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Trauma and World Literature: We Need New Names

June 3, 2016

NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names has received much acclaim. It tells the story of Darling, a ten year old girl living in Zimbabwe as she tries to survive the turmoil and poverty that overtakes her family life during the partial destruction of their society. The novel has much to offer about the complexity of physical and psychological survival in such circumstances. The opening scenes also demonstrate effects added by the rape and pregnancy of one of her preteen friends.

In the following passage from the opening scene, “Paradise” is the name of the area where the children live. “Budapest” is their nickname for a prosperous area nearby. As the group of children run they chant some of what they learned when they were still able to go to school:

“When we hit the bush we are already flying, screaming like the wheels in our voices will make us go faster. Sbho leads: Who discovered the way to India? And the rest of us rejoin, Vasco da Gama! Vasco da Gama! Vasco da Gama! Bastard is at the front because he won the country-game today and he thinks that makes him our president or something, and then myself and Godknows, Stina, Sbho, and finally Chipo, who used to outrun everybody in all of Paradise but not anymore because somebody made her pregnant.

After crossing Mzilikazi we cut through another bush, zip right along Hope Street for a while before we cruise past the big stadium with the glimmering benches we’ll never sit on, and finally we hit Budapest. We have to stop once for Chipo to sit down because of her stomach; sometimes when it gets painful she has to rest it.

When is she going to have the baby anyway Bastard says. Bastard doesn’t like it when we have to stop doing things because of Chipo’s stomach. He even tried to get us not to play with her altogether.

She’ll have it one day, I say, speaking for Chipo because she doesn’t talk anymore. She is not mute-mute; it’s just that when her stomach started showing, she stopped talking. But she still plays with us and does everything else, and if she really, really needs to say something she’ll use her hands.” (pp 4 - 5)

Later in the story Darling, having immigrated to Detroit, is living with her aunt and maintains close connections to family from her native land. The following passage requires no further comment:

“When I get home, Aunt Fostalina’s car is pulling out of the driveway. She rolls down the window and tells me she is on her way to Shadybrook, so I get into the car and throw my book bag in the back seat. Every so often, Aunt Fostalina is summoned to Shadybrook nursing home to pacify Tshaka Zulu. When his craziness starts, Tshaka Zulu will threaten the other residents and staff with the assegai he claims hidden somewhere inside his room. I have seen the short stabbing spear; it is not real, but nobody knows this. Tshaka Zulu showed it to me one day; it’s just a drawing of a spear that he keeps folded and hidden away among pictures of himself when he was a young boy, back in our country.

The thing with Tshaka Zulu’s madness is that when it comes, the medicines they keep him on stop working, he refuses to speak English, and then Claudine, the quiet pretty lady who runs the nursing home, will call Aunt Fostalina to talk to Tshaka Zulu in our language. This seems to be the only medicine that works, but what Aunt Fostalina has discovered is that when Tshaka Zulu is supposedly crazy he doesn’t need calming but listening to. His appears to be the madness that makes him talk, and Aunt Fostalina brings me along because she gets bored listening. (pp 235 – 236)

Reference

Bulawayo, NoViolet (2013) We Need New Names. New York: Back Bay Books