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BOOK REVIEW: No Shrinking Violet

“No Shrinking Violet”

NoViolet Bulawayo
Recommended Retail Price: R265.00 _ Little, Brown, 2013

African literature has a new and major rising star. She is NoViolet Bulawayo, author of Man Booker-shortlisted “We Need New Names”. Her own name – one of the fancier ones – stands out as something completely new, unexpected. A simple Violet Bulawayo might have still surprised, but NoViolet is strikingly unusual. Add the surname, Bulawayo, normally associated with Zimbabwe’s second city, and you have a showstopper of a writer’s name. NoViolet Bulawayo’s novel stands out for the unforgettable story told through the voice of Darling, whose youthful voice takes the reader through a literary journey that begins in Zimbabwe and ends in the US. Bulawayo writes a delightful tale that is sure to win many fans because of the inventive ways in which language is used.

This is a story in which the names of the characters beg to be believed: Bitchington, Bastard, Godknows let the reader know that this is a new universe. Here is an unforgettable passage from “We Need New Names”: “I keep my mouth shut like I’m supposed to while Mother of Bones shouts greetings to the people on the way; Bornfree’s mother, MaDube, who is pounding nails on the roof of her shack with a rock; NaBetina holding her squatting grandson Nomoreproblems...” No surprise, then, to find out that the author of “We Need New Names” herself is using an assumed name. It wouldn’t have felt right if she had used her real name. The surname she has taken from the city of her birth and youth – she was 18 when she left Zimbabwe for the US –but the name she has added the prefix ‘No to is her mother’s name Violet. Darling, the precocious narrator in “We Need New Names”, spends her time in Bulawayo hunting for food and stealing guavas from the trees of the wealthy white residents with her group of friends that includes Bastard, Chipo and Sbho. Darling and her friends may be young and dreaming of what appears to be an impossible escape overseas, but through their experience, we grasp Zimbabwe’s unfolding narrative.

Those familiar with that story will know that Zimbabweans began to travel far and wide as their political and economic life threw curveballs. Suddenly Zimbabweans were in China, Thailand, Eastern Europe and, of course, others ended up in the US like the fictional Darling in “We Need new Names”. The country game played by Dseem fanciful, childish even, but there’s something deeply hopeful about it. Their real life despair has condemned them to dream. But if the young Darling had thought that going to the US was a ticket away from deprivation, hunger and poverty into paradise, we have to be thankful that the novelist complicates her character’s life in the US. It is this that makes “We Need New Names” such a compelling read, and why NoViolet Bulawayo is gaining the attention of readers and serious students of fiction.

When NoViolet Bulawayo spoke at the Open Book Festival in Cape Town last year, it was difficult to believe she is still only 31 years old. Her voice is assured, mature, reflective, with a clear love for language. At a time when literary festivals seem to be full of writers with ready answers, impatient to toss them to anyone daring to ask a question, NoViolet listened carefully to questions before answering with obvious care. It also clear that she is a great storyteller. She writes a story that is both fresh and yet strangely familiar. It is this that makes “We Need New Names” such a delight because it tells a story that many of us in Southern Africa think we know, but it makes us yearn to read more about Darling and her crew.

Reviewed by Victor Dlamini, Acumen Issue 7

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