In NoViolet Bulawayo's debut novel We Need New Names -- a finalist for this year's Man Booker Prize -- teenager Darling moves from Zimbabwe to Michigan, where she is struck by a rather large difference between Americans and the people back home.
In Zimbabwe, Darling thinks, fatness "did not interfere with the body; a neck was still a neck, a stomach a stomach, an arm an arm, a buttock a buttock. But this American fatness takes it to a whole 'nother level: the body is turned into something else -- the neck becomes a thigh, the stomach becomes an anthill, an arm a thing, a buttock a I don't even know what."
In fiction about Africa by non-Africans, it is jarringly common for the entire continent to be exoticized into a morass of clichés, a single place in need of saving and understanding by the West. But Bulawayo, who also moved from Zimbabwe to America (and who will be reading at this weekend's Miami Book Fair International), inverts this trope to put her outsider's eye on the grotesqueries of Western living.
"It's always been a personal interest of mine," Bulawayo says of the way the West appears to peoples living outside it. "As somebody who came from another culture, moved here and had to learn all the codes of behavior, I particularly wanted to flip the script."
When Darling arrives in Detroit halfway through the novel, she watches her first snowfall from her aunt's apartment window. Down below, children build a snowman or, as Darling struggles to understand it, "a thing that almost looks like a round person, and they have put a hat on it and a red rag around its neck and a carrot on its face. Maybe that is an American tokoloshe, maybe when the night comes it will start walking and do evil."
It's a heartbreaking and often very funny book in which AIDS, teen pregnancy, hunger and oppressive governments become the background for the more mundane difficulties of teenaged daily living. Descriptions of, say, political violence or a man wasting away from untreated AIDS are devastating, but ultimately, this is a story of a girl coming into womanhood.
For Bulawayo, the novel "is very much an African text. Dealing with Africans, it has to be. It is set in an African country in crisis. In Africa, in southern Africa, [readers] are much more aware of the dynamics and where [the writing] is coming from. They are seeing versions of themselves. A non-African audience may not relate as directly to what a Zimbabwean audience can contextualize. But what art is all about is the human impulse."
Though it would be pointless to separate Africa from We Need New Names, the novel also fits rather comfortably into a tradition in which language converts the familiar into a completely foreign landscape. Think Other People by Martin Amis, in which an amnesiac grapples with understanding her surroundings while lacking the vocabulary to explain it, or more famously, A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. When the novel begins, Darling doesn't recognize pizza ("I look closely at her long hand, at the thing she is eating. It's flat, and the outer part is crusty. The top is creamish and looks fluffy and soft, and there are coin-like things on it, a deep pink, the color of burn wounds."). By the time she moves among the Americans, however, Darling is LOL-ing with the best of them.
But before then, the modern conveniences of the West might as well be Martian. While still in Africa, Darling and her friends travel from their impoverished town of Paradise in search of food when they happen upon rioters breaking into the house of wealthy whites. The teenagers enter after:
"Inside, the cold air hits us and we put our hands on our bare arms and feel goose bumps. We look around, surprised. How is it cold in here when it is so hot outside? Sbho says in a whisper, but nobody answers her, which means we don't know."
These are children who have never even heard of air conditioning. And yet, they are fully conversant in Lady Gaga, Paris Hilton and the Lamborghini Reventón.
"It was kind of tricky," Bulawayo says. "In Paradise, it is a space that is supposedly removed, disconnected from the world. They don't have air conditioners, but they access pop culture from immigrants who come through, or who send things back home. That's how the world trickles in. We didn't have a TV, but we had Michael Jackson from people who went abroad."
Bulawayo became one of those people who went abroad. She wrote the novel while in the United States, where she completed an MFA at Cornell and is in her final year of a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford. Getting in touch with friends and family back in Zimbabwe was not always easy.
"Zimbabwe was at the height of crisis," she explains, "and there were times when I would have to use Google to know what was happening in the country. I had to read a lot of news to see how the nation was doing because that was at times the only way. There was an emptiness in connecting like that, and I think that is [reflected in the novel]."
Places like Darling's town are infrequently visited by outsiders. Even relief workers who appear occasionally in the novel treat it almost as a tourist destination:
"They just like taking pictures, the NGO people, like maybe we are their real friends and relatives and they will look at the pictures later and point us out by name to other friends and relatives once they get back to their homes. They don't care that we are embarrassed by our dirt and torn clothing, that we would prefer they didn't do it; they just take the pictures anyway, take and take. We don't complain because we know that after the picture-taking comes the giving of gifts."
In 2005, Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina published a satirical essay in Granta called "How to Write About Africa." In it, he advises aspirants to "always include The Starving African ... who waits for the benevolence of the West. her children have flies on their eyelids and pot bellies, and her breasts are flat and empty." Options, he writes, for other African characters, "may include naked warriors, loyal servants, diviners and seers, ancient wise men living in hermitic splendour. Or corrupt politicians, inept polygamous travel-guides, and prostitutes you have slept with."
Bulawayo also toys with these Western expectations of Africa. A white man in Zimbabwe reddens with anger and Darling describes how "his face turns a deeper color, like somebody is cooking it."
"If you look at who goes to Africa as tourists, it's mostly white westerners," Bulawayo says. "This is for a number of different reasons, the most obvious that they are the ones who can afford the trips. But if we're looking at the history of movement, we can trace the First World going to the Third for different reasons, colonial conquest being one of the most important."
This is part of why, Bulawayo thinks, Westerners often see the vastness of the continent as the homogeny of a single people.
"It's a question again of listening to history. It involves power issues and how Africa was accessed originally. It was accessed as a lump and then it was divided among rich, European countries. So it's traceable of that colonial period."
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And so, while We Need New Names is in some ways a reactionary document to this history, Bulawayo does not want it to feel confrontational.
Ideally, she says, a reader would "just get into the novel just like they walking into an apartment."
NoViolet Bulawayo will read on Saturday, November 23 at 12:30 p.m. in Building 8 of the MDC downtown campus as part of the 2013 Miami Book Fair International. Visit MiamiBookFair.com and NoVioletBulawayo.com. We Need New Names is in bookstores now and will be available for purchase and signing at the fair.