NoViolet Bulawayo has extended her Caine prize-winning short story about a Zimbabwean girl coming of age in the US into a novel. But has the prize created an African aesthetic of suffering?
The Guardian, Thursday 20 June 2013
Bulawayo on snowflakes … 'So big they shroud everything but you don't even hear them coming'. Photograph: Ross M Horowitz/Getty Images
I was at a Caine prize seminar a few years back and the discussion was on the state of the new fiction coming out of Africa. One of the panellists, in passing, accused the new writers of "performing Africa" for the world. To perform Africa, the distinguished panellist explained, is to inundate one's writing with images and symbols and allusions that evoke, to borrow a phrase from Aristotle, pity and fear, but not in a real tragic sense, more in a CNN, western-media-coverage-of-Africa, poverty-porn sense. We are talking child soldiers, genocide, child prostitution, female genital mutilation, political violence, police brutality, dictatorships, predatory preachers, dead bodies on the roadside. The result, for the reader, isn't always catharsis, as Aristotle suggested, but its direct opposite: a sort of creeping horror that leads to a desensitisation to the reality being represented.
We Need New Names
by NoViolet Bulawayo
The question to be asked then is whether this new writing is a fair representation of the existential realities of Africa, or if it is just a "Caine-prize aesthetic" that has emerged in a vacuum created by the judges and the publishers and agents over the years, and which has begun to perpetuate itself. Writing is an incestuous business: style feeds on style, especially if that particular style has proven itself capable of winning prizes and book deals and celebrity.
NoViolet Bulawayo's new novel, We Need New Names, is an extension of her Caine prize-winning short story, "Hitting Budapest", and yes, it has fraudulent preachers and is partly set in a soul-crushing ghetto called Paradise, somewhere in Zimbabwe. Yes, there is a dead body hanging from a tree; there is Aids – the narrator's father is dying of it; there is political violence (pro-Mugabe partisans attacking white folk and expelling them from their homes and chanting "Africa for Africans!"); there are street children – from the ranks of whom the narrator, Darling, finally emerges and escapes to America and a better life. Did I mention that one of the children, 10- or 12-year-old Chipo, is pregnant after being raped by her grandfather?
There is a palpable anxiety to cover every "African" topic; almost as if the writer had a checklist made from the morning's news on Africa. There's even a rather inexplicable chapter on how the Chinese are taking over Africa, and how, as one of the street kids puts it, the Chinese "are not even our friends". Such moments are made possible by its rather free-ranging, episodic plot structure.
And this is all in the first hundred pages, before the narrator is whisked away to America – to Detroit, Michigan, or as the children call it, "Destroyedmichygen".
What stops the book collapsing under its own thematic weight is a certain linguistic verve, and the sense that this is a really talented and ambitious author who might at any moment surprise the reader by a plot twist, some technical bravura, or a thematic transcendence that will take the story beyond its gratuitously dark concerns to another, more meaningful level. For really, what is the purpose of suffering in literature, especially in a coming-of-age novel, but to serve as midwife to spiritual and psychological growth?
In America, the narrator does grow when she finds out that, despite the material wealth, all she has dreamed of won't necessarily come true. Her aunt Fostalina's marriage falls apart even as she struggles every day to look like the rake-thin women she sees on TV. "When Aunt Fostalina finishes walking she asks, 'You think I am losing weight? ... Who is fatter, me or your mother?' ... Then she lifts those metals and says, 'I will be going on a fruit diet.'" The failure of the marriage becomes a metaphor for the illusoriness of the American dream.
Bulawayo's keen powers of observation and social commentary, and her refreshing sense of humour, come through best in moments when she seems to have forgotten her checklist and goes unscripted: where, for example, we find Darling and her friends Krystal, the African American, and Marina, the Nigerian, watching porn in the basement, and they turn off the volume so they can make all the groaning and moaning noises themselves. Or when, on describing snow falling outside the window, she writes: "How does something so big it shrouds everything come down just like that and you don't even hear it coming?"
These moments show what Bulawayo can do when she is enjoying herself – when she doesn't feel she needs to be both a player and a commentator at the same time. The world is a dark and ugly place, a lot of that ugliness and injustice is present in Africa, but we don't turn to literature to confirm that. The news is enough. What we turn to literature for is its ability to transport us beyond the headlines.
• Helon Habila's Oil on Water is published by Penguin.
In 2011, NoViolet Bulawayo was awarded the Caine Prize for African Writing for her short story "Hitting Budapest." In this raw, fierce tale of a gang of near-feral children on the hunt for guavas, the young writer delivered one of the most powerful works of fiction to come out of Zimbabwe in recent years — a clear-eyed indictment of a government whose policies, in the decades since independence, have left many of its citizens destitute.
Two years later in her debut novel, We Need New Names, Bulawayo continues the story of her feisty young protagonist, Darling, who lives with her best friends Bastard, Chipo, Godknows, Sbho and Stina in a shantytown named Paradise. Although the early chapters are told in a child's voice, there is no whimsy to Bulawayo's writing. Early in the book the children come across a dead woman, a suicide whose body hangs from a tree. Initially frightened, they start to run away. Then Bastard points out that the woman's shoes are almost new; they could sell them and buy themselves fresh bread. The children go back to wrest the shoes from the hanging corpse. These are serious times, and while there is play and laughter, too, the harsh realities of empty stomachs, fractured families and social decay are never far away.
Darling's father returns from South Africa with "the sickness" (no one can bring themselves to say AIDS out loud); her mother has gone to the border to trade; and her grandmother, convinced she can find a spiritual cure for her son's disease, is in thrall to a religious charlatan who demands payment in U.S. dollars. These are days of dynamic and catastrophic change. The national currency is defunct, the family's savings now useless; U.S. dollars may as well be diamonds for all the chance the citizens of Paradise have of obtaining them.
NoViolet Bulawayo is a "Born Free," a term that describes citizens born after 1980, the year of Zimbabwe's independence. Even as she applies her critical eye to the social realities of her homeland, Bulawayo gives her protagonist a voice imbued with dignity and pride. A visit from well-meaning aid workers affords a rare chance to witness the dehumanizing impact of charity: "The man starts taking pictures with his big camera. ... They don't care that we are embarrassed by our dirt and torn clothing, that we would prefer they didn't do it; they just take the pictures anyway, take and take. We don't complain because we know that after the picture-taking comes the giving of gifts."
In Bulawayo's steady hands, what could be a tale of woe becomes a story of resilience. Even as the government sends in bulldozers to "clear" the shantytowns, the adults of Paradise go out to vote. Although she devotes only a few pages to the reprisals that in reality followed these elections — punishment for areas that voted the "wrong" way — her spare description of the aftermath is powerfully affecting. Bulawayo shows the desperation of men unable to provide for their families, denied the change they have voted for. Drying the tears they've shed in private, these "Solid Jericho walls of men" try to hide their pain:
And when they returned ... they stuck hands deep inside torn pockets until they felt their dry thighs, kicked little stones out of the way, and erected themselves like walls again, but then the women, who knew all the ways of weeping and all there was to know about falling apart, would not be deceived; they gently rose from the hearths, beat dust off their skirts, and planted themselves like rocks in front of their men and children and shacks, and only then did all appear almost tolerable.
Darling's dreams finally come true, and her aunt Fostalina sends for her to come to America, the "big baboon of the world." If there is a fault in the book, it's the abruptness of this transition. After a detailed telling of Darling's childhood, the reader is suddenly thrust into a new reality and is momentarily dislocated. These later chapters lack the visceral immediacy of Darling's earlier life. But perhaps this is how it would feel for our young protagonist. In this new land there is food aplenty, and now, spared the struggle of daily survival, Darling must reinvent herself as an American teenager — making new friends, bagging groceries in a supermarket, discovering the Internet and facing the realization that not all of her dreams will come true.
In the end, Darling realizes that, although it is now all that she has, America can never be home. For Darling, a girl now on the verge of womanhood, an illegal immigrant, America is a land to be endured.
Toward the end of the book, Darling has a strained conversation with her friend Chipo. The childhood gang has scattered — to America, to South Africa, to Dubai. Chipo alone has stayed home. "You think watching on the BBC means you know what is going on? No, you don't my friend," says Chipo, brushing off Darling's halfhearted attempt to decry the fate of their country. The house was burning, Chipo continues, and Darling and her kind have left it to others to put out the flames.