Soon we are all busy drawing country-game on the ground, and it comes out great because today the earth is just the right kind of wet since it rained yesterday. To play country-game you need two rings: a big outer one, then inside it, a little one, where the caller stands. You divide the outer ring depending on how many people are playing and cut it up in nice pieces like this. Each person then picks a piece and writes the name of the country on there, which is why it's called country-game.
But first we have to fight over the names because everybody wants to be certain countries, like everybody wants to be the U.S.A. and Britain and Canada and Australia and Switzerland and France and Italy and Sweden and Germany and Russia and Greece and them. These are the country-countries. If you lose the fight, then you just have to settle for countries like Dubai and South Africa and Botswana and Tanzania and them. They are not country-countries, but at least life is better than here. Nobody wants to be rags of countries like Congo, like Somalia, like Iraq, like Sudan, like Haiti, like Sri Lanka, and not even this one we live in – who wants to be a terrible place of hunger and things falling apart? (pp. 50-51)
Zimbabwean-American writer NoViolet Bulawayo's first novel, We Need New Names, very easily could have been dismissed for being one of "those" novels: those tales that are set in a poor land (usually a developing country in Africa or Asia) and whose characters' plights serve to reinforce Western notions of Third World poverty and deprivation. Yet there is very little pandering, if any, to Western bourgeois expectations here. Instead, Bulawayo's tale, set in an unnamed African country that most likely is a stand-in for her native Zimbabwe, explores matters of survival and adaptation in ways that alternate between being funny, profound, and unsettling.
Darling, the first-person protagonist, is a ten year-old girl living in a shantytown named Paradise. She and her friends invent all sorts of games. They sally forth into other shantytowns named after famous cities and they forage for material for both their stomachs and their imaginations. They display a keen awareness of the inequalities in the world, but there is also laughter and an ability to shrug off the pains and travails of everyday life. The chapters in We Need New Names are episodic, detailing key moments in Darling's young life, such as this chapter, "Shhh," on her returning father, who had returned home after several years seeking work in South Africa:
Father comes home after many years of forgetting us, of not sending us money, of not loving us, not visiting us, not anything us, and parks in the shack, unable to move, unable to talk properly, unable to anything, vomiting and vomiting, Jesus, just vomiting and defecating on himself, and it smelling like something dead in there, dead and rotting, his body a black, terrible stick; I come in from playing Find bin Laden and he is there. (p. 91)
This passage, like several others in the book, casts in almost poetic prose the mixture of emotional turmoil and carefully-developed detachment. Darling knows there is something wrong with the man who has suddenly re-entered her life, but she presents it as a witness, as someone who is forever reporting what has happened around her. There are moments in which she speaks through her heart, but for the most part, she recounts what she has experienced as if she were one extra degree removed from the action. This is not a failing of her character, but rather a way to underscore just how Darling has chosen to cope with the situations occurring in her life. This mixture of matter-of-fact reporting and eloquent prose serves to deepen the importance of the narrative's events instead of weakening their impact.
As powerful as many of the stories are within We Need New Names, the weakest section might be the chapters devoted to Darling's emigration from her homeland to live with her aunt in America. It is not that these chapters are devoid of interesting insights (there are many), but rather that these chapters do not feel as integrated into Darling's life as the earlier chapters (and flashback sequences toward the end). More development here in showing Darling's adjustment to life in the US would have strengthened the already very good narrative even stronger, as it would have made the final chapters, those that detail Darling's struggle to find a new self-identity, more powerful. But on the balance, this lack of development late in the novel does not make We Need New Names a weak novel, but rather a strong tale that falters toward the end.
Yet despite this, We Need New Names was an excellent choice for the 2013 Booker Prize shortlist. It is a smart, engaging novel with an intriguing protagonist. The plot development for the most part is handled well and the prose is a joy to read. Outside of the weakness noted above, it succeeds admirably in describing a character and a land in a way that few non-Africans could ever hope to accomplish. We Need New Names is a very good novel that hopefully signals the beginning of a very long and successful writing career for Bulawayo. Well worth the effort in tracking it down.