About The Author
NoViolet Bulawayo (the pen name of Elizabeth Tshele) was born in Zimbabwe a year after independence from British colonial rule. She was brought up by vibrant storytellers, including her grandmother, and quickly found a relationship between their stories and those she read in books. She moved to Michigan when she was 18.
She earned her MFA at Cornell University, where she was a recipient of the Truman Capote Fellowship, and most recently, a lecturer of English. She is now a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University .She won the 2011 Caine Prize for African Writing and her stories were also shortlisted for the 2009 SA PEN Studzinsi Award. Her first novel, We Need New Names, was shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize.
She is part of the country's 'born free' generation, promised a golden future after the fall of white rule. Her protagonist Darling and her friends, on the other hand, are growing up during Zimbabwe's harrowing 'lost decade', and bring us Zimbabwe's decline from independence to repression under Mugabe.
Here, NoViolet introduces her book, and below that we talked to her about the origins of her ten-year-old protagonist, the shocks and challenges involved in adapting to a new culture and the storytelling tradition in which she was raised.
NoViolet Bulawayo: 'In my novel, We Need New Names, the young protagonist Darling leaves Zimbabwe at the height of its troubles in search of a better life. Her story is an attempt to marry Zimbabwe with America, to tell a story rooted in both worlds. But even in fiction, this marriage between worlds is a difficult one. Darling must live with the loss in her blood, haunted by her many sacrifices and the pain that ultimatey prevents her from being fully at home in her new country.
'Getting to Darling's story meant drawing from my own experience, but also reaching out to friends and strangers. I reached out to America because this is a place where people come to from all over and it is possible to walk into a Starbucks or classroom or bar and ask, So where are you from? and hear a story about leaving and arriving that sounds familiar. Darling is Zimbabwean but it is my hope that she is also Mexican and Indian and British, that she is from anywhere else where people live and hope and dream and leave. I hope she speaks to you.'
Author photo courtesy of Smeeta Mahanti
Questions & Answers
Did you have a very specific township in mind when you wrote about Paradise, or could it represent any number of similar places across Zimbabwe?
I did not; I was fortunate to grow up not knowing any shanty towns from personal experience so I had to imagine Paradise and create it. But I edited part of the book in South Africa, where of course I saw shanties in Cape Town and Joburg, and it gave me something real to hold Paradise against. Still, I think it's important to remember that shanties are, and can be all over the world, including the first world (think tent cities), as long as there are populations living under pressure.
The first half of your book is punctuated by episodes of violence and horror made more bearable by being filtered through the eyes of a 10-year-old. How did you arrive at Darling's voice?
Knowing I was working with a charged book, I had to find a character who could look at horror and still stay intact, still try to go on with the business of life, and that is how Darling was born. The innocence of children and their unacknowledged strength is what allows her to play and be funny and tell us of things falling apart all in one breath, and that's exactly who I wanted to tell the story. But of course to arrive at Darling's voice I had to go back to my childhood and look at the kind of kid I was for inspiration, so in a sense Darling came from a familiar space. I especially like that because it allowed me to celebrate the beautiful parts of my childhood, the tight relationships I remember, the games played and so on.
Did you experience the same kind of alienation in America and yearning for home that Darling voices?
Jesus, yes, and it wasn't a pretty experience. What was left out in the narrative of coming to America, and being disconnected from your land, when people and the media were selling the idea to my young self, was the cost, the sacrifices, you know. Maybe because I was young I naively assumed I was going to a golden life and all would be well. What a shock; long, depressing winters, the absence of my friends, speaking in a language (English) I wasn't comfortable with everyday, and having a hard time being understood because of my accent at that time, adapting to a new culture, having to work (as if I was an adult, as if I had a wife!), just to mention some of the challenges.
I think I was slow in adjusting, and I remember I spent my first year in silence, outside the home that is. You couldn't get me to open my mouth in class or at work, and what depressed me was the knowledge that the self that I had become was not even who I was, that in a different place (home) I'd have been totally fine. Still, there is no journey without a price, as anyone who leaves their homeland for another will tell you. It was accordingly part of my experience, and in small ways, still is, and a new immigrant is going through it right now. It's just what it is.
Is it ever possible to reconcile the diametrically opposed views of Chipo: 'if it's your country you have to love it, to live in it and not leave it' and those who are 'leaving because it is no longer possible to stay.'
It should not be possible to reconcile the two, and for me that is the tragedy of the immigrant experience, at least where it is impossible to stay in one's country, and yet at the same time when it is necessary to. There is just no win, and there are no easy answers and I don't know many people who have to make this choice and are not tortured.
How did your relationship to storytelling develop?
I was raised on orature, on the stories of my late grandmother, and my father, who will still tell me stories by phone even today. The home front, therefore, was where it all began for me, and of course my world also opened up to the neighborhood, where stories were the currency of life (gossip, information, bonding, etc). When I encountered books and written literature, I already had a foundation, and it would later inform how I told stories so that I consider myself a storyteller first, a writer second.
Later in America, through Darling you brilliantly and often humorously portray the difficulties of learning to speak and pronounce an alien language. Is it more liberating or challenging for you to write in English?
It shouldn't be challenging, especially as I speak English everyday but for the strangest reason it is. I love my Ndebele language a lot, and it's a big part of me, if I have no one to talk to I will hold conversations with myself just to keep its pulse going in me. The problem comes from the fact that I trained myself to arrive at English through my language always, through some interior translation. I think obsessively about every word, every sentence, and use the two languages to make sure that what I have on the page is right and true and there's nothing better than it. The reward is that I end up with a language that tries to be textured. I must also say that as roundabout as this process is, it ends up being liberating - I think I end up with a language that is my own, that is pliable enough to allow me to say what I mean.
Did writing the book make you revise any impressions you had of your own childhood or see events in a different way?
The book is not autobiographical so events are created. But of course, as already implied, I did look back to my childhood which was full of laughter and beauty and awesome friendships to get the energy that would fuel my child characters.
Why have we heard so little from other Zimbabwean writers, especially women, are they not making it to Europe and the US or are they not finding their way into print at all?
I must say even as people are trying, the state of the book is depressing in Zimbabwe, for both male and female writers. Just early this month I walked into Kingston, what used to be a big bookstore when I was in high school and I was told they were not selling novels, just stationery, which tells you something about the state of writing, and the lack of opportunities (the economic dynamics are at play here). I think opportunities in any field are synonymous with productivity so if books are not being published to be sold and read, then it kills the writing. That said, the writers are trying, people are blogging and publishing abroad and online and I think social media may very well be where it's happening for our writers for now. We are connected online more than ever before, we are reading each other's works on places like Munyori Literary Journal and Storytime and on facebook, where our work is even more exposed to a global audience.
You have won the Caine Prize and Pen Award; aside from the actual prize money, have there been practical benefits?
The Caine Prize is one of Africa's prestigious Awards, and winning it as a young writer did give me courage. I come from a place that pushes traditional, serious careers so my writing was understandably a problem so that I even faked studying toward a law degree in fact right up until I won the Caine, which outed me a writer. so, on an personal level it increased my faith, told me that I could do it if I tried, and I kept trying, and still am.
Who are the authors that inspire you?
Yvonne Vera, Junot Diaz, Edwidge Danticat, Toni Morrison, Colum McCann, Barbara Makhalisa (she writes in Ndebele), but of course I also have to say I am always inspired by real people and real stories on the ground.