On Sunday night the inaugural Etisalat Prize for Literature held their winner announcement ceremony and the winner is:
We Need New Names by Noviolet Bulawayo
Darling is only ten years old, and yet she must navigate a fragile and violent world. In Zimbabwe, Darling and her friends steal guavas, try to get the baby out of young Chipo’s belly, and grasp at memories of Before. Before their homes were destroyed by paramilitary policemen, before the school closed, before the fathers left for dangerous jobs abroad. But Darling has a chance to escape: she has an aunt in America. She travels to this new land in search of America’s famous abundance only to find that her options as an immigrant are perilously few. NoViolet Bulawayo’s debut calls to mind the great storytellers of displacement and arrival who have come before her-from Junot Diaz to Zadie Smith to J.M. Coetzee-while she tells a vivid, raw story all her own.
Bulawayo’s novel has been shortlisted for a few prestigious awards already so I’m sure many of you already know what it’s about and/or have read it. Here is a really nice excerpt from a NYT review by Uzodinma Iweala for another look into what this novel is like:
Bulawayo’s portrayal of Zimbabwe is notable not for its descriptions of Paradise and Budapest but for those of Darling’s interior landscape — when, for example, she compares camera-toting NGO workers snapping pictures of her friends to paparazzi harassing Paris Hilton, or when she observes that in Zimbabwe you need to be a grandfather to be president, unlike America’s youthful Obama. Sometimes Darling is afraid of her world, which can be both disgusting and beguiling, but she is sure of her place in it.
Bulawayo describes all this in brilliant language, alive and confident, often funny, strong in its ability to make Darling’s African life immediate without resorting to the kind of preaching meant to remind Western readers that African stories are universal, our local characters globalized, our literature moving beyond the postcolonial into what the novelist Taiye Selasie has best characterized as Afropolitan.
But then there is “Destroyedmichygen,” where the teenage Darling finds herself in the care of her Zimbabwean aunt, the common-law wife of a Ghanaian man whose son from another woman — an obese boy dressed in sagging pants, obsessed with video games — seems to have imbibed the worst of American youth culture. Here the novel descends into trite observations about the oddness of snow, the sound of gunshots, the clash of cultures when a skinny Zimbabwean marries a grossly fat American in order to get immigration papers. Here there is a predictable pride-meets-privilege showdown when Darling encounters the anorexic daughter of a man whose house she cleans.