We Need New Names. NoViolet Bulawayo.

We Need New Names. NoViolet Bulawayo. Little, Brown and Co., New York 2013. Hachette Digital retrieved for Kindle. F; 7/14.

I have quite strong mixed feelings about this one. It was another among several novels I’ve read recently where I was captivated early on by intense, original, wildly dissonant writing, and then (here) the scene shifted (from Africa to Detroit) so radically I never recovered… equilibrium I guess. I ended up a bit in doubt as to what had been accomplished. Reflecting on that I am left with an impression of an angry moral exposé I seem to have encountered many, many times before (don’t you Americans appreciate, on one hand what a privileged life you lead, and on the other paradoxically how shitty you really are and how little different your society is from the filthy nightmare of West Africa?).

The geographic shift of scene happens to our protagonist Darling, a black girl who suffers poverty and family tragedy in what appears to be Zimbabwe. Life there had been pleasant enough, until an ill-defined upheaval (I imagine this might have been the economic crisis in about 1998) wrecks everything, tearing away from the black families in the village anything that might sustain them. Darling and her group of friends (one of whom is pregnant though barely post-pubertal) forage in the adjacent rich white community, and witness the violent takeover of one of their homes by squatters. Darling’s father is destroyed by HIV and returns from South Africa a sick and dying man whom Darling is too ashamed of to reveal to her friends.

The kids’ emotions in other ways too are realistic as they experience incredibly stark events including coming upon a young woman who has hung herself, and a naïve hopelessly inept attempted abortion of Darling’s pregnant young friend. Darling dreams of going to the United States where she has an aunt, and how wonderful that would be.

But once in Detroit we are presented with the unsurprising clash of the young girl’s backstory with her new and completely upside-down life, living in the family of her aunt. I think the contrast here is meant to show us dislocation, American racism and the shallowness of its values, and alienation that is emphasized by Darling’s pregnant friend’s telling her she no longer has any right to call herself African. She can’t really call the place she left “home” because she abandoned it for a better life (and she is trapped by immigration rules anyway), but no way will she ever fit into “Des-troit”.

The writing remains impressively dissonant once Darling moves. Her older male Americanized cousin responds to her description of life in Zimbabwe with, “Yo, you won’t find any of that African shit up in this motherfucker.” Texting is rendered in keystroke argot. The girls watch pornography on the computer and make bets about who will have sex first.

I ended up clinging to the edgy writing to keep away from a void composed of autobiography, understandable but far from unique anger, and maybe a little disingenuousness as terribly hard experiences are thrown in the face of… whoever we are supposed to construe as being responsible. That particular responsibility isn’t mine, it seems, which may explain why ringing-true of the narrative drama, and the human heart of moral content (which ended up feeling banal) missed me by quite a bit. 6.0 content, 8.2 style.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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