LONDON — In NoViolet Bulawayo’s debut novel, We Need New Names, her young narrator Darling and her friends play a game in which each assumes the identity of a different country.
Some are more desirable than others: “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?”
That “terrible place” is Zimbabwe. The children are the victims of Mugabe’s Operation Murambatsvina (Drive out the Rubbish), which saw communities bulldozed and poverty flourish.
It is a game that Bulawayo (31) played as a child, before she left Zimbabwe to live in the United States just after finishing high school.
“Even today on Facebook, I talk to my friends about the country game” she tells me.
“But most of my friends are now living outside Zimbabwe. Not many people living there now are my age; they all fled when things started to get worse.”
Bulawayo’s story is a tale of our time, a powerful condemnation of global inequality from the point of view of a 10-year-old in impossible circumstances.
Zimbabwe, a country so often depicted in terms that reflect only barbarism and chaos, has been prised open by one of its children.
Darling’s voice is universal; despite her circumstances, she is just a child, innocent and often petulant, inspired by her dreams and her friendships.
Already Bulawayo’s novel has turned heads and reviews have been glowing.
Two years earlier, her short story, Hitting Budapest, which explored many of the themes of the novel, won the Caine Prize, known as the “African Booker”.
The agony of leaving Zimbabwe, a theme that forms the essence of the novel, is something keenly felt by Bulawayo: “I love it fiercely. Zimbabwe is my country, which begs the question, ‘Why are you not living there?’ I’m torn, because I want it to be a better country. It’s very hard to deal with. As much as I love the country, being there doesn’t make sense.
“But then change comes from those who are committed, so I have regrets. If thousands had stayed in Zimbabwe, instead of leaving, then perhaps we all would have been frustrated enough to do something, to make a change.”
Bulawayo’s conflicted feelings are mirrored in one of the most powerful moments of the book, in which Darling is having a Skype conversation from the US with her friend Chipo, who is back in Zimbabwe.
Darling talks of Zimbabwe as her home, but is admonished, heartbreakingly, by Chipo: “Darling, my dear, you left the house burning and you have the guts to tell me, in that stupid accent that you were not even born with, that doesn’t even suit you, that this is your country?”
Bulawayo’s novel is not just a stunning piece of literary craftsmanship, but a novel that helps elucidate today’s world, delving into Western attitudes towards Zimbabwe and Africa in general, the experience of immigrants in the US and the pain of being torn from a broken homeland.
Bulawayo has poured her soul into this book; her emotion is evident on every page.
“When I first started writing in America, I was, like, ‘This is not my home.’ I’m appreciating this space for inspiration, but Zimbabwe is the centre of my ideas, the centre of my being.” — The Telegraph