Do We Need New Themes?

When the announcement was made for last year’s Caine Prize nominations, it was explicit about ‘looking for the next NoViolet Bulawayo.’  Bulawayo won the prize in 2011 for her short story Hitting Budapest, which is the opening chapter for her Man Booker-shortlisted debut novel We Need New Names. In the announcement, her achievement was termed as a show ‘once more [of] the power African Literature can have on a world stage.’

The Caine Prize has constantly come under a lot criticism for its place within and authority over literature on the continent. Nevertheless, the prize has offered various writers a platform through which their work has become better known.

The idea of ‘looking for the next’ Bulawayo could very easily lead to a perpetuation of stories whose themes and ideas meet a Caine aesthetic of African suffering. Themes are universal ways of reading a text. They condense the general ideas reflected, but they can also restrict how texts are read and how they are interpreted. While Bulawayo’s novel came under heavy criticism from Helon Habila (who won the prize in 2001 and has been a judge for it) for its depiction ‘in a CNN, western-media-coverage-of-Africa’ style, he makes a point of appreciating what he terms to be the ‘thematic transcendence’ of the story. One of the ways in which this transcendence is achieved is in Darling’s voice, which carries the narrative of the story.

We Need New Names follows the (mis)adventures of Darling and her friends, Bastard, Chipo, Godknows, Sbho and Stina, in and beyond their ironically named shanty neighbourhood Paradise. For Darling and her friends, the world is indeed a stage and there is an easy optimism with which they lay claim to it. The novel opens with them leaving Paradise to go to the neighbouring upmarket suburb, Budapest, to steal guavas; an act of mischief that is driven by hunger. Darling narrates how they ‘just walk nicely, like Budapest is our own country…like we built it even, eating guavas along the way and spitting the peels all over the place to make the place dirty.’

They are not constrained by their impoverished environment. If anything, living in Paradise coupled with their exposure to the other side of the divide in Budapest makes their hopes and dreams bigger as they look forward to leaving their shanty neighbourhood someday and settling in better places. They hope to someday live in a place like Budapest, which is marked by order and neatness, by ‘big, big houses with satellite dishes on the roofs and neat gravelled yards’; because Budapest is very much unlike their Paradise- a settlement that simply ‘appeared with tin, with cardboard, with plastic, with nails and other things with which to build’.

These enclaves create a sense of exclusiveness and the contrast of worlds is a familiar situation here, with upmarket suburbs neighbouring some of the poorest settlements – Kangemi/Westlands, Mathare/Muthaiga, Kibera/Karen, Kawangware/Lavington – creating something of a symbiotic relationship where much of the manual labour for the latter is sourced from the former.

Darling and her friends are impressionable and are conscious of a world that is bigger than themselves, than their immediate environment. Even in their games, they let their imagination cover this space. They play ‘Country Game’ where each player fights over the ownership of a particular country, ‘like being in a war’:

‘Everybody wants to be the U.S.A. and Britain and Canada and Australia and Switzerland…and them. These are country-countries. If you lose…then you settle for countries like Dubai and South Africa and Botswana and Tanzania and them. They are not country-countries, but at least life is better there. Nobody wants rags of countries like Congo, Somalia, Iraq, Sudan, Haiti…and not even this one we live in – who wants to be a terrible place of hunger and things falling apart?’

There are moments like these when Darling’s narrations feel like secrets she’s letting the reader in on. She says, ‘If I get to be lucky, like today, I get to be U.S.A., which is a country-country; who doesn’t know that the U.S.A. is the big baboon of the world?’ While her friends are pointing at the houses in Budapest that they hope to own and live in some day, Darling boldly lays claim to America: ‘I’m going to America,’ I say, raising my voice so they can all hear.’

The notion of ‘country’ is an interesting element in the novel. A country can be defined as a geopolitical space within which citizens i.e. those who belong to it and those to whom it belongs to, have rights and a sense of ownership. As a result, there is something exclusive about ‘country’. Those who do not fall into either category of ownership are unable to participate in it and cannot enjoy the rights and privileges accorded by virtue of belonging to it, and are therefore unpossessed.

Even though Darling ‘feel[s] like America is my country because my aunt Fostalina lives there’, she finds herself displaced when she gets there. Her isolation and loss distinctly come through as she narrates as an ‘I’ rather than ‘we’ in the preceding chapters where their experiences were shared.

‘If you come here where I am standing and look outside the window, you will not see any men seated under a blooming jacaranda playing draughts. Bastard and Stina and Godknows and Chipo and Sbho will not be calling me off to Budapest. You will not even hear a vendor singing her wares, and you will not see anyone playing country-game or chasing after flying ants. Some things happen only in my country, and this here is not my country; I don’t know whose it is.’

America overwhelms her.

‘This is America, yo,’ her cousin, TK, tells her. ‘You won’t see none of that African shit up in this motherfucker.’

When she sees snow for the first time, she experiences it as a ‘coldness that…wants to kill you.’ Darling becomes more subdued here, more solemn. Events are less episodic and her experience become more internalised, her narrative voice is more reflective.

Darling is disconnected from the people around her, from TK, Aunt Fostalina and her husband; she finds herself a world apart from her friends and home. She cannot own America and at the same time, looses the right to claim what she has left behind. Years later, when she calls Chipo to find out how things are at home, Chipo tells her rather bitterly ‘you are not the one who is suffering. You think watching on BBC means you know what is going on? No you don’t, my friend, it’s the wound that knows the texture of the pain.’

This bitterness oozes from the generation that precedes Darling and her friends, the youth who come shortly after independence. The innocent claim that Darling and her friends have over their surroundings aggravates to a sense of entitlement within this generation of youth. The chapter ‘Blak Power’ recounts an episode in which they witness the antagonism of a white couple by a group of young men. The young men who are described as being ‘angry like black water’, demand that the white man leave ‘Africa for Africans’, but the man asserts what he believes to be a lawful claim over property and place.

After observing this interaction Godknows innocently asks ‘What is an African?’, opening up the discussion on what it means to be an African. Who can lay claim to this identity and how do they justify their claim? For the young men, a sense of belonging to the African identity is simply clarified by the contrast in skin colour: white, black. Differences like these lead to fragile definitions that cause conflict when establishing boundaries.

Meanwhile in America, ‘Africa is just one country’. ‘You’re not full of shit,’ Darling’s workmate, Megan, tells her. ‘It’s an African thing, ain’t it?’ After which she goes on to talk about her ‘cousin who is dating this guy from one of them little islands in Africa and he is the sweetest guy I ever seen.’

‘It’s an African thing, ain’t it?’ is the refrain, because there is no distinct construct or identity for Africa(ns).

Darling’s narrative is interspersed with three poignant interludes that form part of a meta-narrative through which the ideas of ownership and dispossession are further conveyed. These interludes are the collective voice of people who, like Darling, have had to look for new borders to secure themselves within once they have lost their homes. The first describes how shanties like Paradise came to be, the second, which breaks the story in two, reflects on ‘how they left’ to settle into other countries as Darling does in America and the final interlude looks at how unsettled they are in these other countries.

Perhaps what redeems We Need New Names from its tired ideas is Darling’s voice. Aside from her name, the way she carries the story makes her an endearing character. There are moments that strongly personify her, like when she watches porn with her friends in her aunt’s basement and describes the sounds they make, or when she talks to her friend Marina about her first kiss.

There is something poignant about her isolation and how she always carries in her mind the image of what she left behind as though she expects to find it there, still. In her Bulawayo creates a capable character that surmounts the thematic concerns of the novel.

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