gail schimmel

The blog of writer Gail Schimmel: A bit of writing, a bit of parenting, a bit of thinking and some book reviews

We Need New Names

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It is not often that you write a book review while attending a literary festival where the author of the book that you are writing about is one of the start guests! I think I saw her yesterday looking very glam . . . and of course, I’m talking about my next Man Booker read, NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names.
We Need New Names is a book about Zimbabwe and Zimbabweans, and I wonder how many of you reading know many Zimbabweans? Because the book is very much like the Zimbabweans I know. I am now going to make a whole lot of generalisations about Zimbabweans, and I know that generalisations are often wrong, and I know that it is all very evil of me but please don’t shout at me: this is all my impression of (black) Zimbabweans (although a lot of it holds true for the white ones too).
Zimbabweans are, on the whole, lovely looking people – with big open faces and wide toothy smiles. We Need New Names is a bright coloured book inviting you into it.
Zimbabweans English names are as fascinating in real life as they are in the book – some Zimbabweans I have known well are Handsome and Polite and Trust. In the book we meet Darling and Godknows and Bastard and Bornfree. If you are not a Southern African, you might think this is a joke. It’s not.
(I must digress here. Bear with me. A few years ago, for various reasons, I went to a John Edward (the psychic medium) show in Johannesburg. John Edward was explaining how dead people will find different ways of saying “hi”; and in illustration told us “an extraordinary story” of what had happened to him that very day. His mother was known as Princess, which to him is a very unusual name for a grown woman, and that Very Day John had been thinking of his mother and then walked past a shop assistant with a name label reading “Princess”. What are the chances, wondered John. The large audience was too polite to tell him that in South Africa it is actually more remarkable if you have a day where you DON’T meet a person called Princess . . .).
SO. Zimbabweans are very charming and friendly and polite. We Need New Names starts out in a charming, child-like voice and lures you in, feeling calm and un-abused and safe. I found myself loving Ms Bulawayo’s voice almost immediately which for some reason I had not expected.
But never forget that Zimbabweans have seen violence and starvation and suffering, and at their cores are complex and injured people. And as the book too suddenly shifts, and suddenly there is violence – violence of the African Revolutions; and violence of the internet and pornography. Most people who have read this book prefer either the first soft part, or the second hard part. I loved the first part and found the second part much harder. But the second half is the one with the message; and if you know little about Africa and her people, you should read it.
It also has chapters that are removed from the story but read like pure poetry – and perhaps are the most important parts of the big story.
I felt slightly bruised after this book. Part of that is that for a South African, and perhaps especially a middle class white South African, Zimbabwe is the “what if”, leaving Africa is the “what if” – and NoViolet Bulawayo shows us that the “what if” is very scary indeed.
Should you read it? Yes. Is it good? Yes Should you read it with a cocktail on the beach? No. Will it win the Man Booker? I don’t know. Part of me says “no” – Africa is too foreign. Part of me says “yes” because the book has a poetry and a kind of “freak you out”ness that serious judges might like.
Now watch this space, because I am reading – for some light relief – am SA writer I did not know about and I can’t wait to tell you about his work . . .

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