NoViolet Bulawayo’s debut novel, We Need New Names, identified her as one of the great storytellers of displacement and arrival, along with Zadie Smith and J.M. Coetzee. Channeling the potent rhythms of the storytellers who raised her in Zimbabwe, Bulawayo has created a story at once disarmingly playful and devastatingly real, a novel that “though deeply rooted in [its] particulars, tells a story that will resonate far more widely” (The Christian Science Monitor).
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and The Guardian’s First Book Award, We Need New Names is the story of 10-year-old Darling and her friends—Chipo, Bastard, Godknows, Stina, and Sbho—who navigate their Zimbabwe shantytown with the exuberance of children everywhere. But they are shadowed by memories of Before. Before their homes were destroyed by paramilitary policemen. Before their school closed. Before their fathers left for dangerous jobs abroad. Yet when Darling escapes to her aunt’s home in suburban Detroit, she finds that—far from the comforts of her childhood community—America’s abundance is hard to reach, and she must reckon alone with the sacrifices and mixed rewards of assimilation.
Despite its weighty subject matter, We Need New Names “glows with humanity and humor” (The Independent), thanks to Bulawayo’s remarkable knack for creating delightful, resilient characters who enchant us as much with their antics as with their poignancy. In particular, Bulawayo gives us a protagonist whose raw, vivid voice may be the novel’s most memorable aspect.
“A deeply felt and fiercely written debut novel… The voice Ms. Bulawayo has fashioned for [Darling] is utterly distinctive—by turns unsparing and lyrical, unsentimental and poetic, spiky and meditative.”
—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“Nearly as incisive about the American immigrant experience as it is about the failings of Mugabe’s regime” (NPR), We Need New Names successfully evokes the insecurity, the messiness, and the complexity of leaving one homeland for another. Writing in The New York Times, Uzodinma Iweala praised Bulawayo’s “striking ability to capture the uneasiness that accompanies a newcomer’s arrival in America, to illuminate how the reinvention of the self in a new place confronts the protective memory of the way things were back home.” We Need New Names establishes Bulawayo as a new and essential voice in the fiction of the contemporary African diaspora. Bulawayo’s “brilliant language, alive and confident, often funny” (Iweala, The New York Times) is so transcendently powerful that 10-year-old Darling’s story becomes universal, moving beyond the postcolonial into what has been called the Afropolitan.
A New York Times Notable Book, We Need New Names was recognized with the PEN/Hemingway Prize, the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, and many other honors. Bulawayo’s short story “Hitting Budapest,” which became the first chapter of We Need New Names, won the 2011 Caine Prize for African Writing, sometimes called the African Booker. Judge Hisham Matar said, “The language of ‘Hitting Budapest’ crackles. This is a story with moral power and weight; it has the artistry to refrain from moral commentary. NoViolet Bulawayo is a writer who takes delight in language.”
Bulawayo grew up in Zimbabwe. She earned her MFA from Cornell University, where she was a recipient of the Truman Capote Fellowship. She has also held fellowships at Princeton, Harvard, and Stanford.
Bulawayo has spoken at at the University of Michigan, Wellesley College, UCLA, and other places. She lives in Oakland, California, where she is working on a new novel.