We Need New Names
By NoViolet Bulawayo
Reagan Arthur Books, Little Brown, 2013
NoViolet Bulawayo won the Etisalat Prize for We Need New Names last month. I was deeply moved by this coming-of-age story about a young African girl who physically leaves her homeland, but who never leaves her memories and fondness for her culture behind.
Darling is 10 and is growing up in Zimbabwe. Her parents have all fallen on hard times, so they live in a poor section of town. For fun she and her friends go to “Budapest” where the wealthy people live to steal guavas from trees. They eat so many guavas they make themselves sick. They accept handouts from the “white NGO people” and spend life playing games in the streets as their parents struggle to make ends met. As life in the city deteriorates, people begin to leave the country, and Darling is sent to Michigan to live with an aunt, where the view from her window is very different.
Each chapter in this book is almost a story in itself. In the middle of the book is a two-page chapter called, “How They Left,” which recounts the reasons why people fled Zimbabwe and marks the end Darling’s life in Africa. It is a powerful chapter and Bulawayo has an incredibly strong narrative voice which reminds me of Junot Diaz and Tim O’Brien. I found myself more drawn to the first half of the book, as I enjoyed seeing her view of the world in/from Africa, but she tells a unique and contemporary immigrant story, which is grounded in the era of Obama, the Occupy Movement and Internet porn. This book has been much written about and it deserves the praise it has received.
Bulawayo has an MFA in writing from Cornell University and is currently at Stanford University on a Stegner Fellowship. I look forward to reading her next book.
I was given this book by a friend.
Stringer: A Reporter’s Journey in the Congo
By Anjan Sundaram
This well-crafted debut memoir chronicles Sundaram’s life in the Congo, where he moves to become a journalist.
In 2005, Sundaram turns down the opportunity to get a PhD in Math or a high paid finance job, and moves to the Congo to write. Inspired by Ryszard Kapuscinski, he wants to capture the stories that are not being told in the West. He chooses the Congo because he knows a bank teller in New Haven from there, and he moves in with her family. He has no job offer or salary, instead he seeks out work as a stringer for the large news agencies; a career move that is unpredictable at best. This memoir recounts his early days in Kinshasa, when he struggles to place articles and make any money, to when he finally breaks stories with major US papers. It recounts the prevalent poverty and violence in the Congo (his phone is stolen and he is robbed early on), and his transformation as he leaves Kinshasa to travel up the Congo, where he writes about smaller communities, reports from the war zone in Northeastern Congo, and later is one of the only Western journalist in Kinshasa after the 2006 elections results come in.
Sundaram has a very strong narrative voice. He is a gifted storyteller who can turn an ordinary situation into an intriguing story. And he, as he set out to do, witnesses people and events that are rarely depicted in Western media. After his phone is stolen, he tries to recover it and ends up spending an evening with three young reckless teenagers, giving voice to their lives and struggles. Life is not easy for Sundaram, nor for anyone he meets, but he has a gracefulness with which he approaches the challenges and is able to persist, despite compounding obstacles. I found this book to be a page-turner, as I kept wondering—how does he make it? What will be the turning point for his career? And the ending delivers. For anyone interested in Africa, this book is a window into lives that you will not usually read about.
Sundaram lived in Rwanda after the Congo. He recently spoke about the book and his experiences on the John Stewart Show.
I received an e-book copy of this book via NetGalley.
The shortlist for the Etisalat Prize came out. Founded in 2013, this prize celebrates debut novelists of African citizenship. The winner will be announced later this month and all three books on the shortlist were written by female authors.
Bom Boy by Yewande Omotoso
Set in South Africa, about a boy who stalks and steals as a way to connect with others. It is noted for, its “complex narrative written with a sensitive understanding of both the smallness and magnitude of a single life.”
Finding Soutbek by Karen Jennings
Also set in South Africa, this book tells the story of a divided town, focusing on the life of the first black mayor and his wife.
We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo
This book has been up for a lot of prizes, including the Booker. It’s a remarkable debut and one I will write about in more detail later this month. It’s a voice driven story of a Zimbabwean girl.
It’s wonderful to see this prize and to celebrate writers from Africa. It is also a way for those of us in the US to learn more about voices we might not read about in other venues.
The next two books I review are set in Africa…Stringer, by Anjan Sundaram, is a memoir about a young man who moves to the Congo to be a journalist. And then I will write about NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names.