Last summer, I met a young woman from CCNY who was visiting Stanford and who was working with me in a summer mentorship program. She was entranced by a book I had not heard of, We Need New Names, by the young Zimbabwean author NoViolet Bulawayo. The student was from Ghana, and felt strongly that what Bulawayo wrote of — the postcolonial world of Zimbabwe and then her relocation to Detroit — spoke to her life in important ways. As we read through the text together, I found it a remarkably powerful novel. Not only does it connect with a tradition of African writing, it also seemed to echo in different ways the work of Sandra Cisneros, Junot Díaz, and Toni Morrison. Each of these authors of course comes from a particular time and place, yet there is no doubt that they too are part of this unpredictable circulatory system.
I was fortunate to have the chance to sit down and talk with Bulawayo recently, and asked her more about her background, writing, and outlook in this extensive interview. I was especially interested in how she locates her writing in a tradition of storytelling and literary narrative, and also within the context of African literature, culture, and politics.
As her website states,
NoViolet Bulawayo is the author of We Need New Names (May 2013) which has been recognized with the LA Times Book Prize Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, the Pen/Hemingway Award, the Etisalat Prize for Literature, the Barnes and Noble Discover Award (second place), and the National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” Fiction Selection. We Need New Names was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Guardian First Book Award, and selected to the New York Times Notable Books of 2013 list, the Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers list, and others. NoViolet’s story “Hitting Budapest” won the 2011 Caine Prize for African Writing.
NoViolet earned her MFA at Cornell University where she was a recipient of the Truman Capote Fellowship. She was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, where she now teaches as a Jones Lecturer in Fiction. NoViolet grew up in Zimbabwe.
DAVID PALUMBO-LIU: First, thank you so much for speaking with me. I know you are busy on a writing project and have been touring extensively. It must be very different writing under these circumstances, compared to your first book. Or is it? Can you tell us a bit about what has perhaps changed in your approach to writing?
NOVIOLET BULAWAYO: Thank you David. It’s definitely different from when I was writing Names; there wasn’t a book to travel for then, along with the attached hecticness — I mean I just had all the solitude and stillness I needed. Perhaps most importantly, nobody cared, and there were no expectations, and I absolutely loved just being left to my own devices. The solitude and stillness are not always readily available now, I have to actively fight for them, sometimes fake them, work a bit to channel my energy and give myself room to create, work even more to honor and protect the time and process of writing. Thankfully I’m back at work, doing what I need to be doing, and quite excited to be writing the way I need to be again. But, really, I can only complain with restraint — Names is such a lucky book from all that has happened to it, and it’s still great to share it with readers everywhere.
Many interviewers have spoken to you about your use of a young girl as the narrative voice, which you do with such authenticity and sensitivity. You are able to tackle tremendously complex and difficult subjects through this voice, and have them appear both as they might appear to a young girl, but also in a way that reveals their rather deep significance. The question of hunger, for example, appears as a gut-level experience which most of us can only vaguely and distantly relate to, and use those sensations to get at the reality of Zimbabwe at that time; you attach that felt experience to rather profound political and historical insights that go well beyond that girl’s conscious understanding. Why was it important to tell the story in this way?
I wasn’t necessarily pushing for the reader to recognize anything specific, but to map a vulnerable young girl’s experience against a background of a country coming undone, which is a story that can happen anywhere really. I’ll quickly mention that I didn’t always start out with a girl narrator, early versions of Names were told in an adult perspective that ironically ended up falling short in achieving what Darling seems to have, and with less effort. I think to some of my favorite young narrators —Tambu in Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions, Yunior in Junot Díaz’s Drown, Pip in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, and I remember that I loved them for some of the same reasons you bring up, including their being acute observers and commentators of the world, so perhaps a part of it could speak to the possibilities of this kind of narrator, how sharp and alive and resonant and engaging a child’s gaze can actually be, even as the world is complex. I’d say for me the child narrator also allowed for this giving voice to a marginalized and powerless character, someone we ordinarily wouldn’t hear from, and this on its own is important, in the sense that children are the real victims in a situation like the Zim that inspired Names, which in some ways is different from the Zim of now by the way. The dilemma of children is that they are not really major players in the grand narrative at all, but of course still suffer profoundly as the most delicate members of society, as we know from the general condition of children in times and places of crises all over the world. But still I wanted Darling and her friends to be more than victims, I wanted them to push and direct and illuminate the conversation, and raise hard questions.
You told me you came from a line of storytellers. Could you expand on that a bit? How did that influence you, both when you were very young and heard your relatives tell stories, and then when you began yourself to write?
I do come from a space where stories were told, especially when I was growing up, part of the air we breathed, and I was lucky that my grandmother and my father were some of the most riveting storytellers I have ever known. And, sure enough, their stories were a big part of what sparked and sustained my imagination when I was young (my grandmother’s were mostly fictional, my father was in the nonfiction department so I had a nice balance) and quite inevitably from an early age I became interested in language, character, image, tone, composition, and other components of the verbal arts, though I couldn’t always necessarily name these things at the time. And of course in the everyday, people dealt in language — in my ‘80s, ‘90s Gwanda and Bulawayo, where I grew up, men went to work and a good number of women stayed home, running things and talking neighborhood truths and lies and hopes and dreams and lives — we even did live Twitter years and years before it came to the US on fancy gadgets. It was beautiful — you woke up everyday to inhale language, and you understood it as currency and character, as something alive, something that made things move.
I loved it all, and I know I would not have become the kind of writer that I am without this specific background, and indeed when I started writing seriously, this influence came out, especially through voice and style, because I don’t necessarily imagine just a reading audience, but a listening one too, so I must actively write for the ear, an ear that also has to see things of course. And, somewhere inside me I suspect is a consideration for a reader who isn’t a reader, you know, someone who has no time for books but might, if you dished it out in a certain way — I’m always figuring out how to write for this type of person as well. And lastly, I’d also say the influence also comes out in my English — it definitely gets its energy from my mother tongue, IsiNdebele, it being the language that all the different storifying happened in, so that my imagination naturally understands it as the language of telling stories. I see its fingerprints in all I do.
Well that leads to an obvious question, so obvious that I didn’t even write it down initially; but I was just wondering, what authors influenced you?
I like the term “spoke to me” better — and my list includes my favorite Zimbabwean writer, Yvonne Vera, who was especially important to me in my early years. There’s Tsitsi Dangarembga, who wrote one of my favorite books, Nervous Conditions, she is another, and so is Junot Díaz. Toni Morrison, Colum McCann, Zakes Mda, Jhumpa Lahiri, IsiNdebele writers Barbara Makhalisa and N.S. Sigogo, and many others. And of course, in the list are the many storytellers I’ve known, two of which I mentioned, they are not writers, but when I think about “influences,” I’d say these are even at the top of my list.
In terms of influences and legacies, I was also noting how throughout Names the phrase “things fall apart” recurs, an obvious reference to Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Can you talk a little about that?
Achebe was certainly in my imagination, and I was interested in continuing the dialogue of the falling apartness of things, but of course in a different context, i.e. a nation not in direct confrontation with the beast of colonialism, but with a different animal, seeing as it is that Names is happening about three decades after the fall of colonialism. The scars are, and will always be there of course, but the beast has changed shape.
That’s exactly what I was going to ask you, Nigeria in the ‘60s and then Zimbabwe after 1980.
The Names’s Zimbabwe is specifically the Zim of the 2000s, which is different from the ‘80s, ‘90s Zim — decades of promise, excellence, and stability for the most part. Enter the 2000s and the beast that is the nation starts eating itself, and self-rule and independence and black power don’t save it, and things do fall apart in the recognizable ways of non-functional governments — political unrest, repression, economic collapse, et cetera. The tragedy of Darling’s generation is that they are betrayed by their own, through failure of leadership, and I was interested in how this affects what happens when a country starts unraveling, and what happens to its most vulnerable citizens. I have to mention that engaging like this means I’m also desperately interested in how we can move forward of course, as most are. I write because I care.
You said you first intended to attend law school. What changed your mind? Do you see anything that you hoped to do as a lawyer seeping into your writing? Or do you see those two things as totally separate?
I did intend to study law, yes, but that was mostly a result of coming from a background where you’re expected to pursue sensible and practical things, and if you told people, at least at the time I came of age, that you were studying “law,” “engineering,” “medicine,” et cetera, then you were a person-person you know, whereas “writer” or “artist” would be a waste of time. Of course it’s perfectly understandable for families to push their kids toward “real,” “tangible” careers, but that unfortunately always means traditional fields; the arts can just be another distant country for those who cannot afford the luxury. I sometimes see the same dynamic play out with the many young people who come through my classes, the agonizing over what to do, what they love versus what is practical and what not, what the parents expect, and of course I just wish them the courage to sort it all out. It’s not always easy, like most life decisions.
Anyway, I suppose what changed my mind, or should I say, what opened my eyes, was finding myself on the page after taking classes at Kalamazoo Valley Community College in Michigan (I can’t speak highly enough of that school) and understanding that writing was what I was meant to be doing, which then shaped the 12 or so years between taking my first creative writing class, and the publication of my debut novel. My law aspirations at 18, 19 were vague, I was still in the process of figuring myself out, but as an artist I’m interested in literature as a social project that allows for imagining ethics-driven representations and interrogations of the world, that allows us to talk about and around rights, wrongs, problems, issues of justice, et cetera. I imagine this is where my powerless and marginalized characters, normally children and women, as well as my socially engaged themes, come from.
There are some notable moments in your novel where you note the naïveté of Western aid workers. You do not doubt their good intentions, it seems, but still you see a gap in understanding. Was your novel at least in part motivated by a desire to correct some notions people in the West have about Africa? What kinds of misconceptions do you feel it’s most important to address?
The misconceptions about Africa are numerous, but I believe a better way to think about the issue is to perhaps consider why they exist in the first place — from cultural arrogance to problematic media representations to lack of information et cetera. And quickly, I’ll note that as an educator I’m quite surprised by how much Africa seems to be missing from the formative Western Curriculum, so that it’s possible for a student to get to college and complete it without encountering Africa in any meaningful and balanced way. And as we all know, uninformed young people make for a dangerous society, because these are future leaders and players who will, among other things, have to deal with Africa in one way or the other. Let’s prepare young people who are able to adequately engage with the world, period, not just Africa by the way. It is 2015 after all, and globalization is here.
The NGO section in the novel is concerned about the culture of dependency, where the adults are in fact not inspired to take any initiative, but to simply wait for handouts, being disappointed when these don’t come on time. Where aid is concerned, people in the receiving end are better served by the type of intervention that also leads to self-empowerment, otherwise the aid itself can easily cease to be a solution and become a part of the problem. Even as I cast a light on it, the gap in understanding seems to me like it would need more than literature — I’m writing about characters of course, but they come from systems that are in many ways responsible for shaping who they are. It reminds me of how I sometimes watch America’s racial madness, count the black boys and black men that are still being murdered by white policemen, and it’s business as usual, and I think how mind-blowing that the prophetic James Baldwin spoke about these issues decades ago, and his literature did not, and is not, saving anybody, not counting the numerous contemporary writers who are writing around the issues everyday. Literature has its value of course, but systems need to have active participants, after all. Not everybody is reading.
I read the novel as both a call to political action, but also a very realistic understanding of capacity and effectiveness. Has anything changed in terms of your optimism or pessimism about how positive change might come in Zimbabwe?
As long as we are under the same leadership that failed the country, and that arrogantly believes that liberating the nation gave it the right to choke its dreams, and not be accountable, then I’m still disappointed, even as I’m grateful for the quiet. I mean, it is no longer the Zim of 2008-09, when I wrote the novel, and the crisis was at its height. I’ll say that to hope is human, so I do and still hope for the kind of leadership that is able to carry the country forward.
David Palumbo-Liu is the Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor, and Professor of Comparative Literature, and, by courtesy, English, at Stanford University.