We Need New Names – NoViolet Bulawayo

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Here we are then for the last #bustlereads review, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t getting sentimental…
We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo was that book I squeezed in mid-december because I needed to finish the challenge. That’s why I read it in German – that’s what they had at the library at the time.

We Need New Names starts by following the life of ten-year-old Darling and her group of friends in Zimbabwe where they steal guavas to still their hunger and try to hold back memories of their life before they lost everything and moved to a village of makeshift huts. There’s obsessive priests, there’s boredom and hunger and illness and sexual abuse, but there’s also political change and hope and community.

After half the book a big chance offers itself to Darling: leaving her prospectless life and move to the US with her aunt. That’s what happens, and that’s where the book now moves: a story of immigration, of home and foreign culture, of disillusionment and disappointment.

That’s basically the two things this novel’s trying to do. You could probably ask if one needs both in one book, but I thought that rather worked. She obviously tried to squeeze a lot into one book, and I see how that would annoy you. I didn’t mind though.
What didn’t work for me was one chapter in this book near the end, dropping the direct, childlike voice of the rest of the book for a few pages of almost poetic thoughts on immigration and the experience of people out of African countries immigrating to the US and the racism and hopelessness they encounter, which wasn’t bad but just felt too separate from the novel’s voice to fit in naturally.

Still, all in all I enjoyed this book and thought it told me things I should already know. I enjoyed the immigration narrative, and really think it can’t be overexplored in our current political situation.
What I also liked, and please hear me out because this sounds extremely weird, was whenever there was white people in this novel. I think Bulawayo did a great job at depicting all shades of white ignorance and the way people volunteers from western countries who come to African countries to do good have an extremely distorted, privileged experience of living there and how poverty and the continent as a whole get romanticized and patronised in the Western eye.
That gets even worse in the United States-based half of the book, the questions and presumptions Darling faces seem completely ridiculous but taking a step back you can see how ordinary and everyday they are.

That’s what I enjoyed most about this book and why I want people to read it. It does a great job at uncomfortably treading on Western privilege, and that’s something I’m sure we all need to be reminded of. A lot.

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