Zimbabwe came as close as it is ever likely to get, in having one of its daughters win the Man Booker Prize, when in 2013, NoViolet Bulawayo was shortlisted for her first novel We Need New Names.
I loved this book long before I read it, I concede maybe for all the wrong reasons.
I loved the author’s name – even if you do nothing else, say the word Bulawayo several times. Let it roll off your tongue, a slight stress on the “way” syllable, feel its roundness roll out like the Matopos Boulders that, as a tourist in Zimbabwe, you would most certainly visit. Beautiful.
I loved the title. It is a book in which names are very important.The names of characters, like Prophet Revelation Bitchington Mborro; Paradise, the squatter camp; DestroyedMichigan for Detroit; Bastard and Godknows who are Darling‘s friends. In politically volatile Africa, even the names of streets and buildings can change almost overnight. To this day, my Durban taxi trips require some verbal fancy footwork: If I say “Can you take me to Aliwal Street”, the driver will answer : “Do you mean Samora Machel?” If I ask for Samora Machel Avenue, he will always reply: “Oh, Aliwal Street”. But we get there in the end.
I also loved the book cover, so funky, so bright, so youthful. Because, NoViolet Bulawayo, born in Zimbabwe, is young and this is her first novel and it is quite brilliant.
And then I read it.
It is a book of two halves, the first part set in the euphemistically named Paradise, a squatter camp in Zimbabwe. The second half is set in America where Darling, the main character, has been taken by her Aunt – with the promise of a better life.
As with all fiction, there is what is happens and there is how what happens is described. Many awful things happen. Do you want to read about a botched attempted abortion with a wire coat hanger on a young girl impregnated by her grandfather? No you do not. Do you want to read about the words Blak Power smeared in faeces on the bathroom mirror of a house that has been broken into? No you do not. Do you want to read about a lonely father, estranged from his daughter, dying of AIDS in a shack in Paradise? Probably not. But read it you will, because it is beautifully written and finely observed and has nuggets of joy and laughter and empathy the likes of which you may not have beheld for a very long time.
For me it is mainly a book about leaving a place where you were born, your homeland, and making a life in a new place and all the excitement and yearning that accompanies this migration. The fullness of lack is contrasted with the emptiness of abundance. For make no mistake, people left and are leaving Zimbabwe:
Look at them leaving in droves, arm in arm with loss and lost. Look at them leaving in droves.
And then there is the writing. Interspersed with staccato juvenile backchat, there are long repeated sentences whose Biblical cadence make you feel those passages could be sung. Her writing has few conjunctions and she favours repeated words for emphasis. She has killer similes and metaphors and for all the sadness of the subject matter, you will laugh. She is doing something different with English and you should read it to see what you think. As the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe (Things Fall Apart) is quoted as saying:
Let no one be fooled by the fact that we may write in English, for we intend to do unheard of things with it.
It is a book with a forcefield all of its own. When I went to place it on my shelves, first I put it between The Lord of the Flies and Things Fall Apart. No, not there. Then I tried it between The Lower River and Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs To-night. No not there either. Finally I placed it between The Grass is Singing and Cry the Beloved Country. Two classics. And that is where it belongs.
But I have saved the best till last. NoViolet Bulawayo is appearing at the WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival in Christchurch this weekend. Sure you can read the reviews, of course I recommend you read the book, but you could actually meet her and hear her speak.
Writing comets like this do not often traverse our skies.