In We Need New Names, 10-year-old Darling and her gang of friends roam their shantytown in Zimbabwe with the mischievous spirit of children at play. Whether they are stealing guavas or engaged in one of their made-up neighborhood games, they are argumentative and spirited: Life is a game even in these surroundings. But in her quieter moments, Darling is haunted by her memories of Before—when she lived in a house with her parents, when her father wasn’t working a dangerous job in South Africa, when she was allowed to go to school.
Author NoViolet Bulawayo is a fresh voice on the scene, exploring both the dangers and the comforts of Darling’s African home, and her uneasy assimilation to life in the West.
When Darling is sent to live with her aunt in Detroit, her adjustment is slow. America brings her increased opportunities for learning, but her sense of guilt over the country she has left behind also grows. Trips to the mall, cell phones, the perils of Internet porn—Darling navigates a world similar to that of many American teenagers, but her sense of isolation distances her from her new friends. Like so many immigrants before her, Darling is tied to her old country, even as she struggles to adapt to the new.
We Need New Names reads like a series of very good linked stories, without the structure and force of a developed novel. Though we sense what Darling has given up by leaving her home, the chapters about her life as a teenage girl in the United States lack singularity. Where We Need New Names breaks new ground is in the depiction of modern-day Zimbabwe from a child’s point of view. Bulawayo, whose writing has been championed by Junot Díaz, excels in capturing the frank voice of the younger Darling, who has a naiveté and an innocence that flourishes in spite of the dangers. Bulawayo’s sensitivity to a child’s experience and her ability to connect that to a larger commentary on contemporary Zimbabwe make her a writer to watch.