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The game of the names

A Man Booker shortlisted debut novelist says she’s glad not to have won.

NoViolet Bulawayo
NoViolet Bulawayo

The title of We Need New Names, the Man Booker Prize-shortlisted first novel by NoViolet Bulawayo, is one that has several levels of significance throughout the book, but it is significant for other reasons too.

The US-based Zimbabwean author, a guest at the WORD Christchurch Writers & Readers Festival at the end of this month, took a new name herself, having been born Elizabeth Zandile Tshele but changing to NoViolet Bulawayo while doing a masters in creative writing at Cornell University.

“Violet” is for her mother, who died when she was 18 months old – “just my way of honouring her memory”; “No” is Zimbabwean for “with”; and Bulawayo is “the city of my people, and after being away for so long I just wanted to connect”.

Bulawayo’s American friends took to her new name, but it was more of an issue for her family in Zimbabwe, where “our names mean a big part and your last name, especially. Your last name stays with you, even after a woman gets married.”

She didn’t even broach the subject with her father, “because he’s a difficult dude. I knew I’d never be able to justify it.”

So he still calls her Elizabeth? Well, no, because this was not her first new name.

“I was never called Elizabeth, actually. At home, people know me as Mkha. I like to tell the story of how they forgot to tell me Elizabeth was my name. When I went to school for the first time, I got there and sat with the other kids and our teacher started taking our attendance and most of us didn’t know our English names. So we just sat there looking like, ‘Okay, who is that?’”

“Mkha” is an abbreviation of the Zimbabwean word for “coloured”, given by a sister when Bulawayo was first brought home as a light-skinned baby. “It embarrasses me now, but well,” she says, laughing, “it won’t go away.”

We Need New Names is the story of Darling, from age 10 in Zimbabwe through to her late teens in the US.

Although it reflects many of the experiences of 32-year-old Bulawayo, who like her character settled in Kalamazoo, Michigan, it also differs markedly, not least because Darling grows up in the 2000s, whereas Bulawayo’s childhood experience of Zimbabwe was in the less tumultuous 1990s – she left aged 18 in 1999.

She returned to Zimbabwe only last year, to launch the novel, and was “so relieved [feeling that] if I had gone home [to live] I would have written the same exact book. It was a relief partly because I wanted Zimbabweans to read the book and identify”.

For her vivid depiction of the country as it descends ever further into chaos and violence, Bulawayo drew on events she was following “quite obsessively, like most Zimbabweans spread all over the world”.

No less vivid is her multi-layered depiction of the disorientation and displacement felt in the US by Darling and other immigrants, including with language – “the sense that English is like a huge iron door and you are always losing the keys”.

Bulawayo remembers being on the wrong side of that door. “Of course, Zimbabwe was a British colony, so English was the national language. But it was interesting because it’s a language you encountered in school and left there. So I didn’t have a lot of facility for it. When I came to the US, I spent my first year in college in silence. You couldn’t get me to say anything in class because I was struggling with the language. It just all flew over my head. Like Darling, I watched a lot of TV trying to get it.”

Get it she did: We Need New Names is full of felicitous English, as well as a keen ear for the less gainly vernacular of American teen-speak. At the same time, Bulawayo enjoyed incorporating the richness of language in Zimbabwe, whether in the naming of characters (Bastard, Godknows, Bornfree, etc) or the use of a phrase like “the buttocks of a snake” – “things you say in my language but could never say in English”.

Bulawayo is speaking from a writers’ retreat in Seattle. “It’s a nice space to come and unwind and start writing,” she says, aware that although she was shortlisted for last year’s Man Booker Prize, that “hasn’t written me my next book”.

Bulawayo is working on a short-story collection and hoping to branch out into other media, such as film and playwriting, “because there are so many ways of telling stories and I don’t want to box myself in one way”.

She doesn’t see herself as having lost out by not winning the Man Booker. “I’m glad I did not win it,” she says. “Come on, it’s your first book – where do you go after the Booker? I’m not ready for it.”

we-need-new-names-coverBeing recognised as a finalist, however, “was simply unbelievable and very, very encouraging. It’s one of those things I felt I needed as a young writer and at the time. That gentle push that says you can do this and keep doing it.”

WE NEED NEW NAMES, by NoViolet Bulawayo (Vintage, $26.99); Bulawayo is appearing at the WORD Christchurch Writers & Readers Festival, August 27-31.

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