Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 22, 2017

We Need New Names, by NoViolet Bulawayo

I know, I know, everybody else read NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names ages ago when it was shortlisted for the Booker and won a swag of awards in 2013.  I meant to read it then but other things got in the way.  Since there are now a zillion reviews out there already, I should keep this brief, but this book bothers me…

I did not like this book, but it was not until after I had written most of my review and went looking for a positive one to balance mine, that I discovered that it’s been the subject of an interesting debate.

Nigerian author Helon Habila (whose Waiting for an Angel I reviewed in 2013)  in his review of We Need New Names has suggested that there is a current trend of ‘poverty-porn’ writing coming out of Africa:

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.

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.  (We Need New Names – Review by Helon Habila, The Guardian, 20/6/13.  I haven’t been able to track down who the ‘distinguished panellist’ was.)

Two years later, fellow Nigerian Taiye Selasi (among other things) took issue with Habila’s criticism of Bulawayo’s book:

Of course, at no point in his review did Habila argue that Bulawayo is wrong about the ills plaguing Zimbabwe. His issue is not with her accuracy but what he imagines to be her animus, a “palpable anxiety to cover every ‘African’ topic; almost as if [she] had a checklist made from the morning’s news on Africa”. I share Habila’s contempt for western depictions of Africa; the news coverage of the Ebola epidemic is just one recent infuriating example. I understand that it is not enough to say, simply, that a story is true; a work of art exists in context and the context here is a culture that habitually promotes demeaning portrayals of Africa. What I don’t understand is what Habila and others would have the writer do. If poverty and violence exist in the country in which a novel is set, should the African novelist simply Photoshop them out? More than 50% of Africa’s population lives in poverty. Should their stories be erased from Africa’s literature? (Taiye Selasi, ‘Stop pigeonholing African writers, The Guardian, 4/7/15)

It seems to me that this is an argument best left to the participants, but for me, We Need New Names raised a related question.   Whether We Need New Names is a fair representation of Zimbabwe or not, this novel of the African diaspora has shown a catalogue of horrors that will distress most readers.  But what should the reader make of the relentlessly negative way this novelist has depicted the refugee’s new ‘home’ in another country?  What is this ‘work of art’ trying to make us understand?

It seems to me that the sleazy catalogue of American life at its very worst, is intended to shock and confront the reader just as much as the first part of the novel set in Zimbabwe. You think it’s terrible that an eleven-year-old girl is pregnant by her grandfather in the ironically-named ‘Paradise’ in Zimbabwe?  She’ll show you teenage girls watching internet porn in Detroit and describe in nauseating detail exactly what they are seeing.  You think it’s shocking that children are stealing guavas from the rich suburbs because they are starving?  She’ll show you a scornful portrait of anorexia close up, and remind you that no, unless you’ve lived it, you do not know what real hunger is, so don’t you dare say anything.

The kind of resentment portrayed by Bulawayo’s character – that America does not live up to the dreams perpetuated by iPhone films and television – is being played out all over the world as desperate people come to terms with the fact that a place they have risked their lives to reach does not, and possibly never will, give them the kind of life they anticipated.  It is distressing to see very angry young men on the streets of Calais resentful that they are being housed in refugee camps without opportunities for work while an overwhelmed Europe works out what to do with the current unprecedented influx.

I am not suggesting that writers of a diaspora cannot critique the place to which they have fled in hope of a better life.  There is no perfect society anywhere, and all societies have their flaws.  I have never been to America but even so, I feel uneasy about and don’t understand the purpose of the unremitting negativity portrayed by Bulawayo.  It seems to be written for its shock value.  And some of the claims that Zimbabwe does it better are risible.  I don’t like, for example, the disrespectful way that American children often behave towards adults in television sitcoms, but I was quite unnerved by the corporal punishment dished out by Bulawayo’s character Darling, who says that the Zimbabwean tradition of hitting a child on the head is a better way of instilling discipline.   And I didn’t like the arrogance of the claim that the American education curriculum is easy because it’s stupid. 

Bulawayo’s writing is vivid, and the characterisation of ‘Darling’ in Zimbabwe is fresh and bold.  Her wry black humour is often powerful.  Her deadpan way of depicting the devastation in the wake of Zimbabwean independence heightens the reader’s realisation that whereas parents who had had high hopes for Black Rule are helpless and bitter, children have come to accept the destruction of houses, appalling poverty and social upheaval as the norm.  As one who sometimes struggles to keep to my commitment to apportion part of my income to Oxfam, I did not like to see the mockery of NGOs doing their best, but I can understand that this kind of charity may feel demeaning and I am among those who say that the world economy needs equitable reform not bandaid solutions.

However IMO the sour tone of the second part of the novel set in America diminishes it.  I did not expect a Pollyanna ending – I have read other books that explore the way the West is romanticised to the disillusionment of literary protagonists, for example from India, in The Romantics by Pankaj Mishra, (see my review) or The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai (see my review).  I didn’t need to read DBC Pierre’s biting satire Vernon God Little to know that America is no Paradise, and I know about immigrant displacement and nostalgia from my own experience.  But the unyielding portrayal of America as a disappointing, deluded society made me wonder what kind of cynical and hypercritical adult this coming-of-age novel is offering its readers…

As well as Helon Habiba’s review (above) see also Claire’s review at Word by Word and ‘Difficult Terrain’ by at the NYT.

Author: NoViolet Bulawayo
Title: We Need New Names
Publisher: Reagan Arthur Books, an imprint of Little, Brown and Co, 2013
ISBN: 9780316230810
Source: Kingston Library

Available from We Need New Names


Responses

  1. Interesting. I have this book and have waffled for years as to whether or not to read it. I suspect the time is past. If I had read it when it came out it. At this point I probably won’t read it and should move it along.

    • I know what you mean: I bought Ghana Must Go (by Taiye Selasi who I quote above) when there was all the hype about it and decided this year on the basis of my friends’ reviews that I didn’t want to read it. *chuckle* It’s in my pile of Read It This Year Or Throw It Out! It has 9 months left to change my mind…

  2. I think one thing is the quality of the writing another is its content. Noviolet is a fine writer. However, I must say the content of her book is one that has been narrated on from many different angles. I really enjoyed the book.

    • Hello, thanks for your comment:)
      Yes, I agree, I think she is a fine writer. I will be interested to see what she writes next.

  3. Love your description of the debate around ‘Africa’ books, I would probably rather follow the debate than read the books. I as an old white guy have a lot of catching up to do to even begin to understand the points of view of indigenous (and refugee) writers.

    • Me too, and I have been guilty of something else Selasi doesn’t like… I do think there’s a difference in writing from African expats. I’d be the last person to claim that I know much about African writing but the expat novels I’ve read all seem to have a judgemental stance about their setting back in the home country.
      (BTW, even naming them as African can get you into trouble. We can say ”European expats” and that’s all right, but the Wheeler Centre has a podcast of someone being very cross about African countries all being lumped together as if Africa is a country, not a continent. We should, it was said, name the country not the continent, but there are 54 countries in Africa…)

  4. Interesting post! I have this book, but haven’t read it (yet). If I do decide to pick it up, this will give me something to keep in mind as I read.

    • I’d be interested to know what you think of it!


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