I’m two books behind on blogging in part because I wasn’t sure how to review Noviolet Bulawayo’s *We Need New Names.” Not that I wasn’t sure whether it was a great book – it is – but because I wasn’t sure how to capture its complexity and subtlety. I haven’t come any closer to figuring it out, but I ought to do my best before my classic E. memory loses the details. Though it’s been over a week and the narrative lingers, so perhaps that’s a telling enough quality.
The book follows Darling as she immigrates from an unnamed African country to America. (Though we might suppose from the details of its political history that the country is Zimbabwe, except in some senses trying to ‘figure out’ the country takes away from the message in the book that African countries are imagined by Western audiences as uniform and interchangeable.
The book opens with rich scenes of her childhood at home: the bonds among her friends, the tensions among her community, the NGOs that service it and the white inhabitants of the town. These scenes are then contrasted with Darling’s arrival in America where the refuge she seeks and the prosperity she imagines is complicated by the American problems of minimum wage, eating disorders, porn and alcoholism. She arrives in her oft imagined DestroyedMichigan, or Detroit – one of the most masterful elements of this book is the way Bulawayo plays with and comments on language. Through the manipulation of words on the page she demonstrates the thematic question she explores through her characters about the power of English, the limitations of language to express real affect, trauma and dislocation and the ways in which mastering/mimicking English is imagined as a parallel to gaining mastery over one’s self and world.
Unfolding in her journey are questions for the reader about inequality, resource management, international relations and concomitant questions about exploitation (of the poor, the environment, other countries). But for me the most disturbing questions were around relativism of suffering. Darling’s life in America certainly reveals the many ways in which the “Paradise” of the West is fraught with its own traumas and suffering – not the least of which is the irreconcilable sense of an identity that is neither American nor of Zimbabwe. But these traumas are diminished by Darling for not being *as* terrible as those experienced at home. Her hometown in Zimbabwe is named Paradise – a perhaps too-obvious irony and invitation to question where the “true” Paradise might be located: no where. And if the book argues that the so-called traumas of American life are insignificant in comparison to those suffered abroad, what does that do to the reader who must – on some level – identify with and experience the “injustices” of Western life? How can the individual reconcile their specific experience of suffering with the recognition that elsewhere the causes/sources/experience of suffering is exponentially worse?
I suppose I (perhaps unfairly) wanted the book to offer some explanation or solution to the question of the relativism of suffering, some way to mitigate guilt or self-recrimination? maybe. or perhaps a way to think about inequality in a way beyond the level of recognition. A way, too, for Darling to make sense of her stuck-between identity. That any emotion she has she must always reimagine in light of what she has been spared. She doesn’t allow herself to feel lonely because it could be so much worse. Where does this refusal of suffering leave Darling? or the reader?