Wednesday, November 16, 2016

NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names

Author: Courtesy of Google Images

The American Mirage

           There have been a couple of exciting novels, plays and poems from the African continent that tackle the American dream. NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names is part of the literary continuum that helps to illuminate on African’s desires to chase the American dream in the hope of quenching their thirst for the allure of the western glitter. However, as the reader discovers, the journey to reaping the fruits of the American civilisation is fraught with a myriad of discoveries as espoused through the narrator’s eyes of other people’s and her own experience.
Bulawayo’s protagonist is a young girl, Darling, whose growing up in Zimbabwe shades light about the economic, political and social conditions of President Mugabe’s tyrannical rule. His rule is mocked and contrasted against that of a youthful president like Obama. Darling and her friends: Bastard, Chipo, Godknows, Sbho, and Stina exemplify the economic stratification of the nation. They live in shanties that epitomise a life of deprivation and a deeply ingrained desire to escape Zimbabwe to anywhere else in the world where the characters can discover reprieve away from such a life of daily toil.
          Rendered from the first person point of view, the novel acquires a sense of impetus owing to the fact that the story is rendered from a position of a child’s innocence. Indeed, one can argue that part of the simple language choices is indicative of a less competent language user. In any case, the child characters are between the ages of 9 and 11 years old. The writer experiments with ingenuous syntactic constructions characterised by superfluous use of conjunctions, semantic oddity through use of pleonasms such as “kill me dead” and other grammatical expressions that demonstrate a pre-teen’s language idiosyncrasies.
          Because the children are almost perpetually hungry, they devise means of survival by crossing over from their shanties in Paradise and feasting on guavas from the neighbouring suburban estate – Budapest. It is ironic that their place of abode is referred to as paradise since it does not harbour in any way the tranquil or serene environment that the word promises. The reader is quick to discover that this is not a healthy place to bring children up in: Chipo is already pregnant after being raped by her grandfather. The traumatising experience denies her a voice and she remains mute until a church experience in which Prophet Revelations Bitchington Mborro “immorally” prays for a woman believed to be possessed triggers off memories of what the grandfather did to her. The sexual ‘molestation’ of the churchgoer helps Chipo to open up about her wounded psych when she says that her grandfather did a similar thing to her.

          The affluence in Budapest and the fact that these houses are inhabited by whites, fuels the desires of the youngsters for a life beyond Zimbabwe. They express their political undertones and dislike for the ‘intruders’ in their country when they say that one should steal small items that they can eat or hide without being noticed. In the characteristic nature of the narrative, the pre-teens wonder what the whites were thinking in stealing not a small portion of a country but the whole country. The growing angst against the whites is escalated by the fact that they are cast as indulging in a life of extreme wealth whereas the native Zimbabweans are wallowing in dire poverty. This can be perceived as the dichotomy that pushes the violence by majority blacks against minority whites. It alludes to the political undercurrents of the time when it was reported that President Mugabe rallied the blacks to chase the whites from Zimbabwe.
          At the backdrop of such upheavals, the young Zimbabweans find solace in escapist dreams. They imagine of how life would be if they owned the houses, cars and general wealth that the whites have. They dream of escaping to England, America, Dubai, South Africa etc. as long as they can find a better life. Such escapist imaginations are captured in their children games and conversations. In their interactions, one is able to recognise the fears, the insecurity, the growing discontent and the almost rapturous violence that is brewing in the oppressed masses.
          The title of the text borrows from one of the violent scenes in the text when the children attempt to help Chipo abort. In a chilling descriptive excerpt, the children gather around Chipo armed with a collection of rocks, a tin mug of urine and a rusted clothes hanger. They suggest that they need new names so as to enact an American series in which doctors help patients. However, the reader will perhaps see the need for the characters to adopt new names in general since some of their names are bereft of any sense of tangible identity. This might be the cause of the children’s sense of deracination and perpetual desire to desert their country.
          Darling’s wish to join her aunt, Fostalina, in America comes true. However, the racial pride and prejudice denies her and many other immigrants the opportunity to enjoy their stay in America. As Darling realises, America portends a life of misery owing to the economic inequalities and the fact that the immigrants remain illegal since they hardly ever acquire the visas and permits that would hasten their integration. As a result, they result to a life of survival by working odd hours and balancing education with social life.
          The immigrants’ life in America become a tale of lies as they try their best to send money back home and to reassure the rest of their family members that they have not forgotten them. The catastrophe that unfolds is that some of them loose their brains while others resort to illegal means of survival. The struggle to keep their dreams of home intact eventually crumbles as a result of the cultural differences they encounter in the US. The emerging generations of Africans born in the US are further alienated since they do not understand their roots. Contemporary American mannerisms are captured in the colloquial expressions of the teenagers, the use of technology and other socio-economic activities.
          As the text transitions from Zimbabwe to America, one notices the shift in the narrative texture. The text leans more towards stereotypes and almost looses the magical touch of imagination and creative nuances. In an intrusive authorial voice, the writer describes the devastations of the new cultural experience, the broken dreams and the life of misery the immigrants have to endure. As the novel comes to an end, Darling describes her coming of age and the cultural experimentations she has to indulge in. Some of these are ugly memories that she would wish to quickly erase like the immoral flicks she and her friends watch in hiding in her aunt’s basement. Darling also notes that the immigrants’ marriages, whatever nature they are, are doomed to fail.
          The insecurities in the US are hard to bear, the broken cultural fabric beyond repair and the sense of hopelessness pervades and decorates their entire lives. One wonders why anyone would even wish to travel to the US in the first place. Perhaps there is a better story of the American Dream out there but at least it is not in Bulawayo’s We Need New Names. This is a text for any aspiring wannabe and for those dying for a piece of the American Dream.
NoViolet: Courtesy of Google Images

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