We Need New Names Summary

NoViolet Bulawayo

We Need New Names

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We Need New Names Summary

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In NoViolet Bulawayo’s novel We Need New Names the main character is a young girl named Darling who lives in Zimbabwe in the early years of the twenty-first century. The novel originated as a 2011 short story titled “Hitting Budapest,” which received the Caine Prize for African Writing. That piece told of a gang of children who steal guavas, an act carried out as well by the unruly young people in We Need New Names, which continues the story. The novel is written as a series of chapters of various lengths, some which could stand alone in the style of Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street.

Mugabe’s paramilitary forces raze darling’s family’s home, and they, along with many others, establish a new village called Paradise. The name of the village could not be less apt as people live in shacks, there is governmental chaos, death, illness, and the threat of violence. The children are mischievous while dreaming of better lives in other places including America.

The Zimbabwe in which Darling and her friends live is one of poverty but not one that embraces efforts of outsiders to change things. The people of the village do not accept the NGOs (non-government organizations) that send white people to help the villagers; rather, they scorn them. The AIDS epidemic has reached Darling’s father, a migrant worker. The family deals with the situation in private. Darling’s mother is frequently away from the daily tasks of family life as she goes to the boarder to engage in trade. Darling’s grandmother takes action on behalf of her stricken son. She believes her spirituality will help cure her son’s disease. She becomes involved with a less than reputable religious leader whom she needs to pay in United States dollars, which are unobtainable especially in light of the useless state of her native currency.

Traveling to America to live with an aunt in Detroit may pave the way for a new life for Darling, but it also gives rise to new revelations. There she learns life for immigrants comes with its own collection of problems and challenges. There is the adapting to a new culture and the threat of deportation that always looms for immigrants. Her aunt, a native of Zimbabwe, lives in America with her common law husband who is from Ghana. Also in the household is the husband’s son from a different woman. The obese boy’s main interest is video games, perhaps symbolizing a stereotypical view of youth in America. American culture, it seems, is no more a paradise than Paradise was. Darling comes to this realization early on. “What you will see if you come here where I am standing is the snow. Snow on the leafless trees, snow on the cars, snow on the roads, snow on the yards, snow on the roofs—just snow covering everything like sand. It is as white as clean teeth and it is also very, very cold…coldness that makes like it wants to kill you, like it’s telling you, with its snow, that you should go back to where you came from.”

Darling struggles in America with the conflicting states of being African by birth and adapting to life as an African American. She does not necessarily find an answer to what being black in a new land means. There is a sadness to her stemming from a sense of not belonging anywhere with the possible exception of memories of childhood that, like Zimbabwe, she has left behind. While she has not found a place of “fitting in” as an immigrant, at the same time, she is distanced from her former self as well. Phone calls to her mother and friends back home become difficult for her as she has little to offer about whom she is now. Friends in Africa are still part of her former life. Friends in America are of the “modern” world with iPods, internet, and leisure.

While living with her aunt Fostalina in Michigan, Darling attends the wedding of her aunt’s college friend. The friend is an attractive man and a Zimbabwean who had once been Fostalina’s boyfriend. Darling overhears others saying that he is only marrying the obese white woman for “these papers.” The cultural divide and its complexities remain. Darling becomes more and more aware of the gap between her two worlds and feels that it is not possible to fully become part of a culture that is not one’s own. In the first half of the book, Darling’s youth limits her in the world in which she lives; in the second half, she is limited by her lack of experience in her new world. In both worlds, an understanding of not belonging increases life’s pain.