NoViolet Bulawayo’s home away from home


KALAMAZOO (United States) —Author NoViolet Bulawayo (31) plans to visit her former co-workers at the Kalamazoo grocery store where she worked shortly after arriving in America from Zimbabwe at 18.

She’ll also walk the campus of Kalamazoo Valley Community College (KVCC) where she “discovered” herself and the writer whose debut novel was handpicked by Oprah Winfrey and was just added to the long list for the Britain’s premier literary award, Man Booker.

Bulawayo published her novel, We Need New Names, in May.

She’ll return to Kalamazoo to read and sign copies of the well-received book about a Zimbabwe girl who travels to the United States.
During a phone interview from Oakland, California, US, NoViolet said it was the encouraging, creative atmosphere in Kalamazoo and KVCC that planted the literary seed.

“I’ve attended quite a few schools after KVCC — Texas A&M, SMU, Cornell and now I’m at Stanford — but I feel like KVCC is by far the most important school, because that’s where my love for the written word took root.

“That’s where I discovered myself as a writer. That’s where I got the licence to tell stories. So the college is going to have a special place in my heart,” she said.

NoViolet — whose real name is Elizabeth Tshele — said she planned to study law when she moved in 2000 from the Southern African country to Kalamazoo, where her aunt, sisters and cousins live.

Receptive, published authors at KVCC and a strong literary community, including her frequent attendance at poetry nights at the former Kraftbrau Brewery, brought the writer to the surface, she said.

“If I had gone to some other school where I wouldn’t have had that access to writers, where I wouldn’t have taken as many writing classes, I may have found myself doing law, which is what I left home to do.

“When I left Zimbabwe, I just figured I’d come to the US to study law. But that experience and discovering writing and realising that’s my passion, it sort of changed my course,” she said.

Her course led to an impressive academic career, including earning a master’s degree in creative writing from Cornell University, where she was also recognised with a Truman Capote Fellowship. She is currently a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University.
She won the 2011 Caine Prize for African Writing with her short story Hitting Budapest, about a group of street children in an impoverished Zimbabwean town. We Need New Names is an extension of the work told through the eyes of 10-year-old narrator Darling.

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.

A portion of We Need New Names takes place in Kalamazoo, which she calls her “home away from home”. NoViolet said the city’s “intimate feel” and toned-down pace of life also contributed to her artistic discovery and the success of We Need New Names.

“It’s what it is because of my experience in Kalamazoo, in a way,” she said. “I’m very excited to be sharing it.”

Bulawayo said We Need New Names has been added as required reading for Kalamazoo College for 2014, meaning she’ll return here for appearances, readings and workshops.

“It looks like I’ll be coming home quite often. I’m kind of excited,” she added.