“We are on our way to Budapest: Bastard and Chipo and Godknows and Sbho and Stina and me. We are going even though we are not allowed to cross Mzilikazi Road, even though Bastard is supposed to be watching his little sister Fraction, even though Mother would kill me dead if she found out; we are just going.” So begins the opening chapter of NoViolet Bulawayo’s debut novel, We Need New Names (Little, Brown/Reagan Arthur Books, May 21). The book is set in Paradise—no, not that Paradise, and not that Budapest either—a shantytown in an unnamed country resembling the Zimbabwe of Operation Murambatsvina (Drive Out the Trash), a government sponsored program of forced relocation. The book follows a gang of kids whose families have been left with nothing after their homes and belongings are taken from them and they are resettled there. Their best chance for a better life lies elsewhere: in other parts of Africa or abroad.
For the author, 31-year-old Zimbabwe native NoViolet Bulawayo, what happens to these children is personal. Bulawayo was one of the “born frees”—the generation who grew up after the U.K. granted the country (then Rhodesia) independence in 1980—and she attended school, but the relative peace of the post-independence era ended just before she emmigrated to live with her aunt in Kalamazoo, Mich., and attend college at age 18. Even in America, Zimbabwe has never been far from Bulawayo’s mind. “You don’t forget home,” she says. The name she chose for herself five years ago celebrates her family and homeland: “NoViolet” literally means “with Violet” (after her mother, who died when Bulawayo was just 18 months old); and “Bulawayo” is Zimbabwe’s second-largest city, where she grew up.
We meet at Winter Institute 8 at the Westin Downtown hotel in Kansas City, Mo. Bulawayo is here for the author reception. As we talk in the hotel lobby, executives from other publishers—including Graywolf, Random House, and Workman—try to engage her in conversation. Her book has had a big impact already: the opening chapter was published in The Boston Review and went on to win the 2011 Caine Prize for African Writing, often referred to as the African Booker. The journal’s fiction editor, Junot Díaz, wrote, “I knew this writer was going to blow up. Her honesty, her voice, her formidable command of her craft—all were apparent from the first page.”
In person, Bulawayo exhibits the same intensity and electricity that comes through in her writing, as she talks about her life, her work, and the “horrors” that led her to write a book “engaged with reality.” “It’s not a fiction fiction book,” she says. “It’s very much born out of politics.” Although the period when the events in the novel occur is never specified, the book describes what happened to Zimbabwe under Mugabe’s rule after Bulawayo left. Inspired by information gleaned from the Internet, social media, and calls home, the author puts a face to her country’s grim statistics—80% unemployment and an inflation rate that hit 6.5 sextillion percent in 2008—and to the many who disappeared. She writes of her homeland where store shelves are empty and a neighbor dies because the hospital has no electricity. “Can you imagine calling home,” asks Bulawayo, “and hearing all this desperation, horrors we couldn’t do anything about? I wrote about it.”
One of the most striking things about the book is Bulawayo’s decision to tell the story through the eyes of an innocent young girl, Darling, and her group of friends—Godknows and the other kids she sneaks off to Budapest with to steal guavas. “There is something universal about kids. We can all relate to them. They are children; they have no power. The kids in the book were inspired by my friendships,” says Bulawayo. She grew up in a large extended family and had seven siblings. After her mother died, her father remarried and had three children. Her grandfather had four wives. She lost a brother and a sister to AIDS.
“Being a kid, you’re juggling a lot,” says Bulawayo. In We Need New Names, the children provide an innocent counterpoint to the atrocities around them, which they accept even as they remember better times. They play games like the “Country Game,” which Bulawayo herself played as a child. In the game, each person gets to be a country, and they all want “country-countries” like the U.S., Britain, Canada, and Germany. “Nobody wants to be rags of countries like Congo, like Somalia, like Iraq, like Sudan, like Haiti, like Sri Lanka,” Bulawayo writes in the book. Another of their games, “Find Bin Laden,” she made up. “Bin Laden occupies a fixed position in America, and I wondered about what it means to kids in Zimbabwe,” she says.
But the book also encapsulates the immigrant experience and what happens to Darling when she comes to America. Bulawayo wanted to tell a story rooted in both worlds—Zimbabwe and America—and to give voice to all the immigrants without green cards whose movements are restricted. In a chapter called “How They Lived,” she contrasts what the immigrants thought they would find in the U.S. with their experiences after arriving there, and she uses the first-person plural voice to be inclusive of all immigrants.
Bulawayo says that the challenge of writing We Need New Names was bringing all the things that have happened in Zimbabwe and America together in a single book—one in which each chapter can stand on its own. Writing it in a language not her own added to the difficulty. Although English is an official language in Zimbabwe, “we didn’t use it to communicate,” says Bulawayo. When she came to the U.S. at 18, she already had family here—a sister and a couple of cousins, in addition to her aunt. “I don’t speak English every day,” she says. “In writing I have to arrive in translation,” she says, referring to the fact that she thinks each sentence in her native language, then translates it into English before writing it down. For the reader, however, her prose is seamless. Caine Award judge Hisham Matar said that Bulawayo’s language “crackles,” and called her gang of children “reminiscent of Clockwork Orange.”
“I feel very lucky,” says Bulawayo about her writing career in general and the book in particular. “It was so humbling to do what I love and have people respond. It’s so mind-blowing.” Currently, as the 2012 Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, she is working on a collection of AIDS stories, which began as a memoir about all that she has lost. She’s also done some playwriting. “I can’t just write fiction,” she says. “With all this time [from the fellowship], I’m like a kid in a candy store.”
She has begun doing some traveling and plans to return to Zimbabwe for the first time in more than a decade. Ideally, she would like to split her time between the U.S and Zimbabwe. It’s not the future her father envisioned for her when he sent her to the U.S. to study law. Instead of a law degree, she got a masters in literature from Southern Methodist University and an M.F.A. at Cornell University, where she was a Truman Capote Fellow. What she says about her work could apply to her life as well: “I just let the story go where it goes.”