference in the way they might appear where Darling is from. I think Darling’s vagueness about her country paints it with a sort of fantasy and intrigue; especially when contrasted by the brashness of American consumerism in the latter half of the novel.
I don’t think it matters, but we can safely say the African country in question is Zimbabwe, where Bulawayo is from, (there is mention of Rhodesia at one point) and I’m sure other more subtle cultural cues would reveal that too.
Oddly, although our situations are vastly different, there were a lot of small things that I could relate to as someone who has moved from my country to another one to live. Small things (that many people can probably relate to just in the process of growing up, not necessarily moving to a different country) are falling out of touch with close friends and not knowing how to be around them or what to say anymore. It’s a confusing and difficult and frustrating feeling. And there is a little guilt too, even though that’s just how things happen sometimes and no one is at fault.
There is also a weird feeling about having moved and still feeling like your country is yours and identifying with it, but being so far away and distanced by both space and time. You start to realise you don’t know the most recent news. Even if you were to try to keep up with things by searching out the news, there are unexplainable details that can’t be grasped from abroad. That along with with not feeling like you’re really allowed to fully claim your new adopted home as yours no matter how long you’ve lived there and have seamlessly integrated, starts to create a small feeling of a “gap” in your identity.
There’s a point near the end
where Darling goes from living a certain way to watching that way be lived by others who she has left behind that has a sort of soft, winding tension that echoes her friend Godknows‘ question, near the beginning, “What exactly is an African?”.
“Chapter 16: How They Lived” feels a bit like a narrative essay which seeks to elaborate what Darling’s story has already been successfully revealing without the inclusion of this straightforward exposé. It is beautifully crafted–like the rest of the book–and so I feel bad saying this, but it feels a little unnecessary. Like its purpose is for drama. I suppose there is no harm in an intermission for poetic emphasis and it doesn’t detract from the book. But I didn’t think it was needed and I just wanted to get back to the story especially since it was further along in the book which I find an odd place for stylistic changes.
There are no surprises in this story really. Pretty much all the pieces of your quintessential immigrant story are there. But it is full of beautiful similes, metaphors and juxtapositions that perfectly describe a very specific sort of feeling or that expose a certain way of thinking: a set of culturally constructed priorities. And, while I wasn’t completely blown away by the book overall, I really valued the way it was told and I think Bulawayo’s criticism is demonstrated effectively through the scenes, characters and happenings described.
3.5 stars and I would recommend it to others. ★★★☆☆
Nikki’s favourite line(s):
“If you are stealing something it’s better if it’s small and hideable or something you can eat quickly and be done with, like guavas. This way, people can’t see you with the thing to be reminded that you are a shameless thief and that you stole it from them, so I don’t know what the white people were trying to do in the first place, stealing not just a tiny piece but a whole country. Who can ever forget you stole something like that?”
And this beaut:
“And so the spirits just gazed at us with eyes milked dry of care.”
Claire’s Thoughts & Rating:
As Nikki has already said, this is part of our Book Club. It was Nikki’s turn to pick and I think she did a great job!
I approached We Need New Names eager to sink my teeth into a different book. I’ve read a ton of Fantasy lately, as well as a number of YA novels, and that hasn’t led to a lot of diversity on my part. I wouldn’t have picked this book up out of my own interest, though I do find it interesting, because that isn’t the type of thing I read lately.
However, when Nikki picked it, I had to admit she made a good choice. We Need New Names is a complex and engaging read that brings up so, so many issues and topics. What I liked the most is the author’s tongue and cheek attitude, her snarky writing style that is both simple and detailed. She doesn’t shy away from the realities of poverty and goes into depth the simple hopes and pleasures that living can have.
Thematically, she talks about poverty and safety but most importantly (in my opinion), “the grass is greener syndrome”. I suffer from this most extremely, but it’s something I’ve seen back in The Bahamas. Everyone sees each other’s lives through rose-colored glasses, they cannot see that each lifestyle, American or African, has its own struggles and pains, and its own redemptions of course.
Though I liked this book, and I would highly recommend it, I’d give it . It’s engaging and well thought out, and I left it thinking good things but I wasn’t wowed. It’s good, no, it’s great, but not wow.
Claire’s Favourite Line:
“Look at the children of the land leaving in droves, leaving their own land with bleeding wounds on their bodies and shock on their faces and blood in their hearts and hunger in their stomachs and grief in their footsteps. Leaving their mothers and fathers and children behind, leaving their umbilical cords underneath the soil, leaving the bones of their ancestors in the earth, leaving everything that makes them who and what they are, leaving because it is no longer possible to stay. They will never be the same again because you cannot be the same once you leave behind who and what you are, you just cannot be the same.”
Have you read this book yet?
If you have, what did you think? If you haven’t, do you want to?