Lately I’ve found myself reading a lot of migrant stories. Drown, Americanah, Little Failure, and The Embassy of Cambodia are all recent examples. For some reason here I’ve talked a lot about my own experience of moving to new places and working through my ideas of home and identity through these journeys, which these novels have made me think about and question. But these stories have all been from the perspective of an adult and often out of privilege. We Need New Names is again a story of leaving home, but from a very different perspective.
We Need New Names is told to us by a young voice, almost like a series of diary entries, from the protagonist Darling. Although its author NoViolet Bulawayo does not name the setting, it’s not hard to imagine it as her homeland Zimbabwe. Darling waits for her aunt to get established in the US so she can go to ‘DestroyedMichygen’ and start her new, privileged, American life. Until then she passes the days playing with her friends (Find Bin Laden and The Country Game their two favourites), hunting the streets for guava trees so they don’t go hungry while keeping out of their parents way.
There’s a constant duality in We Need Name Names of innocence and naivety from a generation of children who know and who have seen too much. Bulawayo’s decision to tell the story from a young perspective only makes the realities more chilling. Very early on in the novel, just as I was falling under the false pretence of the naïve protagonist, an extraordinarily graphic, violent scene of rape is not only watched, but also told to us by Darling. This triggers one of her friends (who has not spoken since becoming pregnant) to tell Darling her story too, which is incredibly chilling. But straight away we remember just how young these kids are through Darling’s reaction:
“I watch her and she has this look I have never seen before, this look of pain. I want to laugh that her voice is back, but her face confuses me and I can also see she wants me to say something, something maybe important, so I say, Do you want to go and steal guavas?”
Darling shares with us the children’s day-to-day experiences: of angry parents never having enough food, talking about politics and waiting for the NGO truck to visit. Having foreigners take photos of them, judging their lives, but not providing the things that they really need to change it either. When a truck brings the kids a toy gun each and a worn t-shirt with ‘Google’ on it and the adults “small packets of beans and sugar and mealie-meal” the children run after it as it drives away:
“We watch the lorry get smaller and smaller until it’s just a dot, and when it finally disappears we turn around and walk back towards the shanty. Now that the lorry is gone-gone, we do not scream anymore. We are as quiet as graves, sad like the adults coming back from burying the dead. Then Bastard says, Let’s go and play war, and then we take off and run to kill each other with our brand-new guns from America.”
Eventually Darling does get her wish and her aunt comes to take her to America. But life does not change instantly: there is still poverty, a lack of paperwork means there is no chance to go home, there are still limited opportunities, but there is safety. Still, it is not the America that Darling and her friends have seen on television: it is not an episode of Friends. The scars of what she has seen at home stay with her – she is over-sexualised but naïve, averse to violence but all too understanding of it, she welcomes the privilege around her but does not understand it in others. After a rare treat, a phone call from her friends at home, leaves her with the knowledge that her move is not understood by those left behind, there is a stunning monologue about the refugee experience:
“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 comfortably 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.”
We Need New Names is a touching and poetic book, but certainly not easy going. Reading this novel during a really busy time at work was not the best timing: I needed more space to absorb the book but also more space to walk away and think about certain chapters before moving on. I’ve spoken before about how I’m making a real effort to diversify what I read and this was certainly a break away from the privileged white male America I read so much of. It made me appreciate my own circumstances and be grateful for the opportunities and freedoms I am allowed, purely because of where I was born and the piece of paper this gives me. But it also made me grateful for the support I have around me: that I have people in my life who prop me up when I feel like I’m sinking, who support me in times of need, who keep me safe from harm. That is what Darling is missing the most, both at home and in America, and that is unfortunately not something available off the back of a truck.
Recently I came across this wonderful new blog called Lunch Lady by Kate Berry. It all began when Kate found out one of her kids was being bullied at school because of her homemade lunches. Understandably upset, Kate posted about it on Instagram and was overwhelmed by the support she received, but also requests for recipes! So Lunch Lady was born. It is a beautiful blog – Kate’s photos are stunning – but it’s also a great celebration of old fashioned, simple cooking, but also of cooking from the heart for loved ones. A lot of the treats here are things that my Mum used to make for me as a kid to take in my lunchbox, so I love reminiscing through Kate’s recipes.
Last Sunday was Mother’s Day but as is often the case, I was not only in another state from my Mum, but working. Things are getting frantic at work and I am increasingly looking for sustenance to keep me going. So what better treat than these flapjacks: not only an easy one to put together, but also exactly the kind of thing my Mum used to make for me. Mum’s honey and oat slice was a real favourite as a kid, and these flapjacks take me right back to it. There’s also something incredibly nostalgic for me about golden syrup. I’m sure this is the case for a lot of Australian and New Zealand kids. Watching it bubble away with butter and brown sugar, trying desperately not to plunge my hands in there to taste the gooey sugary lava, and then smelling the warm, sweet mix as it cooks the oats in the oven, was such a lovely touch on a grey autumn day. As the wind picked up outside and the sky began to fill with menacing grey clouds, I huddled in our apartment with the warmth of the oven and the nostalgic smells of childhood, knowing that when I needed to head back outside, I’d at least have a treat in my bag to keep me going and remind me of home.
This recent article in The Atlantic – Why Every Book About Africa Has The Same Cover – shows a collection of covers, all of books either set in Africa or written by African writers, with ridiculously similar designs no matter how different the style, subject or country from which they originate. Two recent covers that do differ, thankfully, are Americanah (even though Adichie’s debut novel Half Of A Yellow Sun is featured here) and We Need New Names. Hopefully it’s a sign of things to come.