/ 2 August 2013

A Zimbabwean story of loss and change

A Zimbabwean Story Of Loss And Change

‘Hitting Budapest”, the first chapter of NoViolet Bulawayo’s novel We Need New Names, is probably the best section of the book. It’s not just the bravery and brazenness of the young urchin protagonists as they maraud around an affluent neighbourhood looking for guavas, but also the naive, hilarious narrative voice deployed by its author. 

That first chapter won her the Caine Prize in 2011. Now she is in line for another gong: she is on the long list for the Man Booker Prize. With prizes seemingly piling up, it’s safe to say that Bulawayo is one of the most exciting writers to emerge from Africa in the past few years. 

If you think her name is improbable, it’s because it is an acquired handle. It’s almost as if the author, listening to her own injunction of needing new names, gave herself a strange, novel one. She was born Elizabeth Tshele in 1981, in Tsholo-tsho, Zimbabwe, and moved to the United States when she was 18. 

She belongs to the most hated, which is to say the most revolutionary, age group in Zimbabwe, those born after 1980. Commonly known as born-frees, this bunch won’t take nonsense repackaged as nationalist platitudes and revolutionary mantras. Indeed, there is a character in the book from the opposition ranks, Bornfree Lizwe Tapera, born in 1983, who is murdered for his anti-establishment stance. 

The most striking thing about Bulawayo’s debut novel, perhaps above everything else, is the way it’s narrated: the pseudo-childlike and naive voice. How to explain it? Well, think of a Yvonne Vera or Toni Morrison, that knows how to crack jokes. 

The truth, of course, is that no child ever spoke like this (certainly not that I’ve heard), but we want to imagine that this is the way kids speak. This allows Bulawayo to come up with startling metaphors (“We didn’t eat this morning and my stomach feels like somebody took a shovel and dug everything out”), mangled syntax, a Zimbabwean vernacular reimagination into English of things like knock-knees, which she dubs “kiss knees”, or “he looks shocked, like he has seen the buttocks of a snake”. Perhaps this is shocking to a native speaker of English, but quite common for second-language speakers. 

The politics of Zimbabwe
The childlike voice allows the author to tackle difficult subjects, giving them a potency that they wouldn’t ordinarily have if said by an adult. Talking about the politics of Zimbabwe (although never overtly identified), one of the child protagonists asks: “Yes, but what exactly is it, this change?” After the Movement for Democratic Change’s cohabitation arrangement with Zanu-PF, in which they have proved to be as inept as the party they have fought for more than a decade, one begins to wonder whether the MDC is a viable alternative.

When Darling attempts to solve the problem of God in those deceptively simple accents, I thought the only genuine atheism is not the educated Richard Dawkins kind, but the one espoused by children: “Instead of asking God nicely, people should be demanding and questioning and threatening to stop worshipping him. Maybe that way, he would think differently and try to make things right, like he is supposed to.”

It’s the same voice deployed when she contemplates the approaching death of her father, recently returned from South Africa and terminally ill with Aids. She conjures a familiar world in which a veil is laid over death and dying that is reminiscent of the time I was growing up. In the 1980s, it sometimes felt as though no one was really dying in Zimbabwe; but then coming of age in the 1990s, all of a sudden it seemed as if everyone was preparing to die, dying or dead already. 

So rare was death in the 1980s that whenever a funeral was passing our home, my mother forced me to go indoors. From behind a parted curtain, I would watch the procession of death. 

Darling isn’t afraid of death because her slum settlement is right next to a cemetery. “There is just no sense in being afraid when you live so near the graves; it would be like the tongue fearing the teeth.”

If Zimbabwe is never really identified (its avatar, Rhodesia, is once or twice invoked), the US, the other half of the book’s setting, is unmistakable. After the collapse of things in the other country, our narrator goes to live in the US with an aunt, Fostalina. She initially settles in what the narrator calls Destroyedmichygen (Detroit, Michigan), which, after the city’s recent bankruptcy filing, acquires a new tincture. 

Grass is never greener younder
But the grass is never greener yonder, as she soon discovers.

After I tweeted that Bulawayo (remember it’s the person, not the city) is the real thing, I got into a conversation with a friend about her vision. Indeed, her idea of Zimbabwe is quite depressing. In her defence, it’s difficult to be anything but depressed after talking to anyone who went through Operation Murambatsvina, the destruction of “slums” ordered by Robert Mugabe, the violence meted out to opposition activists and the meltdown of 2008. 

My friend and I landed up talking about Nigerian writer Uwem Akpan, a previous finalist for a Caine Prize. The vision of his book of short stories, Say You’re One of Them, is bleak and its accents negative. 

So could you compare Bulawayo with Akpan? Not really. I guess one of the reasons is that the child narrator explodes the tension of some of the heavy things that take place in the novel. The onerous becomes light, the serious acquires a certain playfulness. 

If Bulawayo’s first chapter is the best, then the chapter “How they lived” isn’t far off. Easily the most poetic and most desolate section of the novel, it is the kind of document one imagines an exile would write. It is a moving testament of a migrant marooned in a hostile world, stuck in the unfriendly new home yet yearning but unable to return to his or her “real” home.

“And then our own children were born. We held their American birth certificates tight. We did not name our children after our parents, after ourselves; we feared if we did they would not be able to say their own names … We gave them names that would make them belong in America, names that did not mean anything to us.”

Whatever force sustained the novel until then dissipates when the narrator realises that the US isn’t really the fabled land of opportunity. Vanished hopes, cracked dreams and homesickness take a toll on the mind as some of the characters slide into dementia and schizophrenia. It’s almost as if the realisation of the “hard-knocks” realities blunts the edginess of the narrative and the energies that sustained it. 

Surely this is to do with the narrator growing up and saying things in the world that an adult would supposedly say. The stylised world she has imagined through her inventive voice, idiosyncratic register and reverse collocation work for 200 or so pages before crumbling. The result is a dulled narrative conclusion, the antithesis of the beginning. 

Still, I do think NoViolet Bulawayo is the real thing. 

NoViolet Bulawayo will be at the M&G Literary Festival in the panel discussion Migration: There Was a Country, which will be chaired by Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon on September 1 in the main theatre at the Market theatre. The other panellists will be Achmat Dangor, Christa Kuljian, Caroline Wanjiku Kihato, Kwanele Sosibo and Wandile Zwane

No going back: NoViolet Bulawayo was born in 1981 in Zimbabwe. We Need New Names is on the long list for a Man Booker Prize and is published by Random House Struik.