I’ve Been Hit by a Freight Train
By: NoViolet Bulawayo
Like so many of the books I read, We Need New Names is a library book I picked up while searching for something entirely different. Even though my school library removes the book jackets before shelving titles (it’s madness, I know), I catch myself reading the spines as I walk down the aisles. The spine of We Need New Names is nothing spectacular, but the title itself drew me in. I couldn’t tell what type of book it would be, but I found it housed in the “African Literature” section, which was enough to sell me.
When I got home, I opened the book and was immediately transfixed. Before I even knew the narrator’s name, I inferred that one of her friends had been sexually abused by someone, most probably a family member (not a spoiler, I promise). Her friend was 11 at the time. I knew I’d be in for a hard read. Darling, the narrator and protagonist, begins the book as a child living in Zimbabwe. Throughout the story we learn who destroyed her home and how she came to live in poverty, and it is through this impoverished, childlike point of view that Darling analyzes the world. Bulawayo uses unconventional word choice to reflect Darling’s age and level of education, and at times Bulawayo foregoes the standards of English grammar and punctuation to further the narrative and create more believable characters. Bulawayo’s ability to age Darling by modifying her vocabulary was incredibly impressive. For readers who haven’t been exposed to such an individualized writing style might find the narrative hard to follow. I personally found the writing style incredibly refreshing.
As a child, Darling is forced to attempt to comprehend subject matter that even adults sometimes struggle with. She’s exposed to abusive family relationships, famine, AIDS, death, politics, foreign “aid” and racism. Later, as a teenager, she finds herself trying to assimilate into a culture entirely different from her own. She learns to internalize racism, and eventually begins to judge her friends and family members based on what she’s learned. Darling learns the reality of an undocumented immigrant’s life in the United States.
At time, I empathized with Darling, though my life has been very different from hers. There were situations Darling dealt with that are simply the result of being Black in America, and I wonder how much of it came from Bulawayo’s own experience as a Zimbabwean expatriate in the U.S. What I find most interesting about the narrative, is that I detect a pride for Bulawayo’s native Zimbabwe. Yes, both she and her main character left the country, but in the novel, at least, the motive behind the move seems to be in interest of rebuilding Zimbabwe. Darling and the few family members she has in the U.S. left Zimbabwe to find work and send money back home. Though Darling narrates the stress and the burden this obligation puts on her and her family, it seems like there’s almost a sense of duty to help her African brethren.
With fantastic word choice, an enticing plot, and enough intrigue to keep me reading while staying over at a friend’s house (sorry Baaria!), We Need New Names deserves a gleaming 5 stars.