TO READ WE NEED NEW NAMES, a new novel by NoViolet Bulawayo, is to be plunked down in Paradise, a shantytown in Zimbabwe — running alongside 10-year-old Darling and her friends, stealing guavas, arms outstretched to meet the wind.
Bulawayo’s writing holds the immediacy of a child’s experience while her storytelling reveals enough about the political context in Zimbabwe to stimulate the adult mind. When we meet Darling, she is preparing to leave Paradise (recently bulldozed by the paramilitary) to join her aunt in America. As we follow her in this transition, the story becomes a personal exploration of the complexities borne of leaving one place behind and adjusting to another. In this way, Bulawayo builds on the work of Zadie Smith and Monica Ali, but while her themes excite the mind, the greatest impact of this novel is emotional. Bulawayo moves the reader beyond empathy: We Need New Names evokes experience.
Born and raised in Zimbabwe, Bulawayo recently earned her MFA at Cornell and is a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford. The opening chapter of We Need New Names won the 2011 Caine Prize for African Writing, while the novel has won praise from the likes of Junot Díaz. Most recently, We Need New Names was long-listed for the Man Booker prize.
A recent profile of Bulawayo in Publishers Weekly pointed out that the most striking thing about her novel is the choice of a 10-year-old narrator. Was Darling’s voice a conscious choice? Reading the book, the voice doesn’t feel like a choice. It feels natural, impulsive, and instinctive. Yet as I myself had recently finished writing a novel narrated by a 5-year-old, the question struck a chord with me. I wondered about Bulawayo’s experience writing Darling.
– Claire Cameron
Claire Cameron: How did you come to write Darling in a 10-year old voice?
NoViolet Bulawayo: Her voice had spirit and presence, and promised to allow me to tell the story with more urgency.
CC: So was it her voice that spoke to you first? How did you find it?
NB: When I’m at my most successful things just happen on the page, and it was the same with Darling. I was actually writing the novel in a different voice and different structure when she arrived as one of the voices on the margins, but she eventually took over.
CC: I had a similar experience. Were you surprised to be overtaken by a 10 year old?
NB: Once I allowed the voice to exist, the writing became effortless. This in turn made the process of writing one of pleasure, which was new.
CC: Did you find it imposed limits on the way you told the story, or how you describe things?
NB: I did have to remember that I was dealing with children and had to be careful not to slip into an adult perspective, which was sometimes hard as I see and experience the world as an adult. But I’d say it was more of an interesting challenge than a limit.
I think with children, description, at least for me, is simpler and direct and tangible. Things are alive, because that is how children see the world.
CC: Did you do any research around her voice or age?
NB: Darling’s voice was pretty easy, maybe because children are generally simple and straightforward, and there is no need to be “high sounding” with a child voice. Once I was aware of her presence I simply went back to my childhood, to the kid I was, to the kind of kids I played with in order to pin down her voice and perspective and age; that’s really all I did. There didn’t seem to be any need for research.
CC: Did you talk to 10 year olds and think about her outlook, or did you write from instinct?
NB: I had to rely on instincts and my own childhood, and it worked out just fine. I was, after all, writing most of the book on campus and there were no kids around me. If there were I’m sure they may have been a removed from Darling’s experience, which would have affected their perspective.
CC: What did the child’s voice allow you to do as a writer?
NB: It allowed me to play on the naivety and innocence and frankness of children to handle dense subject matter with an ease that may have otherwise been a bit more difficult had I been dealing with adult characters.
CC: Did the child’s voice change the scope of the story or the subjects you took on?
NB: It made the book less charged, less weighed down by the political stuff that is happening in the background, which I think the book needed, especially as I remember my first drafts as trying to engage with the politics and ground the reader on what was happening. Children, while being sharp about the political landscape around them, are more concerned with the business of the everyday, of living, of play, and this is what We Need New Names became about.
CC: Did you have trouble leaving the 10-year-old Darling behind to find her as an older teen?
NB: I’ll admit leaving the young Darling and her friends behind was sad business as they lived in my head and may very well have been real people. The older Darling is more subdued, understandably because she has to be — her move is such that she has to forge a new self to exist in the US, and that self is without all of the voice and spunk we encounter in Paradise because those are things that come partly from the location and who she is there.
CC: How much of the young Darling’s experience reflects your own?
NB: Not that much. We experienced two different Zimbabwes. Darling and I can’t sit down and talk about a common childhood — all she knew mostly was a country in crisis, something I cannot identify with from experience.
CC: How is it different for a child, rather than an adult, to move from Zimbabwe to a place in the US like Detroit?
NB: I watched my niece move from Zimbabwe to Kalamazoo, Michigan, when she was around five. I was jealous at how fast she adapted. She only spoke our language for a few days before she switched to English, understandably because she had cousins her age, and in a short while she was sounding like them. Her being a child with no strong ties to our Zimbabwean culture meant she simply sneezed Zimbabwe out and inhaled America and kept it moving.
I, on the other hand, seemed to struggle with everything. I remember I spent my first college year in silence in the classroom. Outside of that, I was too aware of it as a space that was not my home to fully melt into its melting pot. And then you add the small things like the weather (Michigan is cold), absence of friends, a new teenage culture etc., then yes, you have tough scenario that took me a while to adjust to!
CC: Do you think that being young changes the experience of a transition to a new country?
NB: I think it depends on the individual and of course their specific experience. For Darling it’s not as seamless because she is recognizing America for what it is, which is not the dream she imagined, while at the same time waking up to the costs, to what has been lost.
Being an immigrant myself, and having met a lot of immigrants, I’m struck by this experience of transition, something that can be hard to the extent of affecting your relationship to the new country.
CC: How much did you look back on your own memories of transition?
NB: I looked back mostly for the purposes of character, for example to allow me to get into Darling’s skin, and for the kind of material that I will always associate with my childhood, like religion, games played, but that is not to say that my memories were all relevant.
I grew up in a very different time in Zimbabwe; as part of the first generation of kids born after independence, I experienced stability, success, and normalcy and of course the Zimbabwe that I remember is terribly gone.