Book Reviews

Book Review: We Need New Names | Noviolet Bulawayo

Genre: African Fiction
Year: 2013
Country: Zimbabwe

You know how they say books open your eyes and gives you a fresh new perspective as well as reveal some things no one else will?

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That is We Need New Names in a nutshell.

It’s basically a story about a 10-year-old Zimbewean who emigrated to the US and finds herself struggling with her identity due to a number of shocking discoveries.

This book took me so long to read. Even for me, it’s incredible. The first half of the book totally put me off. I thought this was another African fiction with a cliché plot about democracy, pre/post independence, hardship and whatnot. Surprisingly, it picked up at the climax – when she finally moved to America. It became somewhat bearable and terribly familiar.

As always, there are a few things that stood out for me,

The whimsical tone
Someone on my Instagram said the humor was everything but I just finished binge – reading Mindy Kaling’s books and I beg to disagree. However, I loved how whimsical it generally was even as she addressed serious issues. There was a hint of humor here and there. There were times I had to go back to fully grasp it. It was often overlooked. Then again, it set the tone of the book. It wasn’t overly serious yet it was extremely serious.

– The references to pop culture.
I’m not exactly a pop culture enthusiast but when I see references like this, it gives me the impression that the author is aware of her environment and not necessarily indulging in it. She has an idea of what’s going on. It also makes the story a bit more relatable. There were two particularly instances that stood out for me,

The one about Rihanna,
We are cruising like that, and I’m being forced to listen to this stupid Rihanna song that everybody at school used to play like it was an anthem or something. Well, maybe the song isn’t stupid, it’s only that I just got generally sick of that whole Rihanna business, the way she was on the news and everything. I know her crazy boyfriend beat her up but I don’t think she had to be all over, like her face was a humanitarian crisis, like it was the Sudan or something”.

And the one about Angelina Jolie,
“I pick up one that says Salt and has Angelina Jolie on the cover. I haven’t really watched any Angelina Jolie movies, but I know that she can go anywhere in the world to get a baby wherever she wants. When I saw that she got that pretty little girl from Ethiopia, I was jealous; I wished she had come to my country when I was little and got me too. I could be Darling Jolie – Pitt right now and living in a mansion and flying around in jets and everything”.

– The honest truth about African immigrants
I don’t think I’ve read a more vivid and honest account of the immigration process. A mean, she dedicated an entire chapter in the book. When I done, I felt the chills. How Africans sell all of their possessions to afford a visa, how they have to acquire an accent to avoid being bullied or discriminated against,how Africans have to take up an alternative usually English names to avoid getting their indigenous names tarnished with misprouniciations, how they have to work odd jobs tirelessly to make ends meet and still send some change back home, how they never visit home because of expired visas, how they end up having American kids with zero knowledge of their backgrounds, how some of them never even get their papers till they die.

It went on and on. You could feel the ache of the author through her words. So heartbreaking. To be honest, I never knew about any of this in it’s entirety, just bits and pieces. Now that I know the whole nine yards, I’ve acquired this judgey attitude. Anytime, I hear someone is emigrating, I begin to think of all of the various scenarios that could possibly happen and how they might end up.

It’s something else.

We Need New Names had this effect on me even though I thought the story was ended abruptly. When I was done, I kept asking, so what is the point? Then again, I realised all that I’ve listed above is the point. As long as people like me have been informed, then the point has been made.

Rating:***

~EB

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