“Because we were not in our country, we could not use our own language, and so when we spoke our voices came out bruised. When we talked, our tongues trashed madly in our mouths, staggered like drunken men. Because we were not using our languages we said things we did not mean; what we really wanted to say remained folded inside, trapped. In America we did not always have the words. It was only when we were by ourselves that we spoke in our real voices. When we were alone we summoned the horses of our languages and mounted their backs and galloped past skyscrapers.”
This is a passage by the omniscient narrator of We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo, who moved to the US when she was 18 to attend college. We Need New Names is Bulawayo's debut novel. The story is one of coming of age and of exile. Like Bulawayo, the protagonist is Zimbabwean who then moves to the US. The story is told through the eyes of a 10 year old girl, Darling, who recounts her hardscrabble days with her friends in a Zimbabwean shanty town and then relates the everyday Americanisms she encounters and experiences first in Detroit and then Kalamazoo.
Suzy Feay summarizes some of what Darling experiences:
Each chapter focuses on a dramatic incident: the children find a hanged body; NGO workers arrive with food parcels; a murdered activist is buried. When the action moves to America, the incidents are more banal but if anything more disturbing: Darling, now a teenager, watches unpleasant porn with friends, runs wild in the mall or goes to clubs where simulated sex on the dance floor is the norm. And then there’s the food; for a child accustomed to going to bed hungry, American food culture is overwhelming and guilt-inducing.
Understandably, when Darling moves to the US, her language changes, as the opening excerpt suggests. The success of Bulawayo's book, however, reveals Bulawayo's ability to unfold the language that refuses to lay trapped inside the experience of exile.
Read a summary of Bulawayo's novel here.
Bulawayo credits her father's storytelling for leading her to words. Her name "NoViolet" means "with Violet," Violet being the name of her mother, who died when Bulawayo was a baby. Read an excerpt of her novel here.
Bulawayo is the first black African woman writer to be short listed for a Man Booker Prize.