We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo is an apt title, when the main characters are ten and eleven year olds named: Bornfree, Bastard, Chipo, Godknows, Sbho, and Stino. Chipo is eleven and pregnant. Since she became pregnant she has stopped speaking except when she recognizes the act that preceding her seeding. The narrator, Darling, “khona“ or “cabbage ears” a hated name regales us with family history which is loaded with violent deaths.
The kids wander from the slums of Paradise and the paradise of Budapest, nicknames for the communities in which these youngsters live, if this is living. “Her face has turned ugly now, like a real woman’s.”
Everything’s a game for these kids; otherwise life here would just be “kaka.” They live in a tin roofed shantytown called Paradise. From here they venture out to other communities on quests, missions, games to pass the time and rise above boring truth. “We are back in Paradise and are now trying to come up with a new game; it’s important to do this so we don’t get tired of old ones and bore ourselves to death, but then it’s also not easy because we have to argue and see if the whole thing can work. It’s Bastard’s turn to decide what the new game is about.” They play these games because they don’t want to be where they are. Their soldier games are too real, hunting bin Laden, and when they play doctor, they play doctor. Their games are reality. Vasco da Gama is a good guide.
The dialect and language are delightful and refreshing. The narrator’s aunt lives in an American city “Destroyedmichygen.” But our narrator lives in Paradise. “They say Paradise like they will never say it again: the Pa part sounding like it is something popping; letting their tongues roll a while longer when they say the ra part; letting their jaws separate as far as possible when they say the di part; and finally hissing like a bus’s wheels letting out air when they say the se part. “ Before paradise they lived in houses with all the luxuries of Budapest, then the bulldozers came. Why? And will the election bring Change as promised and hoped for?
This is a political story told from the point of view of children, the victims of politics no matter what color or what country. We are in Africa that shouldn’t be generically referred to as if it were a country. It is fifty countries. Her country is not a country chosen in the children’s “country game” game. The children’s games are inspired by the acts of adults. When they go into a white persons house for the first time they act like adults on the couple’s bed. The innocence is actually refreshing from these children being children in a horrific situation. The reenactments of events played out, witnessed by BBC reporters are too common. They learn by observing adults and many times safely hidden up a tree. They have limited knowledge of television and school prior to taking up residence in Paradise, enough to help us understand their world and their perceptions of that world as they move through Paradise, Budapest, Shanghai, and Heavenway. The theme of home is powerful throughout this novel.
“They are leaving in droves.” Our narrator has joined her Aunt Fostalina in Destroyedmichygen. Her Detroit experience is mind blowing. There is the language difference, the cultural differences, the customs that force our narrator into embarrassing situations. She is now a teenager in America with a Victoria Secrets catalogue. She is also an illegal immigrant and is the parent of her parents. One word dominates her and her fellows consciousness: JOBS. Not Steve, the working kind. More than one, too. Too many are too dangerous, too.
Future generations flash before us as the past is erased. Grandchildren don’t know the horrors the joys. Phoning home is Skyping and eye opening. “Because we will not be proper, the spirits will not come running to meet us, and so we will wait and wait and wait – forever waiting in the air like flags of unsung countries.”