Complaints of writers of African origin “performing Africa” (presumably producing literature whose thematic concerns never stray far from the continent’s woes of hunger, political instability, war and corruption), are for the most part baffling to this reviewer. Should these writers abandon the daily concerns of its citizens to avoid apparent oversaturation of the reading public?
Achebe relegated fiction when he lived through the years of the Nigerian/Biafra war in favour of poems and essays, for “something more concrete, more directly related to what is going on”. He goes on to say “I wouldn’t consider writing a poem on daffodils particularly creative in my situation right now. It would be foolish”. On whether he’ll return to writing novels he wasn’t any surer, “if one survives…but these are not normal times at all”.
Not many Zimbabweans would consider these times they live in as ‘normal’. The word itself may have to undergo re-coinage before it is permitted into conversation on the country’s challenges, for theirs is a daily reality whose end is far from near. So do its writers produce daffodil inspired works to avoid further ‘scarring’ those readers’ consciousness who claim overfamiliarity? Notice how the accusers of writing-to-type are never as vocal when proposing alternative subject matters.
Darling, the narrator of Ms Bulawayo’s novel, and her band of friends’ live in make-shift shelters after being evacuated, along with their families, from their homes. They’re out of school and the free time this affords them is spent foraging the homes of the well-off for guavas. These latter-day Gatherers subsist on this fruit whose abundance is not explained but whose worth is priced, and whose memory Darling savours longingly when she later fulfils her dream of moving to America.
Darling is precociously self-aware for a 10 year old. Her social consciousness is leavened with humour like a sweetened cough syrup which masks its bitter healing agents. One of her friends Stina rues Africa’s gerousia of leaders “but you have to be old, old to become president”. Darling has wisened up to what she believes is the absence of a god the elders relentlessly revere. Raped by her grandfather she has too early undergone a traumatising ordeal. If it is true that so early in life an experience quickens maturity in children it seems to be the case for her.
Part of Darling’s charm is her wildly disproportionate similes. Of a hanged woman’s dress she says “It moves ever so lightly in the breeze like maybe a baby angel is busy playing with it”. Or this about her and her friends after gorging on guavas, “…when it comes to defecating, we get in so much pain it becomes an almost impossible task, like you are trying to give birth to a country”.
Scatology in literature, usually a descent for cheap laughs, is here freshened up with a fog of earned humour, the abundance of which more than makes up for the rare flat likening, “…his face looks shocked, like he has just seen the buttocks of a snake”. On one occasion the same fish analogy is used twice. Bornfree’s mother MaDube “thrashes like a fish out of water”, this after a similar reaction is earlier described insufficiently as a “fish in the sand” – one seeming like a deliberate corrective of the other.
The first part of the book, set in Zimbabwe, is a sustained display of humour and seriousness of subject matter. Darling’s move to America is bridged by a 2 page chapter called How They Left which bewails the great exodus of Zimbabweans (and immigrants generally) for better pastures. It is a standalone piece which jettisons Darling’s voice and addresses the reader directly. Its brevity ensures that it does not outstay its welcome for whatever mental breathers it is meant to administer could also be achieved by a flip of the page to begin a new chapter.
The same device is revived about a 100 pages later but this time for 13 pages. Titled How They Live, it rings true and is terribly heartfelt (its biblical equivalent would be the Book of Lamentations). But then so does Darling’s voice which at this point in the novel the reader would have entrusted to tell the story. Perhaps Ms Bulawayo isn’t convinced Darling can sufficiently convey the gravity of the concerns facing people she writes about. Not unlike a mason who, after raising a building, doubts the sturdiness of the foundation but instead of tearing it down to start afresh, decides to make up for it with speed steel roofing.
The first half of the book becomes a hard act to follow even when the older Darling’s preoccupations are no less weighty. She struggles to acclimatise to America, explores porn and witnesses the psychological and domestic ramifications of legal (and most tellingly illegal) immigration in the lives of her Aunt Fostalina and her Ghanaian husband Kojo, and of the husband’s daily trauma of having his son in the Iraq War fighting for the Americans. But the narration lacks the pep that makes the preceding half a delight to read. This is partly because, Darling’s humour aside, the first half of the book is full of lived experiences while the second half is largely that of other people as seen by Darling.
Darling’s grasp of the English language engages in the same way it invites scrutiny. She uses phrases like “throng of mourners”, “clogging narrow path”, “maul the earth”, “terrible reeking smell” and a word like “alight”, more commonly found in written texts, the descriptive pliers and spanners found in a writer’s toolbox.
Darling’s child’s consciousness requires considerable restraint from Ms Bulawayo her creator. A taut line must be drawn between Darling’s precocity and Ms Bulawayo’s undoubted skill as a writer. The easier option instead of walking this tight rope is to opt for slacklining to avoid embarrassment. Ms Bulawayo’s performance is a highwire act. A satisfying second half or, failing that, a stronger resistance to a few writerly phrases and a long lament would have made a skywalk of We Need New Names.