Book of the Week: ‘We Need New Names’ by NoViolet Bulawayo

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How a child sees the world and how an immigrant might view his or her new home: I often wonder how different the two vantage points are. Obviously an adult has life experience, years of decoding the hidden meanings behind words, and the various influences that drive people to do good and bad. This is where the old sports saying about how you can’t put a dollar value on experience comes into play, but there are books that show me that the immigrant experience can be just as strange, scary, and, if described well, magical as any tale involving a child navigating unfamiliar terrain.

Now in paperback, NoViolet Bulawayo’s stunning debut, We Need New Names, slowly joins those two points of view into one story — the child who moves to a new country in hopes of a better life — of a girl named Darling and her move from one strange place (Zimbabwe) to another (Detroit).

When I call these two places “strange,” Darling’s former home in Africa and her new one in the middle of the United States, I don’t do it to be disparaging; rather, the hyper-imaginative and often surreal ways Bulawayo’s narrator describes people, places, and experiences almost sound like things imagined in her sleep. But they aren’t a dream; Darling’s cousin Makhosi’s hands looking like “decaying logs” after going to work in the diamond mines; the vivid way she describes a funeral scene; the constant mention of bodily fluids. All of these things help create a strange picture that goes from nightmarish to dreamlike. It’s an invitation to reflect on how the world must have looked to you when you were ten years old, and how it must look to somebody who has left their homeland for somewhere new.

Then there’s the way that Bulawayo helps the reader connect with her narrator as she makes her life journey from young girl in Africa to young girl in the United States. It’s the language and slang she uses, the stores and brands she mentions throughout; from the Google T-shirt Darling receives — before she even knows what “Google” is — to Darling driving around the suburbs, parking by a Borders, smelling the perfumed air coming out of a Macy’s, and going into a Best Buy. This is how Bulawayo helps make the character so relatable. She realizes that just because the world looks strange to a child or a person getting used to a new land, that doesn’t mean we can’t all understand what she’s going through or be affected by her journey.