We Need New Names by First Time Novelist NoViolet Bulawayo

I get much of my sociological imagination from novels, and I just finished one. It was We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo. The story starts in the shantytowns of Paradise and Budapest in modern day Zimbabwe. The main protagonist is Darling, a then ten year old girl who develops intense relationships with five other children who together play “bin Laden,” steal guavas, and cope with daily life in the chaos of the shantytowns.

Parts highlight what the broader world of modern Zimbabwe means for such children—whether it is a father with AIDS, politicized gangs, pregnancy of an eleven year old, South African labor migration, NGO politics, and an aunt in the incredibly wealthy and far off America.

Darling joins her aunt in America, which is what the second part of the book is about. There she is pushed into a new world where school is easy, life predictable, but also chaotic. Darling becomes friends with other immigrant children, attending school, cultivating the relationship with her aunt and her Ghanaian partner, and seeking to melt in to the new American world. Darling’s worlds can come together only through Skype, particularly after her tourist visa expires, and she becomes and illegal immigrant in the United States, unable to imagine returning except via the internet.

The story Bulawayo tells of migration is of course an old one, but nevertheless worth repeating. Migrants leave an old world behind, and become part of a new world, but often at the expense of sacrificing the warmth of the remembered home. There is a becoming of a new identity, even as there is an “unbecoming” of an older one. In the end, Darling is challenged by her childhood friends in Zimbabwe who, via the instant communication of Skype, ask her if she is still Zimbabwean or not? She thinks she is—but her friends have questions. How can someone who is not sharing the hardships sustain the identity?

We Need New Names is a bit slow at the beginning, as the reader seeks to position themselves in the shantytowns of Zimbabwe. However, it quickly becomes a memorable read for anyone interested in child migration, Zimbabwe, migrants in US cities, and youth. Or someone who simply likes a good thoughtful story.

Comparisons to another recent novel of African migration, Amerikanah, which tells the story of Nigerian elite migration are perhaps inevitable. And while the themes are similar, We Need New Names is a different story—it is the story of migration told from the perspective of children of shantytowns, and needs to be read from that perspective.