book excerptise:   a book unexamined is wasting trees

We Need New Names

NoViolet Bulawayo

Bulawayo, NoViolet;

We Need New Names

Random House, 2013, 304 pages

ISBN 1448156238, 9781448156238

topics: |  fiction | zimbabwe |

One of my best reads of 2013... a tale of the disenfranchised.

In the first half a bunch of shantytown kids roam the streets of the poshest neighbourhood in town looking for guava trees to raid. The storytelling is very powerful, because from the child's point of view, events like an armed mob rioting or her father dying of AIDS are told with a disarming directness that neither emphasizes nor decries the sordid living conditions in cardboard homes. At the same time the neighbourhood of Budapest is full of mansions of the whites, with expansive gardens. The lively, bedraggled gang, with fascinating names like Godknows (with buttocks showing through his holed shorts), and Bastard (the big boy and bully of the gang), Sbho (a girl who likes to pretty herself), and Chipo, who has a fat belly, because though only eleven, she was raped by a family member... The protagonist is called Darling.

Their interactions of the whites are fascinating - Darling has never talked to one in her life. Other sideplots involve other fascinating groups - there Chinese workers who are building a factory and seeing the local women, a minister who spews fire in his sermons at the church on top of the hill, and after she reaches the United States, the tribal chief Tshaka Zulu, who still lives in the old culture.

The opening chapter, [nbhb|Hitting Budapest], was published in Granta and won the Caine short story prize. The book was shortlisted for Booker.

Includes a beautiful chapter on the riots that engulfed Zimbabwe in the day they manage to get in to one of the mansions... % This chapter, Blak Power is probably as powerful as Hitting [nbhb|Budapest], but not as neutral politically, so may be it is less talked about, but it is also a powerful statement, and exquisitely told - particularly Darling's conversation with the parents of the white couple...

The scene where the NGO truck comes delivering goodies reminded me of the "steam control" dialogue from the Bonfire of the Vanities - The rich attempting to keep the lid on dissent, and thus preserve their capital, by throwing crumbs to the countless poor...



Hitting Budapest

We are on our way to Budapest: Bastard and Chipo and Godknows and Sbho and Stina and me.


When we get right to the middle of Budapest we stop. This place is not like Paradise, it’s like being in a different country altogether. A nice country where people who are not like us live. But then you don’t see anything to show there are real people living here; even the air itself is empty: no delicious food cooking, no odors, no sounds. Just nothing. p.4


How old are you? the woman asks Chipo, looking at her stomach like she has never seen anybody pregnant.

She is eleven, Godknows replies for Chipo. We are ten, me and her, like twinses, Godknows says, meaning him and me. And Bastard is eleven and Sbho is nine, and Stina we don’t know because he has no birth certificate. p.7


Noviolet Bulawayo. Source: WSJ

I know London. I ate some sweets from there once. They were sweet at first,
and then they just changed to sour in my mouth. Uncle Vusa sent them when
he first got there but that was a long time ago. Now he never sends
anything, Godknows says. He looks up at the sky like maybe he wants a plane
to appear with sweets from his uncle. p.8


The house has big windows and sparkling things all over, and a red swimming
pool at the front, empty chairs all around it. Everything looks really
pretty, but I think it’s the kind of pretty to look at and admire and say,
Oh, that’s pretty, not a pretty to live in. p.10

Going back to Paradise, we do not run.  We just walk nicely like Budapest is
now our country too... p.11

2 Darling on the Mountain

Jesus Christ died on this day, which is why I have to be out here washing
with cold water like this. I don’t like cold water and I don’t even like
washing my whole body unless I have somewhere meaningful to go. After I
finish and dress, me and Mother of Bones will head off to church. She says
it’s the least we can do because we are all dirty sinners and we are the ones
for whom Jesus Christ gave his life, but what I know is that I myself wasn’t
there when it all happened, so how can I be a sinner?I don’t like going to
church because I don’t really see why I have to sit in the hot sun on that
mountain and listen to boring songs and meaningless prayers and strange
verses when I could be doing important things with my friends.

Plus, last time I went, that crazy Prophet Revelations Bitchington Mborro
shook me and shook me until I vomited pink things. I thought I was going to
die a real death. Prophet Revelations Bitchington Mborro was trying to get
the spirit inside me out; they say I’m possessed because they say my
grandfather isn’t properly buried because the white people killed him
during the war for feeding and hiding the terrorists who were trying to get
our country back because the white people had stolen it. 19-20

[the storytelling is very nonlinear.  you are told that the grandfather was
killed by the whites in the war - much later, you encounter his picture
hidden in a bible.  You don't even know who Mother of bones is until a good
bit into the novel.]

If you’re stealing something it’s better if its small and hideable or
something you can eat quickly, like guavas.  That way, people can’t see you
with the thing to be reminded that you are a shameless thief and that you
stole it from them, so I don’t know what white people were trying to do,
stealing not just a tiny piece but a whole country. 20

Hey cabbage ears, I hear somebody shout. p.20

My father says your church is kaka and that your Prophet Revelations
Bitchington Mborro is an idio - I hear Bastard's voice start.

You you futsekani leave her alone you bloody mgodoyis get away boSatan
beRoma! Mother of Bones spits from inside the shack 21

[photos on the walls of the shack.]

Next to Jesus is my cousin Makhosi carrying me when we were little.

Two years ago, Makhosi went away to Madante mine to dig for diamonds, when
they were first discovered and everybody was flocking there. When Makhosi
came back, his hands were like decaying logs. He told us about Madante
between bouts of raw, painful coughs, how when he was under the earth he
forgot everything. He said all he knew inside that mine was the terrible
pounding of the hammer around him, sometimes even inside him, like he had
swallowed it. 23

[about her grandfather's photo which Mother of Bones keeps in the old
unused bible.]
I knew who he was the moment I laid my eyes on him for the first time; it
felt as if I were looking at myself and Makhosi and Father and my uncle Muzi
and my other relatives, like my grandfather's face was a folded fist and
all our faces were collected like coins inside it. 24

[Mother of Bones is counting useless money from the old regime]
And the American money they are talking about just where do they think I'll
get it do they think I can just dig it up huh do they think I will defecate
it? 25

[white sign on Vodloza's shack:]
Vodloza, BESTEST healer in all of this paradise and beyond ...
[fixes] Bewitchedness, Curses, Bad luck, Whoring spouses, Chlldrenlessness,
poverty, joblessness, AIDS, Madness, Small penises, ... Dead people
terrorizing you, Bad luck with getting visas especially to USA and
Britain... 27

[They meet Bornfree and Messenger, who talk of how Change is coming.  ]
We are demonstrating tomorrow, on Main street.  Come and walk for change!

Paradise is all tin and stretches out in the sun like a wet sheepskin
nailed on the ground to dry; the shacks are the muddy color of dirty puddles
after the rains. 34
[but from up on flambeki hill they seem much better, almost beautiful
even... ]

the evangelists and Prophet Revelations Bitchington Mborro arrive after
everybody, like chief baboons 32

Prophet Revelations Bitchington Mborro is thundering about Judas and
Golgotha and the cross and the two thieves next to Jesus, making like he was
there and saw it all... [Soon] Prophet Revelations Bitchington Mborro is
drenched in sweeat, and his robe clings to his chest; you can see his breasts
and nipples. 35

Simangele's confession - last week she went to seek Vodloza's help because
she doesn't know what to do anymore about her jealous cousin, who is also a
witch and keeps sending her tokoloshes because she wants her dead so she
can then take over Simangele's husband, Lovemore. 37

[God tells Prophet Revelations Bitchington Mborro that the devil is coming.
The devil is a pretty woman - "just so pretty that even Sbho doesn't compare"
- except that nobody needs breasts the size of ugly baby's head. A group of
men are struggling to carry her to the church at the top of Fambeki hill.
Her purple dress is riding up showing white knickers with red kisses - they
don't even have a single hole in them.

The pretty woman is kicking and screaming - Leave me alone, leave me alone you
sons of bitches! You don't know me! ... As soon as she arrives,
Prophet Revelations Bitchington Mborro points his stick at her and thunders
for the demon insider her to get the hell out in the name of Jesus.

When nothing happens, he throws his stick aside, and leaps onto the woman
like maybe he is Hulkogen, squashing her mountains beneath him.

Prophet Revelations Bitchington Mborro prays for the woman like that, pinning
her down and calling to Jesus and screaming Bible verses.  He places his
hands on her stomach, her thighs, then puts his hands on her thing and starts
rubbing and praying hard for it, like there's something wrong with it.  His
face is alight, glowing.  The pretty woman just looks like a rag now, the
prettiness gone.

[And then Chipo wakes up and starts talking]
He did that, that's what he did, Chipo says, shaking my arm like she wants to
break it off.  This is the first time in a long time that Chipo is talking
like maybe she has received the holy spirit or something.  Her voice is
shrill in my ear... He did that, my grandfather, I was coming from playing
Find bin Laden and my grandmother was not there and my grandfather got on me
and pinned me down like that and he clamped a hand over my mouth and was
heavy like a mountain...

I want to laugh that her voice is back, but her face confuses me.
I say, Do you want to go and steal guavas? 40-41

3 Country-game

It’s just madness inside Shanghai; machines hoist things in their terrible
jaws, machines maul the earth, machines grind rocks, machines belch clouds of
smoke, machines iron the ground. Everywhere machines. The Chinese men are all
over the place in orange uniforms and yellow helmets; there’s not that many
of them but from the way they are running around, you’d think they are a
field of corn. And then there are the black men, who are working in regular
clothes – torn T-shirts, vests, shorts, trousers cut at the knees, overalls,
flip-flops, tennis shoes. 42

[The fat Chinese overseer walks out of the tent, tightening his belt.]

Look at that drum of a stomach, it's like he has swallowed a country.

We are still standing there when out walk these two black girls in
skinny jeans and weaves and heels. 45

Okay, it’s like this. China is a red devil looking for people to eat so
it can grow fat and strong. Now we have to decide if it actually breaks
into people’s homes or just ambushes them in the forest, Godknows says.

We are back in Paradise and are now trying to come up with a new game; it’s
important to do this so we don’t get tired of old ones and bore ourselves
to death, but then it’s also not easy because we have to argue and see if
the whole thing can work. It’s Bastard’s turn to decide what the new game
is about, and even after this morning, he still wants it to be about China,
for what, I don’t know.

Country Game

[In the country-game] Each person has to be a country.

But first we have to fight over the names because everybody wants to be
certain countries, like everybody wants to be the USA and Britain and
Canada and Australia and Switzerland and France and Italy and Sweden and
Germany and Russia and Greece and them. These are the country-countries. If
you lose the fight, then you just have to settle for countries like Dubai
and South Africa and Botswana and Tanzania and them. They are not country
countries, but at least life is better than here. Nobody wants to be rags
of countries like Congo, like Somalia, like Iraq, like Sudan, like Haiti,
like Sri Lanka, and not even this one we live in. Who wants to be a
terrible place of hunger and things falling apart?

If I’m lucky, like today, I get to be the USA, which is a country-country;
who doesn’t know that the USA is the big baboon of the world?  I feel like
it’s my country now because my aunt Fostalina lives there, in
Destroyedmichygen. Once her things are in order she’ll come and get me and
I will go and live there also.  49

[The country-game is a real game:

from (also a longer excerpt)

We are in the middle of the game, and it’s just getting hot; Sudan and
Congo and Guatemala and Iraq and Haiti and Afghanistan have all been
counted out and are sitting at the borders watching the country-countries
play. We are running away from North Korea when we see the big NGO lorry
passing Fambeki, headed toward us. We immediately stop playing and start
singing and dancing and jumping.

After we sit, the man starts taking pictures with his big camera. They just
like taking pictures, these NGO people...

[The NGO truck comes with gifts... the kids and adults run to them]
Thank you very much, I say to the pretty lady who hands me my things, to
show her that I know English.  She doesn't say anything back, like maybe
I barked. 55
[only MotherLove refuses their largesse.]

One of the ladies tries to greet us in our language and stammers badly so
we laugh and laugh until she just says it in English. Sis Betty explains
the greeting to us even though we understood it, even a tree knows that
Hello, children means 'hello children' p.52

4 Real Change

[They are putting up Real Change posters.]
[When Bastard slams a poster too hard onto a shack door], a voice from
inside says, You, you damage my door and I'll make you wipe your asses with
razor blades, fools!  61

I am not sleeping.  It's just that Mother expects me to be sleeping, that's
why my eyes are closed like this.

[A man comes and makes love to mother.  Darling doesn't like this man]
... he never brings us anything.  All he does is just come in the dark
like a ghost and leap onto the bed with Mother. 64

Now mother is moaning; the man, he is panting. The bed is shuffling like
a train taking them somewhere important that needs to be reached fast. 64

How they lost their earlier home

Before, we had a real house made of bricks, with a kitchen,  sitting room
and two bedrooms.  Real windows, real floors, and real doors and a real
shower and real taps and real running water and a real toilet you could sit
on and do whatever you wanted to do.  We had real sofas and real beds and
real tables and a real TV and real clothes.  Everything real. 63

In my dream, which is not a dream-dream because it is also the truth that
happened, the bulldozers appear boiling. ... Everybody is standing on the
street, waiting to see.... Mother shouts, Darling -
comeintothehousenow! But then the bulldozers are already near, big and yellow
and terrible and metal teeth and spinning dust.

Then the lorries come carrying the police with those guns and baton sticks
and its no use hiding in our houses because the bulldozers start bulldozing
and bulldozing and we are screaming and screaming.  They knock down our house
and Ncane's house and Josephat's house and Bongi's house... Knockiyani
knockiyani knockiyani... 66

5 How they appeared

[new families coming to paradise, erecting shacks, lamenting their lost

Generally, the men always tried to appear strong; they walked tall, heads
upright, arms steady at the sides, and feet firmly planted like trees. Solid
Jericho walls of men. But when they went out in the bush to relieve
themselves and nobody was looking, they fell apart like crumbling towers and
wept with the wretched grief of forgotten concubines.

And when they returned to the presence of their women and children and
everybody else, 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 both 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. (p 77)

It’s light rain, the kind that licks you. We sit in it and smell the
delicious earth around us. (p 89)

7. Shhhhhh

[Her father comes back from South Africa.  He has the Sickness, and Darling
is looking after him, she can't go play and has to make excuses.  Her friends
find out anyhow, eventually.]

It's not the lying itself that makes me feel bad but the fact that I'm here
lying to my friends.

"It's no use hiding AIDS, Stina says.  When he mentions the Sickness by name,
I feel a shortness of breath.  I look around to see if there are other people
within earshot.

It's lie hiding a thing with horns in a sack.  One day the horns will start
boring through and come out for everybody to see, Stina says. 100

We don’t speak. We just peer in the tired light at the bundle of bones, at
the shrunken head, at the wavy hair, most of it fallen off, at the face that
is all points and edges from bones jutting out, the pinkish-reddish lips, the
ugly sores, the skin sticking to the bone like somebody ironed it on, the
hands and feet like claws.

I know then that what really makes a person’s face is the meat; once that
melts away, you are left with something nobody can even recognize. (p 101)

ch 8 Blak Power

	[One of the most powerful chapters of the book.  In the 2000s, 
	armed gangs of Robert Mugabe's supporters - relics from the
	erstwhile rebel groups - attacked the white properties and more so,
	the moderate opposition group.]

The guava season is getting ready to end so now we prowl Budapest like we’re
hunting animals. We carefully comb and comb the streets, eyes trained on the
trees so hard our necks could strain. We don’t really talk about it but I
know all of us are thinking of the end of the season, when Budapest will have
nothing for us anymore, of the long, boring months before the next season

[They encounter a guard at a house, who accosts them in pompous English- 
"Who accorded you the permission to perform filthy functions on this
street?" - at Bastard who has spit on the street.  "I command you to
immediately turn around and retrace your steps." ]

[For all the vaunted power of Indian English today, this must have been how
our forefathers would have sounded.] 

On Julius Street, we finally find a tree with guavas, not a whole lot but
just enough, and we’re in the middle of harvesting when we hear this crazy
noise. We look and they are pouring down Julius like angry black water and we
know immediately that it was a mistake for us to come to Budapest today. They
are just everywhere, walking, rushing, running, toyi-toying, fists and
machetes and knives and sticks and all sorts of weapons and the flags of the
country in the air, Budapest quivering with the sound of their blazing

	Kill the Boer, the farmer, the khiwa!
	Strike fear in the heart of the white man!
	White man, you have no place here, go back, go home!
	Africa for Africans, Africa for Africans!
	Kill the Boer, the farmer, the khiwa!

They are going to kill us, Sbho says. I can’t see her face because she is on
a branch right behind me, but I know, just from the tremor in her voice, how
tears are already streaming down her cheeks and that they will eventually get
into her mouth.

I don’t want to die. I want my mother, she says. Now she starts to proper
wail like she is a radio and somebody just turned up the volume.

Shut up, what are you doing, you want us to get killed? Godknows says.

Shhhh. Sbho, listen, keep quiet. If we don’t make noise, if we just stay here
and be quiet, they won’t see us. They’ll just pass, then we’ll go, Stina says
in a whisper, sounding like he is somebody’s sweet mother. Sbho stops the
crying but you can still hear her sniffling.

Ah, what, they won’t do anything to us. Me, I’m not even afraid, Bastard
says, and we all look down at him. He is sitting on a fat branch, one arm
wrapped around the tree, his cracked feet dangling in the air. It’s like he
is just striking a pose and is maybe waiting for someone with a camera.

Can’t you hear that they are looking for white people? I’m telling you, they
won’t touch us, we’re not white, he says. We watch him spit, reach out for a
guava, wipe it on the picture of the rainbow at the front of his T-shirt, and
start attacking it in quick bites.

[The gang break the windows and start breaking down the door with an axe.  
Eventually the white couple appears.  They are given a piece of paper
- perhaps a document saying that they should leave. ]

No, you listen, the white man says, like he didn’t just hear the boss warn
him about telling black men to listen.

I am an African, he says. This is my fucking country too, my father was born
here, I was born here, just like you! His voice is so full of pain it’s as if
there is something that is searing him deep in his blood. The lion has bared
its fangs now. The veins at the sides of the white man’s neck are like cords,
his face dark with anger. But nobody minds him. They are leaving and storming
into the house, their chants about Africa for Africans filling the air. The
white man and woman remain standing there near the guard like sad plants,
just standing and looking after the gang; maybe they are afraid of the
weapons and that’s why they don’t try to stop them or follow them inside.

What exactly is an African? Godknows asks.

After a long while, after we are tired from sitting in the tree, the smashing
stops and they come out of the house. The boss walks in front, ax dangling at
his side. They are no longer making that much noise and they look a little
tired even. Like they have been exorcising demons and devils in there. They
do not talk to the white people, they just grab them and lead them away,
together with the guard, herding them like cattle. When the group passes
under our tree, the woman looks up like God whispered to her to look up, like
something told her we were up here. I see a black shadow flash over her kind
of beautiful face; it’s like she’s a chameleon trying to change color and
take ours.

I cannot look away from the woman’s eyes, but I’m ashamed that she is seeing
us up in her tree, ashamed for her that we are seeing them being taken away
like that. The black shadow remains on her face, and she keeps looking, like
maybe she wants to pluck us out of the tree with her eyes, and I begin to
think we will fall out from being looked at like that. We know from the look,
because eyes can talk, that she hates us, not just a little bit but a whole
lot. She doesn’t say anything; they move her past, and we exhale.

Where are they taking them? Godknows says, sounding like himself now.

Maybe they are going to kill them, he answers himself. Maybe they’ll take
them to the forest so their screams for help are not heard, and kill them

When we are sure they are gone-gone we quickly climb down the tree and head
straight for the house. It’s the first time we are entering a white people’s
house so we pause by the door, like we don’t know how to walk through a
door. Godknows, who is at the front, wipes his feet on the mat that says Wipe
Your Paws but then just keeps standing. Bastard comes from behind, pushes
Godknows aside, and steps in like he is the real owner of the house and he
has the keys. We all pour in after him.

Inside the palace

Inside, the cold air hits us and we put our hands on our bare arms and feel
goose bumps. We look around, surprised.

How is it cold in here when it is so hot outside? Sbho says in a whisper, but
nobody answers her, which means we don’t know. Around us everything is strewn
about and broken. Chairs, the TV, the large radio, the beautiful things we
don’t know. We stand in the wreckage; nobody says it but we are disappointed
by the senseless damage, as if it’s our own things that they have destroyed.

In the sitting room, we stand before the large mask on the wall and stare at
the black face, the eyes gouged out. It is a long, thin face, white lining
the eyebrows and the lips. The forehead is high and protrudes a little, and
yellow dots divide it in half. The nose is long, and the round mouth is open,
like it’s letting out a howl. And finally, a horn grows at the top of the


The gallery

In a very large picture that takes up a big part of the wall, a tall, thin
man with graying hair parted at the side is dressed in a suit that matches
his kind of blue eyes. He holds a cup and saucer in one hand. His free hand
is raised slightly, like he is speaking with it. At the bottom of the picture
are the words The Hon. Ian Douglas Smith; Rhodesians never die. In the next
picture, a little toddler stands holding hands with a monkey. They are
dressed in identical blue thingies that are half shirts, half vests, like
they are twins. 

And in another photo, next to the twins, a nice-looking woman with a round
face smiles. She is all bling: a sparkling crown sits on her head, with a
necklace and earrings to match. The picture is not even interesting, and
she is not even crazy beautiful, but we all stand there and lift our eyes
to her like maybe we are looking at a flag.

Why does she look like that? Bastard says.

Like what? Sbho says.

Like that thing is heavy, Bastard says.

It’s called a crown, I say. And she is called a queen. I know her.

How do you know her? Bastard says.

She was at our house. A long time ago.

You’re lying. What would a white person even be doing at your kaka house?
Bastard says.

Yes, she was. Under the bed. Under Mother of Bones’ bed.

The queen was under your grandmother’s bed? Godknows says.

Mnncccc. Sbho sucks her teeth and rolls her eyes.

Her face was on this British money that Mother of Bones kept in her Bible
under the bed. That’s how I know her, I say.


The sheets in the bedrooom

In the bedroom everything is smashed as well but we still get on the bed and
jump on it, except Sbho, who stands in front of a broken mirror and paints
her lips red, then sprays herself with this blue bottle of perfume. We jump
and we jump and we jump, the springs lifting us so high we raise our hands
and almost slap the white ceiling each time we go up. Then after we get tired
of jumping we get under the sheets and close our eyes and make snoring
sounds. The bed is soft and smells so nice I don’t even want to get up from

We are like Goldidogs, I say from under my sheets. The three bears are
coming, I say, but nobody says anything and I know it’s because they never
read the story back in school.

Let’s do the adult thing, Sbho says, and we giggle. Now her lips look like
she’s been drinking blood, and she smells expensive. We look at each other
shy-like, like we are seeing one another for the first time. Then Bastard
gets on top of Sbho. Then Godknows moves over but I push him away because I
want Stina, not chapped-buttocks Godknows, to get on top of me. Stina climbs
on me and lies still and we all giggle and giggle. I feel him crushing my
stomach under his heavy body and I’m thinking what I’d do if it burst open
and things splattered all over.

The Phone call

We are lying like that, giggling and doing the adult thing on the white
people’s soft bed, when we hear the ringing. We jump up and look around,
unsure what to do.

What is that? Godknows says.

It’s a phone, Stina says.

It’s a phone! It’s a phone! It’s a phone! we yell, running out of the bedroom
towards the sound. We hunt for the phone in the living room and quickly find
it under a towel. Stina flips the phone open and says, Hallo. Then he laughs
and gives it to Sbho, who laughs and gives it to Bastard, who laughs and
gives it to me. I am the one who speaks better English, so I say, Hallo, how
are you, how can I help you this afternoon?

Who is this? a voice says on the other end. It is surprised, the way you
sound when you find something you were not expecting.

It’s me, I say.

What? Who are you?



Yes, Darling.

Okay, is this a joke? How did you get the phone?

No, it’s not a joke, and I got the phone from Bastard, I say.

Bastard? Okay, wait, can you just give the phone to the owner?

The owner is not here.

Where is she? Where are they?

We don’t know. They took them away.

What? Who is we? Who took them away? I can hear from her voice that she is
maybe frowning. I also remember that I haven’t been using the word ma’am like
we were taught to at school and I almost want to start the conversation over
just so I can do it right.

The gang, ma’am, I say, doing it the right way now.

What gang?

The one with the weapons and flags, ma’am.

Where did they take them?

I don’t know, ma’am.

Jesus, Dan, can you find out what’s going on here? I just called Mom and Dad
and some weird African kid has Mom’s phone, the woman says to somebody called

By now everybody is looking at me like I’m something and as for me I’m just
proud that I’m finally talking to a white person, which I haven’t ever done
in my life. Not like this. Then a new voice, a man’s voice, comes on. When he
starts speaking to me in my language I laugh; I have never heard a white
person speak my language before. It sounds funny, but I’m a little
disappointed because I want to keep speaking in English.

The white man asks me what has happened and I tell him everything, but I
don’t tell him the part about us stealing the guavas. In the end he tells me
that I should put the phone back and that we should get out of the house
because it’s not our house and we have no right to be there. I close the
phone and put it back under the towel, where we found it, but I don’t tell
the others what the man said about getting out of the house. I am already
thinking of how many people from Paradise can live here in this big
house. Maybe five families, maybe eight.


In the kitchen, water gushes from opened taps and we stop them. The table and
chairs have been overturned, and plates and cups and pots and gadgets litter
the floor. When we open the fridge we find it untouched, which surprises
us. We gorge ourselves on the bread, bananas, yogurt, drinks, chicken,
mangoes, rice, apples, carrots, milk, and whatever food we find. We eat
things we have never seen before, things whose names we don’t even know.

Wee fawgoat the fowks, wee fawgoat the fowks, Godknows says, sounding like a
white man, and we giggle. He starts towards the cupboards and rummages and
rummages and rummages, and then he is back with the glinting forks and knives
and we eat like proper white people. When we miss our mouths we laugh, fling
the things away, and go back to using our hands. We stuff ourselves and we
stuff ourselves, stuff ourselves until we almost cannot breathe.

I want to defecate, Godknows says, and we all leave the kitchen to hunt for
the toilet. Our stomachs are so full they could explode. We walk like
elephants because we are heavy, and the food has made us tired. We find the
toilet at the end of the long passage. There is a big white round thing where
they bathe, then there is the glass shower, the soaps, the gadgets and
things. There is also a terrible reeking smell,and we look at the other end,
and there, near the toilet, we see the words Blak Power written in brown
feces on the large bathroom mirror.

9 For Real

[Bornfree's funeral]

The mourners stop and form a circle. The coffin has just been set in the
grave.... A tall man with big hair ... begins to speak. The mourners hush, but
still you can hear that there is something underneath the silence. Like
anger....His voice rises like smoke, past us, towards God. The man speaks
about country and runoff and heroes and democracy and murder and freedom
and human rights and what-what. The sound of it maddens the mourners; it’s
as if they’ve just been insulted. The BBC man clicks and clicks away at his
camera like he is possessed....The Prophet Revelations Bitchington Mborro
raises his Bible and starts saying holy things. The mourners quiet. He
keeps going and going until I begin to wonder if he doesn’t get tired of
talking to a god who doesn’t even do anything to show that he is a god. 136

10 How They Left

Look at them leaving in droves, the children of the land, just look at
them leaving in droves. Those with nothing are crossing borders. Those
with strength are crossing borders. Thos with ambitions are crossing
borders. Those with hopes are crossing borders.  Those with loss are
crossing borders. Those in pain are crossing borders. Moving, running,
emigrating, going, deserting, walking, quitting, flying, fleeing -- to
all over, to countries near and far, to countries unheard of, to
countries whose names they cannot pronounce. They are leaving in
droves. 145

When things fall apart, the children of the land scurry and scatter like
birds escaping a burning sky. They flee their own wretched land so their
hunger may be pacified in foreign lands, their tears wiped away in strange
lands, the wounds of their despair bandaged in far away lands, their
blistered prayers muttered in the darkness of queer lands.

Look at the children of the land leaving in droves, leaving their own land
with bleeding wounds on their bodies and shock on their faces and blood in
their hearts and hunger in their stomachs and grief in their
footsteps. Leaving their mothers and fathers behind, leaving their
umbilical cords underneath the soil, leaving the bones of their ancestors
in the earth, leaving everything that makes them who and what they are,
leaving because it is no longer possible to stay. They will never be the
same again because you cannot be the same once you leave behind who and
what you are, you just cannot be the same.

Look at them leaving in droves despite knowing they will be welcomed with
restraint in those strange lands because they do not belong, knowing they
will have to sit on one buttock because they must not sit comfortably lest
they be asked to rise and leave, knowing they will speak in dampened
whispers because they must not let their voices drown those of the owners
of the land, knowing they will have to walk on their toes because they must
not leave footprints on the new earth let they be mistaken for those who
want to claim the land as theirs. Look at them leaving in droves, arm in
arm with loss and lost, look at them leaving in droves. 146

11 Destroyedmichygen

Finally [Vodloza] tied a bone attached to a rainbow-colored string around
my waist and said, This is your weapon, it will fight off all evil in
that America, never ever take it off, you hear? But then when I got to
America the airport dog barked and barked and sniffed me, and the woman
in the uniform took me aside and waved the stick around me and the stick
made a nting-nting sound and the woman said, Are you carrying any
weapons? And I nodded and showed them my weapon from Vodloza, and Aunt
Fostalina said, What is this crap? And took it off and threw it in a bin,
Now I have no weapon to fight evil in America. 150

When the microwave says nting, fat boy TK takes out a pizza and eats
it. When the microwave says nting, he takes out the chicken wings. And then
it’s the burritos and hot dogs. Eat, eat, eat. All that food TK eats in one
day, me and Mother and Mother of Bones would eat in maybe two or three days
back home. p.156-157

The uncles and aunts bring goat insides and cook ezangaphathi and sadza and
mbhida and occasionally they will bring amacimbi, which is my number one
favorite relish, umfushwa, and other foods from home, and people descend on
the food like they haven’t eaten all their lives. They tear off the sthwala
with their bare hands, hastily roll and dip it in relish and pause briefly to
look at one another before shoving it in their mouths. Then they carefully
chew, tilting their heads to the side as if the food speaks and they are
listening to the taste, and then their faces light up. (p 161)

After the food comes the music. They play Majavaina, play Solomon Skuza,
play Ndux Malax, Miriam Makeba, Lucky Dube, Brenda Fassie, Paul Matavire,
Hugh Masekela, Thomas Mapfumo, Oliver Mtukudzi - old songs I remember from
when I was little, from Mother and Father and adults singing them. p.161

12 Wedding

No matter how green the maize look in America, it is not real. They call it
corn here, and it comes out all wrong, like small, sweet, too soft. I don’t
even bother with it anymore because eating it is really a disappointing
thing, it feels like I’m just insulting my teeth. p.164

[in the ladies room]

I am washing my hands and admiring my interesting face when a voice says:
Are you from Africa too?

I look in the mirror, and this woman in a blue dress is standing there
smiling at me. I notice the smell of her sweet perfume is all over, like a
living thing. I smile back. it’s not exactly a smile-smile just the brief
baring of teeth. That’s what you do in America: you smile at people you
don’t know and you smile at people you don’t even like and you smile for no
reason.... Can you just say something in your language? she says. I laugh a
small laugh, because what do you say to that? 174

[the young Zimbabwean, Dumi, who once dated Aunt Fostalina, is
getting married to a grossly obese
American (white) woman, primarily for his visa papers.

Mandla is the completely spoilt son of the bride, "a pretty little boy with
flowing hair".  presumably from an earlier
marriage. ]

[Mandla throws the ball] and it hits an old lady in a pink dress on the
breast. I stop breathing, but the old lady just smiles like nothing’s
happened, picks up the ball from her lap, and holds it out to Mandla.

Isn’t he a sweetheart? she says ...

He had too much candy earlier, Dumi says, his voice explaining-like, and I
want to laugh because what has candy really got to do with a spoiled kid?

That’s when Mandla throws the ball at me, and by the time I see it, it has
already hit my right eye, one of the spike thingies [on the ball] jabbing
the inside. The pain is something else. Before I know it, I have forgotten
that I’m at a wedding, in a hall full of people, forgotten that I’m in
America. Just before Aunt Fostalina sharply tells me to sit down, I grab
the little brat, go pha-pha-pha with three quick slaps, and rap his head
with my knuckles, twice.

It’s only when I sit back down and look around that I reaize what I have
done The white people have already gasped... and the silence has already
descended. It stays in the air like a stain. Tshaka Zulu... shouts...Do not
to fear. This is just how we handle unruly children in our culture....
Nobody laughs with him; there is this hot fire of silence. 182

15 Hitting crossroads

We are cruising like that and I’m being forced to listen to this stupid
Rihanna song that everybody at school used to play like it was an anthem or
something. Well, maybe the song isn’t stupid, it’s only that I just got
generally sick of that whole Rihanna business, the way she was on the news
and everything, I know her crazy boyfriend beat her up but I don’t think she
had to be all over, like her face was a humanitarian crisis, like it was the
fucking Sudan.  p.218

[In zimbabwe she once saw a sports car.  In her mind, it is THE car she
will have.  Then, while cruising with Kristal and Marina, she finds the car
in the Borders parking lot.]

I see my car. I don’t even hesitate, I run to it yelling, My Lamborghini,
Lamboghini, Lamborghini Reventón! Maybe I start freaking out, I don’t know,
but Marina is pulling me away and asking what’s wrong with me.

Do you know how much that car costs? she says.

How much? I say.

Almost a couple of million dollars, she says.

You’re lying. Millions? For that little car? I say.

Duh Kristal says.

You can Google it; that little car is actually one of the most expensive
cars out there, Marina says.

Well, I say, and leave it there. I stop to let a car pass before I cross
over to the mall. The thing is, I don’t want to say with my own mouth that
if the car costs that much then it means I’ll never own it, and if I can’t
own it, does that mean I’m poor, and if so, what is America for, then? 225

Tshaka Zulu

Being in Tshaka Zulu's room is like being in a museum of remembrance or
something - the walls are choking with things: newspaper clippings of
Nelson Mandela when he came out of jail and stuff, pictures of our
country's president when he first became president and he had all his hair,
a picture of Kwame Nkrumah, Kofi Annan, a big picture of Desmond Tutu,
pictures of Miriam Makeba, Brenda Fassie, Hugh Masekela, Lucky Dube, a
newspaper clipping of Credo Mutwa, framed pictures of Bébé Manga, Leleti
Khumalo, Wangari Maathai, and so on. p.235

Others with names like myths, names like puzzles, names we had never heard
before: Virgilio, Balamugunthan, Faheem, Abdulrahman, Aziz, Baako,
Dae-Hyun, Ousmane, Kimatsu. When it was hard to say the many strange names,
we called them by their countries.
   So how on earth do you do this, Sri Lanka?
   Mexico, are you coming or what?
   Is it really true you sold a kidney to come to America, India?
   Guys, just give Tshaka Zulu a break, the guy is old, I'm just saying.
   We know you despise this job, Sudan, but deal with it, man.
   Come, Ethiopia, move, move, move; Israel, Kazakhstn, Niger, brothers,
let's go! 242

16 How they lived

Because we were not in our own country, we could not use our own languages,
and so when we spoke our voices came out bruised. When we talked, our
tongues thrashed madly in our mouths, staggered like drunken men. Because
we were not using our languages we said things we did not mean; what we
really wanted to say remained folded inside, trapped. ...
When we were alone we summoned the horses of our languages and mounted
their backs and galloped past skyscrapers. Always, we were reluctant to
come back down.

How hard it was to get to America – harder than crawling through the anus
of a needle. For the visas and passports, we begged, despaired, lied,
groveled, promised, charmed, bribed – anything to get us out of the
country. ... 240

To send us off properly, our elders spilled tobacco on the dry earth to
summon the spirits of the ancestors for our protection. Unlike in years
long gone, the spirits did not come dancing from the land beneath. They
crawled. They stalled. They were hungry. They wanted blood and meat and
millet beer, they wanted sacrifices, they wanted gifts. And save for a few
grains of tobacco, we had nothing to give, absolutely nothing. And so the
spirits just gazed at us with eyes milked dry of care. Between themselves
they whispered: How will these ones ever be whole in that ’Melika, as far
away from the graves of the ancestors as it is? 240-241

We would not be moved, we would not listen; we were going to America. In
the footsteps of those looted black sons and daughters, we were going, yes,
we were going. And when we got to American we took our dreams, looked at
them tenderly as if they were newly born children, and put them away; we
would not be pursuing them. We would never be the things we had wanted to
be: doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers. 241

And because we were illegal and afraid to be discovered we mostly kept to
ourselves and shied away from those who were not like us.... We did not want
their wrath, we did not want their curiosity, we did not want any
We did not meet stares and we avoided gazes.  We hid our real names, gave
false ones when asked. We built mountains between us and them, we dug
rivers, we planted thorns – we had paid so much to be in American and we
did not want to lose it all. 242

Here our own parents come to us in dreams. They do not touch us, they do
not speak to us.

When we die, our children will not know how to wail, how to mourn us the
right way. They will not go mad with grief, they will not pin black cloth
in their arms, they will not spill beer and tobacco on the earth, they
will not sing till their voices are hoarse. They will not put our plates
and cups on our graves; they will not send us away with mphafa trees. We
will leave for the land of the dead naked, without the things we need to
enter the castle of our ancestors. Because we will not be proper, the
spirits will not come running to meet us, and so we wait and wait and
wait - forever waiting in the air like flags of unsung countries. 250


Because we were not in our country, we could not use our own languages, and
so when we spoke our voices came out bruised. When we talked, our tongues
thrashed madly in our mouths, staggered like drunken men. Because we were not
using our languages we said things we did not mean; what we really wanted to
say remained folded inside, trapped. In America we did not always have the
words. It was only when we were by ourselves that we spoke in our real
voices. When we were alone we summoned the horses of our languages and
mounted their backs and galloped past skyscrapers. Always, we were reluctant
to come back down. (p. 242)

I’m supposed to start teaching him my language because he says he and his
brother are going to my country so he can shoot an elephant, something he has
dreamed of doing ever since he was a boy. I don’t know where my language
comes in – like does he want to ask the elephant if he wants to be killed or
something? (p 268)

When America put up the big reward for bin Laden, we made spears out of
branches and went hunting for him. We had just appeared in Paradise and we
needed new games while we waited for our parents to take us back to our real
homes. At first we banged on the tin shacks yelling for bin Laden to come
out, and when he didn’t we ran to the bushes at the end of the shanty, We
looked in the thickets; climbed trees, looked under rocks, We searched
everywhere. Then we went and climbed Fambeki, but by the time we got to the
top, we were hot and bored. It was like looking for air; there was just no
bin Laden. (pp. 288-289)

Singing Photos

Let’s sing Lady Gaga, Sbho says.

No, let’s sing the national anthem like we used to at school assembly, I

Yes, let’s sing, and me, I’ll stand in front because I’ll be president,
Bastard says. We line up nicely by Merjury’s shack and sing at the top of our
voices, sing until the little kids come and gather around us, but they know
they must not join.

Wayyyt, wayyyt, wih neeeeed tuh tayke a pictchur, whereh ease mah camera?
Godknows cries, making like he is the NGO man, and we laugh and we laugh and
we laugh. Gondknows runs and picks up one of those bricks with holes in them
and holds it like it’s a camera and takes and takes and takes pictures. We
smile and we strike poses and we look pretty and we shout, Change! Cheese!


We ate like pigs, like wolves, like dignitaries; we ate like vultures, like
stray dogs, like monsters; we ate like kings. We ate for all our past hunger,
for our parents and brothers and sisters and relatives and friends who were
still back there. We uttered their names between mouthfuls, conjured up their
hungry faces and chapped lips – eating for those who could not be with us to
eat for themselves. And when we were full we carried our dense bodies with
the dignity of elephants – if only our country could see us in America, see
us eat like kings in a land that was not ours.


When things fall apart, the children of the land scurry and scatter like
birds escaping a burning sky. They flee their own wretched land so their
hunger may be pacified in foreign lands, their tears wiped away in strange
lands, the wounds of their despair bandaged in faraway lands, their blistered
prayers muttered in the darkness of queer lands.

Look at them leaving in droves, the children of the land, just look at them
leaving in droves. Those with nothing are crossing borders. Those with
strength are crossing borders. Those with ambitions are crossing
borders. Those with hopes are crossing borders. Those in pain are crossing
borders. Moving, running, emigrating, going, deserting, walking, quitting,
flying, fleeing – to all over, to countries near and far, to countries
unheard of, to countries whose names they cannot pronounce. They are leaving
in droves. (p 145)

Food memories

Well, what is happening over here is that your mother is finishing cooking
istshwala and macimbis, and Sbho is standing there watching her and eating a
guava. When Chipo announces this, I get a strange ache in my heart. My throat
goes dry; my tongue salivates. I am remembering the taste of all these
things, but remembering is not tasting, and it is painful. I feel tears start
to come to my eyes and I don’t wipe them off.


author bio

NoViolet Bulawayo, the pen name of Elizabeth Tshele, was born and raised in
Zimbabwe and while the 32-year-old author currently lives in the U.S., she
has already made a name for herself in her home country and continent. In
2011, she won the Caine Prize for African Writing, sometimes referred to as
the African Booker, for her short story Hitting Budapest.

Noviolet Bulawayo is a Zimbabwean author who moved to Michigan when she
was eighteen years of age and she is currently s Stegner Fellow at
Stanford University in California. In 2011 she won the Caine Prize for
African Writing and in 2009 she was shortlisted for the South African PEN
Studzinsi Award.  A pretty impressive resume and this is her first novel,
straight onto the Man Booker Prize Longlist!

With the drumbeat of political turmoil rising around her, Darling is soon
sent to America to live with an aunt. But if Zimbabwe was a land of obvious
want, for Darling, America has a hollow ache to it as well. She bristles at
Michigan’s brutal winters, layered with snow "as white as clean teeth," and
is haunted by the barrage of pop culture politics that seem to dictate
teenage life in America: Do you like Justin Bieber? Do you prefer Burger King
or McDonalds? Have you seen "High School Musical"?


Now, that is brilliant, delectable writing. It gets better; you must read two
chapters, How They Left and How They Lived. Bulawayo lapses into haunting,
almost hallucinatory prose-poetry, the emotion and passion shake you to your
core. She grieves and grieves and grieves and she will not be consoled, oh
she grieves, this child that saw something awful. Read those chapters to the
most stone-hearted immigration official in America and political asylum is
yours. The words seep into your bones and slap you awake.

Dambudzo Marechera lives in this book, primly flicking ash off the
cigarette he bummed off his white benefactors. Bulawayo is edgy,
unflinching, eyes dead set on your conscience until you gasp and look away
in shame and disgust. This book can "pinch a rock and make it wince", so
says the book. The book makes it clear: The poor have inherited a new
burden after apartheid and post-colonialism – home grown tyranny. Africa’s
leaders are in a hurry to build Paris out of the slums, on the backs of the
dead poor. Bulawayo describes the bulldozing of a shanty town in a voice so
clinical you hurt from the pain. Yes, much of black rule is black on black
crime. Bulawayo is supercilious, kneading condescension into the reader’s
consciousness. You learn to hate Africa’s benefactors, as poverty monkeys
for the NGO cameras. Fuck Bono, her muse seems to mutter in
rage. Bulawayo’s skeptical eyes see everything and point out all the
adjectives, Africa is about pejoratives and isms: Commercialism,
capitalism, consumerism, rampant consumption and materialism, the
clutter. There is a looming devastation; Africa is the nuclear waste dump
of the West’s offal and detritus, a hellhole where the West’s bad ideas and
products go to die.

Steely-eyed and square-jawed, this pretty book that snarls takes careful aim
at NGOs, liberal do-gooders and displays Bono-charity devastation on
everyone’s conscience with exquisite attention to detail. Here is the new
church, the new Christianity run amok. And her eyes do not miss Black
Africa’s share of the caricature, of charlatanry. In this book, the new
Christianity and AIDS link arms to bulldoze communities and countries. With
the awesome power of words, Bulawayo performs a rare feat of bringing AIDS
into the reader’s living room:

Exile awaits migrating sprits as Africa empties herself of her beautiful
children. When Darling the protagonist escapes Paradise for America, she soon
finds that suffering and despair are universal conditions of mankind, exile
is not much better than the hell that was Paradise in Africa. The second half
of this book about life in America is what the gifted writer and fellow
Zimbabwean Brian Chikwava should have written instead of his Harare
North. Here, Bulawayo’s prose fairly sings, breaks into a beautiful trot and
belts out haunting truths about life in Babylon for many immigrants. Even the
entry is jarring:

A few days before I left, Mother took me to Vodloza, who made me smoke from a
gourd, and I sneezed and sneezed and he smiled and said, The ancestors are
your angels, they will bear you to America. Then he spilled tobacco on the
earth and said to someone I could not see: Open the way for your wandering
calf, you, Vusamazulu, pave the skies, summon your fathers, Mpabanga and
Nqabayezwe and Mahlathini, and draw your mighty spears to clear the paths and
protect the child from dark spirits on her journey. Deliver her well to that
strange land where you and those before you never dreamed of setting foot. (p

Finally he tied a bone attached to a rainbow-colored string around my waist
and said, This is your weapon, it will fight off all evil in that America,
never ever take it off, you hear? But then when I got to America the airport
dog barked and barked and sniffed me, and the woman in the uniform took me
aside and waved the stick around me and the stick made a nting-nting sound
and the woman said, Are you carrying any weapons? And I nodded and showed
them my weapon from Vodloza, and Aunt Fostalina said, What is this crap? And
took it off and threw it in a bin, Now I have no weapon to fight evil in


Bulawayo was born in 1981 and raised in the Tsholotsho District,
Zimbabwe. She attended Njube High School and later Mzilikazi High School for
her A levels.

Bulawayo completed her college education in the US, studying at Kalamazoo
Valley Community College, and earning bachelor's and master's degrees in
English from Texas A&M University-Commerce and Southern Methodist University
respectively. In 2010, NoViolet earned her MFA at Cornell University where
she was a recipient of the Truman Capote Fellowship, and most recently, a
lecturer of English. She is now a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford

In 2011 Bulawayo won the Caine Prize for African Writing for her short story
Hitting Budapest about a gang of street children in a Zimbabwean
shantytown. Her novel entitled We Need New Names was released in 2013, and
was named on the Man Booker Prize 2013 longlist.

An interview with NoViolet Bulawayo

Do you have a writing community, ie, other Zimbabwean or African writers you
interact with or you find the place isolating and if so is this isolation
good or bad?

I'm in an MFA program so yes, I have a writing community. I have no
interaction with Zimbabwean and African writers on a workshop level, so on
that basis, I am "isolated." It's a double-edged sword — In the past I would
crave that specific common ground that would come with interacting with
writers from my own background, and that happened when I felt like my mates
didn't "get" what I was trying to do. I'm over that now, not having that
common ground means I have to forge a new one, and for me that is
humanity. It means I have to stand on another level, to go beyond
"Zimbabwean-ness" and "African-ness" in my writing, that space without the
"burdens" of identity. Actually I've come to appreciate it as liberating, so
I guess I can confidently say, it's good, very good, even though it took me a
while to get here.

What is your inspiration and does that influence what you write about? Any
favourate writers?

Humanity. "Womanity." My homeland. As for writers I'd say Yvonne Vera
inspires me more than any other writer because I care about the same things
she cares about; from the poetic grace of language to (feminist) themes to
the writer's spirit of courage, that bravery to say things that would not
normally be said. If she wasn't in the picture I don't think I'd have the
courage to write about things I'm writing about. In as much as she is an
influence, however, I believe I'm also my own writer and doing my own
thing. Don't get me started on my favorite writers but they include Maxine
Hong Kingston, Edwidge Danticat, Jean Toomer, Barbara Kingsolver, Daniel
Defoe, The Brontes, Jhumpa Lahiri.

The late Yvonne Vera, Tsitsi Dangarembga and now more recently Petina Gappah
are the most internationally well known female writers from Zimbabwe. Why do
you think there are fewer women writers from Zimbabwe who write?

That is true, and sad. Of course there are a host of reasons, but I think it
also speaks to the trying circumstances of African women, not just Zimbabwean
women by the way, as the group that comes last in everything and writing is
no exception. Of cause this is compounded by the politics of the publishing
industry. Still, I believe Zimbabwean women have compelling stories and those
who are writing are doing a good job representing, and I'd like to especially
thank those who are writing from Zimbabwe, the little known and unknown
ones. To me those are the bad-ass writers, imagine knowing you will never be
read beyond your borders, never be an international star but still writing
all the same! That's writing as speaking, as insisting on one's presence and
I think that's deep.

What has being shortlisted for the PEN/Studzinski Literary Award, let alone
highly commended mean to you as a young writer?

It's an honor and a necessary boost and I am very humbled and grateful for
the recognition. I can only hope it also means something to other young
writers out there; and I'm speaking as one who would not have dreamt of
entering a couple of years ago because I wouldn't have thought my work was
good enough. This is our time baby, and "Yes We Can!"

When do we expect your first book and what will it about?

I am working on a novel and a short story collection, and I'd say I'm worried
about rendering them in best form than when they are coming out, so I have no
idea. Right now my priority is to write-write-write. As for "about-ness,"
hmmm, may I keep that as a surprise?


Former Caine Prize Winner NoViolet Bulawayo’s searingly powerful debut novel
We Need New Names has been greeted with widespread critical acclaim.

NoViolet talks to Irenosen Okojie about being a writer in diaspora, her
writer’s process and the importance of the Caine Prize.

IO: Your novel is a powerful depiction of the fractured lives of children
living in a shanty in Zimbabwe. How important was it to tell their story?

The book was written during Zimbabwe’s lost decade. If you follow Zimbabwean
politics, that’s when the country really came undone for the first time since
Zimbabwean independence.

For me that was really shocking because I had a beautiful childhood, so to
see what was happening was devastating. My family’s still back home. We’ve
heard those stories of there being no food in the stores, violence because of
government elections, activists disappearing, some of them turning up
dead. It just became important, especially to parallel the media narrative. I
was living in the west and seeing things through the internet. I felt someone
needed to tell an intimate story that showed what was happening on the ground
and captured the full essence of characters. Having kids really allowed me to
do that, they’re kids but disconnected from what’s going on. They still
lived, laughed and played despite what was happening. It became a big,
necessary project for me.

IO: Ten year old Darling as a narrator rings authentic and true. We’re
reading about these children having to cope with horrible circumstances yet
because it’s told through a child’s eyes there’s an other worldliness about
it. How hard was it to get her voice right?

It wasn’t hard, probably because I emerged writing through craft and the
child narrator. As a creator, it’s something that I’d worked on since I
started writing. When it came to Darling, I was a bit more seasoned. You have
to play on your strengths and that’s what I did. I come from a culture where
we just have character. Put a bunch of kids together and they shine, they
survive. I had to go back to my own childhood and my childhood friends for
that voice. It’s honest and that’s important. You don’t want somebody to read
it and think that doesn’t sound right.

IO: There’s bleakness in their circumstances but it’s also very funny. How
did you strike that balance and was it deliberate?

I come from a place of laughter, absence of humour is not normal. Whatever we
were doing, laughter was a constant dynamic in our lives no matter the
circumstances. I was talking to my cousin about a recent funeral back
home. And she said people were funny, even at a funeral. It doesn’t have to
be depressing. I needed to make that conscious decision to remember to bring
in humour. Although it was partly deliberate and partly not, that’s how I am
in my everyday life. I’m not a serious person. My personality also comes
through my writing, I have to be pleased. Also, I was aware that I was
working from a politically charged space, very dense material. I needed to
find a way to make it tolerable to read, that was important. Not just with
this book. For me it’s important that whoever starts reading my work doesn’t
put it down. Laughter carries you through and I have to connect to the
reader. Humour allows me to do that.

IO: The second half of the novel is set in America where Darling finds
herself facing a different set of challenges. Did you draw on your own

I think all fiction is drawn from real experiences, people will tell you it’s
fiction but it’s real. It’s either your own reality or somebody else’s. My
moving to America is even more recent than my ten year old self.  It had to
be convincing, some of my personality needed to appear on the page but also
stealing from others, family, friends, people I knew. It’s interesting, when
my family members read the book; I get phone calls saying so I saw such and
such in the book! It’s one of those things; if it comes into my writing I
don’t resist it.

IO: How has being a writer in diaspora shaped your writing and how do you
think it’s affected your sense of identity?

It’s quite interesting that I had to leave home to discover myself as a
writer. I come from a culture where I never saw writers growing up. I read
books and most of the books were by western writers. But beyond that, writing
was never a career option to me. You had to be a nurse, doctor, a lawyer,
which I went to the US to study or an engineer. I know that being in the
diaspora for me meant I was given the golden opportunity to come into myself,
to study creative writing which I wouldn’t have done in Zimbabwe. I would
have studied a Masters in Finance. With the cost of leaving home came the
benefit of discovery. For me it was when I embraced my Zimbabweaness more. At
home, it wasn’t necessary; you’re surrounded by Zimbabweans so it was never
an issue. Your race is never an issue because you’re living in a space where
everyone looks like you. Then going out, you realise, I’m not from here. I’m
this other thing. This other thing is not always at home in a space that can
be both welcoming and marginalising. Which is why I’m obsessed with my
homeland in my writing. It’s certainly made me fall in love with my roots
even more. I can’t find that grounding sense of identity where I am which is
why when it comes to identifying myself as a Zimbabwean writer, I feel I
am. I don’t just want to be called a writer. For me that identity is
important, it meant survival and grounding. We’re living in a time where
technology’s so prevalent. This book wouldn’t have been written without
that. I was getting on Facebook, seeing people and teachers updating about
what was happening back home and that fed into the whole process.

You won the Caine Prize for Hitting Budapest. How did that help as a launch
pad for your career?

When the Caine Prize is mentioned, I remember I’ve spent all the money. On a
serious note, it gave me confidence especially because it happened at a time
when I was just starting out. In as much as I love writing and know it’s what
I’m supposed to be doing but when you’re young you really think about
things. You know you’re expected to be doing something that’s more
secure. You live in a practical world of bills, of supporting family
especially those of us in the diaspora. You have to be sensible but it showed
me that I could make it.

How important do you think the Caine Prize is for profiling African writers?

It’s the biggest prize in Africa, it’s very necessary. There aren’t so many
things happening on the continent itself. It’s a western prize in a sense but
that doesn’t undermine it. It’s still important, whether you’re looking at
people who’ve been short listed or won, they’ve gone on to do amazing
things. I’d like it to be more engaged on the continent. I know there was a
workshop run which is cool. It gives people the opportunity to workshop when
we don’t have a strong workshop culture. But I’d like to see a Caine Prize
winner do a residency in Africa. Send that person to a school to work with
kids. Young people are very impressionable and I think that would make a

From Hitting Budapest, the story then evolved into a novel. Tell us about the

It’s the first chapter in the novel so people think that it actually came
first. The thing is, it actually came while I was working on the novel. It
was in a different form then. When I got to Hitting Budapest, the story found
its pulse. Then I had to rework the book and I reworked it a million
times. Moving it forward and shaping it around these kids.

What’s your writer’s process?

I don’t have a fancy, high sounding process myself.  I try and envision a
story in my head. Write as much as I can inside my head. Maybe that’s because
I was brought up on hearing stories. I think of a story first versus it
written down. Then I’ll write it in my notebook, edit as much as I can to get
the language right. Then I bring it to the gadgets. I’m laid back and I don’t
write every day. Writing isn’t always writing in terms of doing the physical
act, I’m processing things in my head all the time. I’m an observer of
life. I think about things and my characters. So I’m always in one way or
another, involved in the process. I try not to stress, I’m not a serious
person. I don’t take things seriously. There are times when I look at my work
and think, that’s interesting or that could have been better! I think it’s
necessary to be objective but the main thing is to enjoy what I’m doing. I
enjoy it more if I don’t over think it. I just work from instincts. It’s
interesting to hear intelligent people or critics discuss things I may not
necessarily have worried about. You know things that just happened.

What sort of stories are you interested in telling?

I’m interested in stories that say something about who we are and engage with
social issues. My art has to have meaning; it has to have people talking
about things that matter. Like We Need New Names, there’s so much about that
that I wanted to say. That’s what drives me for now, you never know what will
come in future but to have a dialogue going and people talking about things.

Who are some of your literary influences?

The storytellers in my life, our literature is oral. There was a time when I
read nothing but literature in my native language which was still for me a
form of engagement. I learned so much about storytelling from those and about
language itself. Then there were people like Yvonne Vera, Toni Morrison,
Edward P Jones, the usual suspects. Young writers now are just creating
brilliant work. Writers like Justin Torres and then you have people online
who may not necessarily be published. I’m creating at a very vibrant
time. It’s a good time to be a writer and of course I’m connected to young
writers, Africans and otherwise. We’re having interesting conversations.

Which book do you wish you’d written and why?

I wish I’d written the bible! Seriously, everybody reads the bible. I
approach the bible as a storybook. I don’t come from a seriously Christian
background. As kids you didn’t have the whole picture and we were told these
bible stories and they were just stories to us. I would have made it
NoViolet’s bible. I may write a novel in that kind of style. Look me up in
five or six years and see!

What are you working on next?

I’m working on recovering from writing and promoting We Need New Names. I’m
working on a collection of stories. I’m not trying to force it, sometimes
there’s this pressure to go straight onto the next book. In as much as I want
something to come along, it will come along when it does.


There are daddy issues here, there are no real men here. There are strong
whiffs of misandry; there are no real men here, Men are chief baboons in this
zoo called Paradise, hapless men fleeing women and children to go to South
Africa only to come home, not with bread but with AIDS, prosperity preachers,
and men that impregnate their granddaughters and clueless men in the Diaspora
shuffling about aimlessly. It is what it is. Here comes Virginia Woolf
ululating out of the shadows, chasing men away from the playground:

But then, with her enchanting way with words, she draws and paints harrowing
pictures of a hell that strips men of their families and dignity with her
evocative words. Hear her:


You should read this stunning book along with Chika Unigwe’s equally
stunning essay in Aeon magazine, Losing my voice.  In this intensely
personal and evocative essay Unigwe gives voice to the deep anxieties faced
by many immigrants like her as they came face to face with the dislocation
from home. Unigwe’s experience is immediately before the muscular bringing
down of all walls by the Internet and social media, both works complement
each other greatly, in style, outlook and vision. The difference is that
while one senses that even beyond We Need New Names, the protagonists may
be still immersed in despair, Unigwe’s story ends in hope and triumph, a
warrior overcoming her fears and finding the light switch in the dark. But
the pain in Unigwe’s journey is heartrending:

    When I left Nigeria for Belgium, I made my husband’s home my own. But
    homesickness lodged like a stone inside me... When I began to write again,
    I discovered that I was not writing the kind of fiction I would have
    written back home. Certainly not at first. I wrote about displacement and
    sorrow. The voices of immigrants filled my head and spilled out on
    several pages of short stories and then a novel, The Phoenix. My
    characters were mostly melancholic women unable to return home but
    lacking the tools (or perhaps the temperament) to fit into their new
    home. They were victims browbeaten into silence by an alien culture and
    an alien climate. Perhaps it was me wanting to pass on what I had
    suffered to someone else. Maybe it is human nature to seek revenge even
    when there is none to be sought."

The writer Taiye Selasi (of Ghana Must Go) has also forcefully fought against
the pigeon-holing of "Africans" into predictable labels – and
stereotypes. Under her fierce and passionate watch, the term Afropolitan has
taken wings, as in, we are the sum of our life’s experience. Read her
powerful and evocative essay, Bye-Bye Barber, and her powerful memoir-essay
on being an African  and you will get the sense that a generation of Africans
is breaking free from the literature of Chinua Achebe and Camara Laye.


 1  Hitting Budapest
 2  Darling on the Mountain
 3  Country-Game
 4  Real Change
 5  How They Appeared
 6  We Need New Names
 7  Shhhh
 8  Blak Power
 9  For Real
10  How They Left
11  Destroyedmichygen
12  Wedding
13  Angel
14  This Film Contains Some Disturbing Images
15  Hitting Crossroads
16  How They Lived
17  My America
18  Writing on the Wall

Background reading

NoViolet Bulawayo tells of heartbreak of homecoming in Mugabe's Zimbabwe

David Smith, Johannesburg, 4 September 2013
The Guardian

'I went there in search of the Zimbabwe I knew and it was a shock: power
cuts, water cuts ... and 80% of the population not working,' says author
NoViolet Bulawayo.

A striking pen name certainly never did an author any harm on a crowded
bookshelf. NoViolet Bulawayo passes with flying colours. NoViolet means
"with Violet", in memory of her mother who died when she was 18 months
old. Bulawayo is her yearned-for home city in Zimbabwe.

"I come from a place of colourful names and identity's a big part of my
creative process," the 31-year-old, whose passport still says Elizabeth
Tshele, explained during a book tour of neighbouring South Africa. "I
needed a meaningful identity that could carry the weight of whatever I'm
doing. Just being without my biological mother shaped the person I am, the
way I see the world."

Bulawayo was born after Mugabe came to power at Zimbabwe's independence in
1980. She emigrated at 18, joining her aunt in America, and returned from
exile for the first time in April this year. In just 13 turbulent years,
she discovered, the Eden that she ached for had turned into a place she
hardly recognised. "It was a strange country," Bulawayo told the
Guardian. "I went there in search of the Zimbabwe I knew and it was a
shock: power cuts, water cuts, just driving down the streets the potholes
were amazing, and 80% of the population not working. Just seeing the
desperation, wherever you went, people were struggling. That was a picture
of the country that I never knew.

"I knew from news and stories that things were hard, but being there and
seeing it for myself was just heartbreaking. Even now knowing that there
are no answers, and it's not going to get better any time soon, is

The homecoming was a bittersweet experience for the writer, currently based
at Stanford University in California. "On one hand I was happy to be home
and seeing my father- he's 74 and his health was acting up at that time -
and my siblings, but at the same time I couldn't relate to anything, I
couldn't understand anything, I felt like the country had changed the
people and culture and I just felt like an outsider in my home. So I would
be having conversations and I'd just tune out, and yet people didn't
realise what was happening, that I was home but I was also lost."

During her absence Zimbabwe endured chaotic farm seizures, economic
meltdown, hyperinflation and elections scarred by political violence and,
in July this year, allegations of ballot rigging on an industrial
scale. She respects Mugabe's part in the liberation struggle but believes
the 89-year-old must now bear responsibility for her paradise lost.

"If you haven't directly suffered, if you haven't directly felt the brunt
of the cost of his person and his rule, it's easy to have that perspective
from a distance. In the States, people actually hail him as one of Africa's
leading statesmen, but the reality is the people on the ground have a
different story and that's part of why I wrote the book.

Bulawayo's father Noel, a retired police officer, had hoped she would
become a lawyer in the US, and it was only after she won the 2011 Caine
prize for African writing that she confessed her literary calling. Drawing
on her own experience, We Need New Names tells the story of a girl who
loses her home in Zimbabwe and emigrates to America, where she is shocked
by the grim weather and feels the tug of childhood nostalgia.

Review: Suzi Feay in

A gritty Man Booker-shortlisted debut novel explores childhood and exile
September 20, 2013

Darling, the protagonist of NoViolet Bulawayo’s Man Booker-shortlisted
debut novel, rackets around the Zimbabwean shanty town of Paradise with her
friends. Chipo, 11, is mysteriously pregnant, and mute; cheerful Godknows
has shorts so thin his buttocks protrude; Sbho is beautiful, Bastard
aggressive, and Stina the voice of reason. Even the grim surroundings can’t
keep this little gang down for long, as they run riot through the streets,
stealing guavas, poking their noses into everything and scrawling on walls.

Gradually we learn more about the shanty-dwellers. They were not born in
poverty; their families have been driven from their homes for opposing the
regime of Robert Mugabe. The bitterness of the political situation barely
impinges on the youngsters. Life, though tough, has a magic and zest,
especially when they are playing exciting games such as "Find bin Laden".

The fulcrum of the novel is the short chapter "How They Left", which
circles around the repeated phrase "leaving in droves" in a poetic
incantation: "Look at the children of the land leaving in droves, leaving
their own land with bleeding wounds on their bodies and shock on their
faces and blood in their hearts ... "

The second half of the novel sees Darling relocated to America, living
first in Detroit and then moving to Kalamazoo, Michigan. (Bulawayo herself
was born in Zimbabwe and moved to Kalamazoo when she was 18). While Darling
adjusts to her new life with a lack of surface fuss, underneath it she is
aware that something has been broken that she will never be able to mend.

There is a narrative arc but little plot, as Darling moves from an
appalling situation in which she is happy, to a comfortable situation in
which she is unhappy; from the influence of one group of friends to
another, shallower group. Sometimes Darling’s story dissolves into a
heightened, depersonalised prose; the chapter "How They Lived" is a howl of
pain for the deracinated immigrant, cut off from parents back home and
from their own westernised children, who "did not beg us for stories of the
land we had left behind. They went to their computers and googled ... they
looked at us with something between pity and horror and said, Jeez, you
really come from there?"

At present the short story seems a more natural fit for Bulawayo’s evident
talent, but, as her presence on the Man Booker shortlist suggests, this is
a young author to watch.

interview at The National, Abu Dhabi

Rebecca L Weber, October 14, 2013

How does the oral culture that you were raised in affect your storytelling?

During the holidays, we went to the rural areas where we would meet my
grandmother and storytelling was the daily form of entertainment. I grew up
thinking that it was just normal, that the world was told through
stories. And my father was also a storyteller. At school, I’d always be
telling stories to my friends.
I was raised on orature – all around me people just told stories like it
was breathing, but it was really my late grandmother, Gog’ NaEdeni who sat
us down to stories every night as kids, and my pops, who shared his
mother’s love for story, who really made an impact. Without those two I
doubt I’d be the kind of writer I am today. ]

I started reading books and found a connection: they were also stories,
just like the ones I had heard. It really gives a lot to my voice in that
when I write, I think of a listener, not necessarily a reader.

I think the connection with told stories is more urgent, more true. You get
one to two minutes to engage them, which taught me about voice and
urgency. Which is why, when I write, my challenge is to write something
that the reader can’t put down.

NoViolet Bulawayo Tells Zimbabwe’s Story Through Eyes of Children

Zimbabwean-born NoViolet Bulawayo is the first black African female to be
on the Man Booker prize shortlist for her novel "We Need New Names." The
book is an up-close and personal view of the costs President Robert
Mugabe’s 33 years in power have had on the country, told through the eyes
of children.

The book takes place during Zimbabwe’s political clampdown in the early
2000s. Darling and her band of sharp-tongued friends, Bastard, Chipo,
Godknows and Sbho, live in an overcrowded shack settlement called
Paradise. Schools have been shut and many teachers have left the country.

To pass the time, Darling and her crew hunt for guavas in wealthy suburbs
and play games called "Find Bin Laden" while they dream of leaving. They
witness friends beaten to death for fighting Mr. Mugabe’s party. And they
watch journalists come to film the funerals.

"Children of my generation, born after liberation, had never experienced
things like that," Ms. Bulawayo said in a telephone interview earlier this

"Part of Zimbabwe’s problem is how the political system was set up. We’ve
really just known one party, one president. Growing up, people were
comfortable. The country was unprepared for what happened," she said about
the unraveling of Zimbabawe’s political, economic and social fabric.

Ms. Bulawayo has followed a similar path to her main character Darling. She
left home to attend college in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Her original plan was
to study law, as her father wanted. Soon though, Ms. Bulawayo realized she
wanted to be a writer.

"I grew up surrounded by people who told stories," Ms. Bulawayo said. "It
planted the seed."

Ms. Bulawayo was in Zimbabwe last month to promote "We Need New Names" just
weeks after Mr. Mugabe won another disputed election in August. Unlike the
2008 election, the vote this year was peaceful. Ms. Bulawayo said the
crowds at her Zimbabwe book launch were the biggest so far.

"The mood at the time was shock," said Ms. Bulawayo, who is now a Wallace
Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. "It’s another five years of the same
old stuff in Zimbabwe."

As part of her transformation to being a writer, Ms. Bulawayo decided at
university she needed a new name herself, adopting her pen name from
Elizabeth Tshele. Violet was her mother’s name. She passed away when
Ms. Bulawayo was 18 months old. The "no" in the southern African language
Ndebele means "with," so in essence the first name suggests she’ll always
be "with" her mother Violet. Bulawayo is Zimbabwe’s second-largest city and
is where Ms. Bulawayo spent her childhood and still calls home.

Now, Ms. Bulawayo is looking to split her time between living somewhere in
Africa and the U.S.

"Africa is the center of my writing," she said. "Here you walk out the door
and nobody notices you. At home you know you’re alive, part of a community,
people are in your business."

The political background: Rhodesia in 2000

[From 1975 to 1979, Rhodesia was embroiled in an increasingly violent civil
war.  In 1980, an elecction was won outright by the black nationalist party
ZANU-PF, but the white supremacists wanted none of it, and were planning a
coup.  Eventually, Smith met Mugabe, and they agreed to abide by the
election and that whites would continue to participate in government. 


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This review by Amit Mukerjee was last updated on : 2015 Sep 15