In December I won a short story competition. My prize was a Kobo Glo E-Reader which was delivered to me by post. I must admit that when Kindles and e-readers came onto the market that I was quite old school about the whole thing – I love the feel and smell of books, the time and care that is taken in designing covers, typesetting, and the choice of font and paper. I don’t think that these decisions and sensory experiences are separate from the way that I experience a book. I also love bookshops and second hand bookshops and I feel like e-readers and kindles don’t necessarily challenge that for me and my generation, but they might for the next. The thought that a generation of people could grow up without bookstores and books and libraries makes me want to write a science fiction where the inventor of the e-reader suffers from amnesia and can’t quite implement the idea. (I feel the same about a number of things from my youth (e.g the walkman) and it is only this trepidation around new technology that makes me aware that I am truly getting old).
Nevertheless, I received one, and was excited to see what it was like. We Need New Names was the first book I bought on it – cheaper than the paperback version, and it still had the cover I liked of the girl running. And so I began, reading short bit by short bit. After hearing NoViolet Bulawayo talk at the Open Book festival, someone who seemed to consider what they were about to say (an enviable trait) I had been interested to find out what her storytelling might be like, whether it too would be measured and thought through.We Need New Names was different, in a wonderful way.
I must admit that I’m entirely partial to books written from the perspective of children, and from the perspective of female protagonists, and it is through Darling, the 10 year old female protagonist that we discover the world of Zimbabwe, and of what the promise of freedom actually meant for so many people who lived and live there. Children are both more inquisitive about the way things work, and more honest about what they think is really going on. The choice of such a young narrator allowed Bulawayo to say things in an offhand and fresh way that could have come across as didactic had Darling been an adult. Children just tell you the way things are to them, without first reflecting on decorum. This is what brings We Need New Names to life.
I also really loved the names of all the characters – I won’t give them all away (but the Reverend’s name! What a triumph) but two of Darling’s closest friend’s names are Bastard and Godknows. It is these little techniques and flourishes that allow you to have humour during some painful and scary scenes in what was and remains a painful and scary situation in Zimbabwe. With Robert Mugabe just named the head of the African Union it seems impossible to wonder why no more has been done to resolve issues in Zim, perhaps only because of the lack of oil.
I think this is an incredible first novel, and it was perfect for an e-reader because I didn’t chicken out of reading a whole page because the amount of text I could see per page was so little that I just had to keep on going. Of course, it wasn’t the e-reader that kept me reading, it was the story. I look forward to Bulawayo’s next work.