Wednesday, 20 May 2015

WE NEED NEW NAMES


Ten-year-old Darling lives in Paradise: a shanty town where the sun bakes the earth and the roofs are corrugated iron, and there is no school to which to go. She and her friends spend their days in play, stealing guavas and imagining life in the other worlds of America and Europe. Darling dreams of a new country for herself, but she will learn that the America she has pictured holds its own miseries.

~

I read this last month after a long period of wanting it. In a word? Stunning.

As someone living in Britain, a country that's not known war on our own soil for 70 years, where poverty is as invisible as the beggars that we glide past in our cities, the level of want depicted in Zimbabwe was shocking. The really affecting thing was the juxtaposition of the poverty among Darling and her community, and the hope that the children still retained. It was heartbreaking and hopeful by turn to see these young children, understanding little of the adult world, playing and loving one another with perfect happiness; and, at the same time, tainted by the frustrated needs of children who have none of the things they deserve, obsessed with western culture and products.

This portrayal of the Zimbabwean children's view of western culture was a sharp wake-up call to us living in America and Europe. Throughout the novel Darling is captivated by the image of America, but the America presented by Bulawayo is one of dissatisfaction, inequalities, social divides; the sexulisation of children, the broken education system, the lack of fulfillment of any and all hopes. In that way, We Need New Names follows in the tradition of Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men and Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, presenting the reality of an America that cannot deliver the Dream it promises. 

The book falls into two sections: Zimbabwe and America. Whilst the first was more raw and beautiful and strange to me, the second was equally hard-hitting because it showed me something of the reality of our Western society. It also presented interesting questions about the nature of suffering. There is a very acidic chapter in which Darling condemns a rich American teen who is suicidal after being dumped, and that got me thinking about the different types of suffering and the rights we have to complain.

The most powerful thing for me was the writing. It was absolutely beautiful. There is something incredible, I think, about works not written in the author's first language. They have a fluidity, a freedom with language because the writer is not constrained by the conventions and dead metaphors that entrap a native speaker. Therefore the writer can express things in striking new ways, which Bulawayo did perfectly.
(And if you've skimmed this far, unable to bring yourself to read my waffle, please read this.)


~

They did not come to Paradise. Coming would mean that they were choosers. That they first looked at the sun, sat down with crossed legs, picked their teeth, and pondered the decision. That they had the time to gaze at their reflections in long mirrors, perhaps pat their hair, tighten their belts, check the watches on their wrists before looking at the red road and finally announcing: Now we are ready for this. They did not come, no. They just appeared.

They appeared one by one, two by two, three by three. They appeared single file, like ants. In swarms, like flies. In angry waves, like a wretched sea. They appeared in the early morning, in the afternoon, in the dead of night. They appeared with the dust from their crushed houses clinging to their hair and skin and clothes, making them appear like things from another life. They appeared with tin, with cardboard, with plastic, with nails and other things with which to build, and they tried to appear calm as they put up their shacks, nailing tin on tin, piece by piece, bravely looking up at the sky and trying to tell themselves and one another that even here, in this strange new place, the sky was still the same familiar blue, a sign things would work out.

Some appeared with children in their arms. There were many who appeared with children held by the hands. The children themselves appeared baffled; they did not understand what was happening to them. And the parents held their children close to their chests and caressed their dusty, unkempt heads with hardened palms, appearing to console them, but really, they did not quite know what to say. Gradually, the children gave up and ceased asking questions and just appeared empty, almost, like their childhood had fled and left only the bones of its shadow behind.

Generally the men always tried to appear strong; they walked tall, heads upright, arms steady at the sides, and feet firmly planted like trees. Solid, Jericho walls of men. But when they went out in the bush to relieve themselves and nobody was looking, they fell apart like crumbling towers and wept with the wretched grief of forgotten concubines.

And when they returned to the presence of their women and children and everybody else, they stuck hands deep inside torn pockets until they felt their dry thighs, kicked little stones out of the way, and erected themselves like walls again, but then the women, who knew all the ways of weeping and all there was to know about falling apart, would not be deceived; they gently rose from the hearths, beat dust off their skirts, and planted themselves like rocks in front of their men and children and shacks, and only then did all appear almost tolerable.

I would recommend this book to everyone. It left me deep in thought and the prose was incredible.

6 comments:

  1. Wow. This book sounds amazing and eye-opening. Perhaps I can find it some place.

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    1. It is both of those things. Try and find it some place.

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  2. I SAW THIS IN MY COLLEGE LIBRARY TODAY BUT DIDN'T TAKE IT OUT BECAUSE I ALREADY HAD SO MANY BOOKS I WAS RESERVING BUT NOW I'M SO DISAPPOINTED IN MYSELF WHY DIDN'T YOU APPARATE IN FRONT OF ME AND TELL ME I WAS MAKING THE WRONG CHOICE EMILY. NOW I CAN'T GET THIS BOOK FOR ANOTHER TWO WEEKS
    because
    hey
    i had my last TWO EXAMS TODAY OMG


    they were awful. especially english which i am going to fail which is making me depressed BECAUSE WHY CAN'T EXAM BOARDS KEEP TO THE NORM AND NOT CHANGE AN EXAM PAPER JUST BECAUSE IT'S GOING TO BE THE LAST OF THAT SPECIFICATION. WHY IS THAT FAIR, WHY DO THEY WANT PEOPLE TO FAIL HUH.

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    1. HAWWA YOU MAKE TERRIBLE CHOICES

      CONGRATULATIONS THOUGH!!! I've still got two more bleeech.

      Maths was dreadful but look you are DEFINITELY NOT going to fail English. That categorically will not happen. Much love :*

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  3. Beautiful review, Emily. I will admit, I've never even heard of this one before. But your description of it reminds me of the depth of thought and the poignancy induced in me when I read The Book Thief. Thanks for sharing this. I will add this to my tbr now - but I think I will have to wait until I'm in a certain mood to read it.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you. It is, actually, quite comparable to The Book Thief in that respect. But I'd say yes, definitely wait for the right mood.

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Thanks for commenting! :)