Critical Assessment

“Using her gift for pictorial language, Ms. Bulawayo gives us snapshots of Zimbabwe that have the indelible color and intensity of a folk art painting: ‘men huddled like sheep and playing draughts under the lone jacaranda,’ the blooming purple flowers almost make them ‘look beautiful in the shade without their shirts on,’ sitting there, ‘crouched forward like tigers’; the women doing their best to look pretty, wearing ‘a bangle made from rusty, twisted wire,’ a ‘flower tucked behind an ear,’ ‘earrings made from colorful seeds,’ ‘bright patches of cloth sewn onto a skirt.’

“There is desperation here, however. As it becomes clear that elections have failed to bring about any kind of change, as men leave home in search of work and families fracture, young and old alike dream of escape — to America or Europe, or failing that, South Africa, or maybe Dubai or Botswana, someplace where ‘at least life is better’ than in this ‘terrible place of hunger and things falling apart.’

“Thanks to her Aunt Fostalina, who lives in ‘Destroyedmichygen’ (Detroit, Michigan), Darling does make it to the United States. . . .

“Ms. Bulawayo gives us a sense of Darling’s new life in staccato takes that show us both her immersion in and her alienation from American culture. We come to understand how stranded she often feels, uprooted from all the traditions and beliefs she grew up with, and at the same time detached from the hectic life of easy gratification in America. We hear her anger at white liberals who speak patronizingly about the troubles of ‘Africa,’ lumping together all the countries on that continent as though they were interchangeable parts of one big mess. And we come to understand the bittersweet emotions involved in the choice that many immigrants make to give their children names that will ‘make them belong in America.’ ”

Michiko Kakutani, “A Child of Two Lands: ‘We Need New Names,’ by NoViolet Bulawayo,” The New York Times, May 15, 2013. 

First Excerpt

“Because we were not in our country, we could not use our own languages, and so when we spoke our voices came out bruised. When we talked, our tongues thrashed madly in our mouths, staggered like drunken men. Because we were not using our languages we said things we did not mean; what we really wanted to say remained folded inside. trapped. In America we did not always have the words. It was only when were were by ourselves that we spoke in our real voices. When we were alone we summoned the horses of our languages and mounted their backs and galloped past skyscrapers. Always, we were reluctant to come back.

“The problem with English is this: You usually can’t open your mouth and it comes out just like that — first you have to think what you want to say. Then you have to find the words. Then you have to carefully arrange those words in your head. Then you have to say the words quietly to yourself, to make sure you got them okay. And finally, the last step, which is to say the words out loud and have them sound just right. But then because you have to do all this, when you get to the final step, something strange has happened to you and you speak the way a drunk walks. And, because you are speaking like falling, it’s as if you are an idiot, when the truth is that it’s the language and the whole process that’s messed up. And then the problem with those who speak only English is this: they don’t know how to listen; they are busy looking at your falling instead of paying attention to what you are saying.”

Second Excerpt

“Look at the children of the land leaving in droves, leaving their own land with bleeding wounds on their bodies and shock on their faces and blood in their hearts and hunger in their stomachs and grief in their footsteps. Leaving their mothers and fathers and children behind, leaving their umbilical cords underneath the soil, leaving the bones of their ancestors in the earth, leaving everything that makes them who and what they are, leaving because it is no longer possible to stay. They will never be the same again because you cannot be the same once you leave behind who and what you are, you just cannot be the same.

“Look at them leaving in droves despite knowing they will be welcomed with restraint in those strange lands because they do not belong, knowing they will have to sit on one buttock because they must not sit comfortable lest they be asked to rise and leave, knowing they will speak in dampened whispers because they must not let their voices drown those of the owners of the land, knowing they will have to walk on their toes because they must not leave footprints on the new earth lest they be mistaken for those who want to claim the land as theirs. Look at them leaving in droves, arm in arm with loss and lost, look at them leaving in droves.”