“We Need New Names” by Zimbabwean author NoViolet Bulawayo — Migration And The Difficulty Of Defining Home

We Need New Names by Zimbabwean author NoViolet Bulawayo, whose birth name is Elizabeth Zandile Tshele, is a magnificently written novel about the turbulent life of a young girl named Darling.

The author has gained widespread recognition with this novel being shortlisted for The Man Booker Prize. Among other accolades, Bulawayo has been awarded the Truman Capote Fellowship, National Book Award’s “5 Under 35”, Guardian First Book Award, Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award.¹

The first part of the novel We Need New Names centres around the protagonist Darling and her group of friends growing up in Zimbabwe during the 2000s. As the novel is written from the girl’s perspective, the reader sees the world through her young and scarcely educated eyes. Bulawayo writes the text in a way that reflects the girl’s limited means of expressing herself and her lack of understanding of the political turmoil surrounding her as well as the grander events moving the global community. Only grasping bits and pieces of the news they hear, the group of friends invent games centred around big issues, without even understanding the significance of the topic. So they play “Find bin Laden”, without knowing the impact this Person had on the global community, and “country-game“, in which the highest goal is to get the country with the highest living standards. In their current living conditions and on the grounds of a lack of knowledge, they glorify the richer countries and imagine that the living standards for all people living there are equal — with equal opportunities for everyone.

“[…] everybody wants to be the U.S.A. and Britain and Canada and Australia and Switzerland and France and Italy and Sweden and Germany and Russian and Greece and them. These are the country-countries. If you lose the fight, then you just have to 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 than here. Nobody wants to be the rags of countries like Congo, like Somalia, like Iraq, like Sudan, like Haiti, like Sri Lanka, and not even this one we live in — who wants to be a terrible place of hunger and things falling apart?” (We Need New Names, p. 49)

Through describing the experiences of these young people, Bulawayo takes the reader on a tour through their hard lives, dealing with hunger, poverty, disease, child abuse and death. The political events impacting the lives of the children are mainly portrayed in the way they perceive their parent’s actions and behaviour. A drastic turning point in the life of Darling’s family and many others was the destruction of their village and housing, which resulted in their immediate and devastating poverty. The families needed to create a new community, which they called “Paradise”. In contrast to the nice house and happy life, they had before, the living conditions in Paradise in simple shacks and with little food is described as gruelling. The irony of the place being called “Paradise” is very apparent as it is described as exactly the opposite.

When the situation becomes almost unbearable, there is a lot of talk about leaving the country and emigrating to other places. Many have unsuccessfully tried to find their luck in other countries, such as Darling’s father in South Africa. As her aunt Fostalina lives in the US and her life there seems equal to heaven from afar, it is Darling’s greatest dream to go and live with her.

The second part of the novel focusses on Darling’s life after her move to the US on a visitor’s visa.

It describes her struggles to adapt to the new way of life and her attempts to fit in. Very quickly it is revealed that life in the US has its challenges as well and not everything is as easily attainable as imagined. Even though she is very grateful for not having to bear this terrible hunger anymore and is leading a rather comfortable life, Darling is increasingly homesick. She misses her family, the tours with her friends and their quests for ripe guavas of the richer neighbouring villages. She longs for the company of friends, who understand where she is coming from and accept her for who she is.

Bulawayo details how difficult it is for emigrated individuals to lose the connection to their home country. How they neither fit into their new world nor feel entirely attached to their old country anymore. The feeling of loosing one’s roots and the inability to travel back to try and reconnect — because of expired visas or other issues — is a key aspect of the second sector of the novel.

Despite the very complex and troublesome underlying issues, the language Bulawayo uses, makes the story very fun to read. As she writes in the way the young group speaks and at the same time transports their lack of knowledge, hilarious expressions arise like “Destroyedmichigan” for “Detroit, Michigan”. The fact that the boy named Bastard does not know that his name is written with an “r“ and spells it “Bastad”, or Darling referring to the story of “Goldilocks” as “Goldidogs” and many other instances make the reader smile throughout the book.

The ways, in which Bulawayo describes encounters with NGO workers and their constant need to take pictures or the nerve-racking attempts to make US-Americans understand the Zimbabwean English accent, are ironically written, though, never abandoning the cruel realities behind these instances.

“They just like taking pictures, these NGO people, like maybe we are their real friends and relatives and they will look at the pictures later and point us out by name to other friends and relatives once they get back to their homes. They don’t care that we are embarrassed by our dirt and torn clothing, that we would prefer they didn’t do it; they just take the pictures anyway, take and take. We don’t complain because we know that after the picture-taking comes the giving of gifts.” (WNNN, p. 52)

When aunt Fostalina is trying to order a bra on the phone, the language barriers become evident:

“Angel, angel, angel, Aunt Fostalina says, raising her voice even louder. There is silence, like maybe the girl is getting ready to pray.

Ah-ngeh-l, Aunt Fostalina adds helpfully, dragging out the word like she is raking gravel. I silently mouth — enjel. Enjel. I hear the girl make a small sigh.

I’m sorry, I don’t know what you mean, ma’am, she says finally.


It’s A, Aunt Fostalina says. Her voice is a bit calmer. She has written the letter on the magazine, as if to be sure.

Okay, A as in apple — Not apple. A as in anus, it’s a different sound. N as in no. G as in God. E as in eat. L as in Libya. There, you go, angel. Angel. Angel, Aunt Fostalina says.

There is a brief silence, like maybe the girl is considering what she has written, and then she says, Oh! You mean enjel!” (WNNN, p. 195–196)

Another aspect of language is already obvious through the title of the book. The character’s names are an important motif of the novel. Through these, Bulawayo transports meaning and irony. Leaning on the tradition of giving children names with explicit meaning, the author choses names as Bastard, Godknows, Bornfree and Messenger.

We Need New Names is an interesting read that evolves in its use of proper punctuation and language skills as the protagonist Darling improves on her education.

It is a fascinating story that touches on important issues surrounding politics, social class, religion and the difficult issue of defining “home”.

Bulawayo’s life experience has been a great factor in her creative writing and in creating her characters, which feed on the experiences she made growing up in Zimbabwe and her transition to her following life in the US. For her college education Bulawayo came to the US and studied at the Kalamazoo Valley Community College, later gaining her bachelor’s degree in English from Texas A&M University-Commerce, followed by her and master’s from Southern Methodist University respectively. At Cornell University she earned her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing.²

Primary literature:

BULAWAYO, NoViolet. We Need New Names. London, Vintage Books, 2013.

Internet sources on NoViolet Bulawayo’s biography:

¹ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NoViolet_Bulawayo (05.09.2020)

² https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NoViolet_Bulawayo (05.09.2020)

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