“Do not, under any circumstances, belittle a work of fiction by trying to turn it into a carbon copy of real life; what we search for in fiction is not so much reality but the epiphany of truth.”
So wrote Azar Nafisi in Reading Lolita in Tehran : A Memoir in Books. This statement often comes back to me when I read about situations that are based on reality but with which I am unfamiliar. It certainly came to mind when I read NoViolet Bulawayo’s debut novel, We Need New Names. Through this story that was shortlisted for a Man Booker Prize, Bulawayo has offered an epiphany of truth about life in Zimbabwe, and of the immigrant experience in the United States.
We Need New Names is the story of Darling, a young girl who lives in a shantytown in Zimbabwe and spends her days stealing guavas with a group of friends. They dream of escaping and living in wealth. Darling sees a path to this dream through the prospect of living with her aunt and uncle in “Destroyedmichigan.”
Initially, I was a little skeptical about this book. I often turn away from books written from a child’s perspective in an adult novel, especially those that are focusing on situations that can be emotionally difficult. Too often I think the child’s voice comes across as overly precious and precocious; sometimes it seems as though the author is using the child’s voice to distance him/herself from difficult subject matter (“yes, I’m writing about something difficult…but with cute words and misunderstandings, so don’t find the subject too off-putting!”). Bulawayo, though, uses Darling’s 10-year-old innocence and naivete to highlight and add to the intensity of life in both Zimbabwe and the US.
Beyond the story itself, I found that this book sparked my interest in learning more of the political, social, and cultural conditions of life in Zimbabwe that framed Darling’s life and the story. Or, as Azar Nafisi might have put it, Bulawayo’s depiction of the truth of the situation inspired me to dig up some research on the reality of it.
There’s a lot to talk about in this book, and I look forward to doing just that at our next meeting of Unwined on January 9 at Winan’s in Beavercreek. If you have any questions, you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 775.3149. I hope to see you there in the New Year!