|NoViolet Bulawayo at the Open Book Festival 2013 in Cape Town|
Noviolet Bulawayo looks as if she is preparing to attend a funeral. In a black dress and jacket and wearing a grave expression, she strides along the pool outside a Rosebank B&B to meet me on the veranda.
Her demeanour matches the bleak heaviness that pervades her first novel, We Need New Names, which deals with Zimbabwe in a state of "falling apart" and the pains and struggles of living in exile in the US. To say it has been well-received is an understatement; it's the first Zimbabwean novel to crack the Man Booker short-list, making her the first black African woman to have received this accolade.
"For a fresh face it gives you courage. Writing is a very difficult career. You don't know what is going to happen; you write because you must write," she says, before adding the ubiquitous, "it has been very humbling."
Ironically, part of the novel's acclaim is linked to the humour that undercuts her dark subject-matter - the back of the book's cover carries an excerpt where the word "laughing" is reiterated. Her humorous side is well disguised during the interview. She's prickly, only smiles once and in response to comments or questions she often nods her head and offers a brusque response: "yup, yup".
At first I put this down to a reticence to being interviewed - writers tend to shy away from such encounters - but later decide it could be a consequence of her immigrant status in the US, which has made her sharply self-conscious and aloof. Another consequence is her attachment to her identity as a Zimbabwean and African.
"The States is one country that sharpens your identity, for me because I am not an American and it is a space that boxes people. It never occurred to me that I was black and African until I got to the States and those categories mattered. I grew up in a township and went to schools were everyone was like me. I never experienced life in racialised degrees. When I got to the States I realised I am black but not part of black America and that consolidated my identity as an African."
It is not easy holding on to that identity after living in the US for over a decade, Michigan at first and then spells at Cornell (Ithica, New York) and Stanford (Stanford, California) universities. Yet she doesn't speak with an American twang.
This is a surprise - Lauren Beukes, the celebrated local author, still proudly sports one after living in that country for a few months 10 years ago.
"I didn't want it," she asserts, as if adopting an accent is a choice. Claiming or holding on to her identity isn't incidental to the novel; it is her way of maintaining a link with her homeland, coming to terms with what it has become in her absence and, as the title implies, it speaks of the nature of redefining oneself elsewhere, a condition that has, in the wake of the mass exodus of its citizens, become a characteristic of being Zimbabwean.
In one of the final chapters where Bulawayo slips into a diatribe about an immigrant's existence and reflecting on the psychological cost of being "illegal", she writes: "We did not want their attention. We did not meet their stares and we avoided gazes. We hid our real names and gave false ones. We built mountains between us and them, we dug rivers, we planted thorns."
Perhaps it was too much to expect her to operate like the narrator, Darling, a sassy and sarcastic character who shoots from the hip and is able to detect when something is "kaka". Significantly, Darling loses this fiery spirit when she immigrates to the US, shifting the narrative voice into a different gear, where she seems more of an observer, working in low-level jobs as a cleaner or at a recycling centre, where she sifts through |the detritus of this consumerist society. Bulawayo says she didn't consciously plan this change in the narrative voice.
"It's not her, it is the space, voice is tied to geographic space. I spent my first year in silence in the US. People thought I was quiet and shy. In reality at home I was one of the noisiest rowdy kids. When I got there I died down. Every time you encounter Darling in Zim she is with friends. In the US she is behind closed doors, looking at the snow. It is the space that stifles the individual and for immigrants, just not being able to express yourself in your language makes you a different person. I am one person when I am speaking Ndebele, but I am also a different person. That is what is happening to Darling. She is a changed person because the space changes her."
Bulawayo frequently switches between talking about herself and Darling. It's as if they are one and the same. It's easy to draw parallels between Bulawayo and Darling; their lives are mirror images of each other. Well, to a point. Both women are born-frees in that they arrived in the world after Zimbabwe gained independence and both eventually settled in the US and struggled with adapting to life in that country and with their voluntary form of exile.
Where their lives differ is quite significant and has an impact on the book's credibility to some degree. While Bulawayo's childhood in Zimbabwe was "beautiful and normal", Darling's is marred by extreme poverty, violence, instability and the sorts of horrors no child should be exposed to. She is rooted in a society that seems to have collapsed; there isn't enough food, none of the children attend schools or live in regular homes. This community has become so twisted that even a preacher humiliates and abuses a woman in front of his parishioners under the guise of ridding it of sinful behaviour. This isn't just a community that has lost its moral compass, it seems to have lost its humanity.
This brutal world is focalised through the first-person narrator, Darling, who we first encounter as a 10-year-old roaming the streets of a ramshackle shantytown where she has lived since the government tore down their houses. Evoking the novel's title, Darling and her friends reconstruct their world, make it more liveable by "giving it new names"; such as renaming their shantytown Paradise and a more affluent neighbourhood that they frequent, stripping the trees of guavas, Budapest. In one chilling scene, the kids adopt the names of characters from ER, the American drama series, when they decide to perform a makeshift abortion on their young friend who is pregnant.
"There are two layers to this scene; the layer of the outside world and popular culture being present in these children's lives, and an innocent way of reimagining themselves. They are aware that they need to be better people to cope with that context. But overall 'we need new names' in terms of identity and ways of being. This is the problem of the space I'm writing from."
The children's compulsion to rename themselves, the places around them, and the games they play where they are reconstructing world politics seem part of an effort to remake the country into the place that it should be, or was - recalling her own idyllic childhood, Bulawayo often refers to the flourishing independence period with nostalgia. Interestingly, though perhaps not unexpectedly, this isn't the Zimbabwe she chooses to explore, though it is the one she knows moreintimately.
This child's voice affords Bulawayo the licence to comment on the conditions in Zimbabwe without getting caught up in politics - her focus is not on top-level power games, but the impact they might have on the country's most defenceless citizens; its children. It also allows her to amplify and over-simply the socio-political situation there. The result is an incongruent cocktail of naivety and brutality that gives the narrative its edge, while inducing such a heightened sense of horror in the reader. In this way, the novel seems in service of making a political statement rather than functioning as a "bearing witness project" as the author claims.
This is partly because Bulawayo hasn't lived through any of the conditions she details, which accounts for the didactic and predictable scenarios, and the distorted - or maybe expressive - narrative lens she adopts.
The distortion occurs because these events are articulated from a child's point of view and, due to the fact that some are so harrowing and yet so clichéd, recalling clips from a CNN news special.
So her renderings of life on the ground read as artificial, though they may well be grounded in true-to-life occurrences.
Perhaps this is because she has condensed every atrocity or loss linked to Zimbabwe into the first half of the book in such a way as if she is ticking off a list compiled by African doomsayers. Darling's father dies of Aids. Her friend Chipo has been sexually abused by a family member and is pregnant before the age of 12, and Darling and her gang observe a band of|marauding angry protesters ransacking the house of affluent whites before dragging them off to kill them.
There is no context to these events; Darling is too young to be aware of the details, they're simply part of her daily life. This results in a narrative about Zimbabwe that seems so straightforward and familiar. Is it not surprising, then, that it has been such a hit in the old colonial motherland? Her novel summons the perennial problem that cultural producers on the continent's face: how do you articulate and protest against negative conditions without affirming prejudice?
Is Bulawayo simply not serving up the clichés about Africa to Europeans? I can't put this question to her, but gently suggest she has trotted out stereotypes about the country in such a way that feels oppressive for the reader - there is no reprieve from this grim outlook. Predictably, this gets her back up.
"Tell someone in a shantytown somewhere that they are a stereotype, it is not useful for them to look at their life as a stereotype," she snaps, before implying that it is easy to speak of stereotypes from such a privileged position, though she too occupies this place.
"I don't write to give the reprieve, or so the reader can smile and say this is a good story. These are the problem stories that we hear, these are the stories we were hearing at that time. When we are looking at stereotypes they are stereotypes because there is some truth to them. I know I am writing at a time, that people are saying that we need other stories about Africa but I am someone who is socially engaged. Other writers can write those stories. We need new names was born out of the Zimbabwean experience. I started to write other stories but then the country started coming undone."
The bleak conditions in Zimbabwe around the 2008 elections, when the opposition MDC was declared the winner before a second election reinstalled Robert Mugabe as president and Zanu-PF as the ruling party, was the seed for the novel and the "home" that the young Darling would yearn to return to.
"It was a difficult time for |the country, yes, some humanity was lost as people kicked into survival mode."
Bulawayo accepts she depicts a bleak state of affairs - she feels compelled to - but suggests that the children embody a sense of hope too. "It is a difficult section of the book. It is a very depressing space, but I feel like all is not lost because things are messed up. The kids, they are funny, and they are still children.
"The kids are the most human, because they remember to keep living, they laugh, they play. If and when things come undone, people still manage to keep dreaming somehow."
During the difficult period in Zimbabwe that forms Darling's context, Bulawayo was living the US, where she immigrated to at age 18, settling in Kalamazoo Michigan. Her rendering then of this period is thus an imagined one, which she says she pieced together via news reports and stories that relatives and friends relayed to her. This may be why the text recalls newscasts, though this is what affirms its credibility. This is what complicates critiquing her heavy-handed descriptions of Zimbabwe; for they bear some relationship to the truth, even if it has been exaggerated for effect. Does she need to have first-hand experiences of the conditions she describes for them to be valid?
Bulawayo recalls debates around this issue being raised in social media during Zimbabwe's 2008 elections.
"If you are outside the country what do you know about what you are going through', some people would say. There were fierce debates about who is Zimbabwean and who has a right to questions things on the ground."
These criticisms have yet to be directed at the novel - its launch in Zimbabwe went smoothly, according to Bulawayo.
The success of Bulawayo's novel doesn't rest in her description of Zimbabwe from a child's perspective, but in summoning the complexities of identity-formation, nationhood and negotiating these ideas in exile. In the novel, she identifies four different eras - or "homes" - in the country's history; its precolonial era - "home one", its colonial period - "home two", its independence period and then its post-independent era where it has "fallen apart" which, via popular cultural references, such as the hunt for Bin Laden, situates the narrative in the not too distant past. This demonstrates how Zimbabweans of different generations are rooted in different "homes" - they belong to different places, though the same geographical location.
It is likely that this novel, her first, which was fast-tracked after she won the prestigious Caine Prize for African Writing in 2011, allows her to come to grips with the "destruction" of her homeland, a vehicle to express her anger.
"There is no way I can write about what has happened without anger because it is my country and my people who are suffering an injustice that they don't deserve. The book became more than about myself but a national project, about telling the Zimbabwean story, especially for those who were not able to tell it," she urges.
It seems likely that Bulawayo's anger is rooted in the fact that the "destruction" of her homeland prevents her from returning home, leaving her trapped between the place that is no longer "liveable" (Zimbabwe) and the place where she does not belong.
Darling, too, is caught in this |no-man's land, this perpetual state of psychic paralysis - "we will wait and wait and wait and wait |forever waiting in the air like flags of unsung countries", she writes in the book.
The psychic toll of exile is best illustrated via Tshaka Zulu, a |nostalgic immigrant who loses his grip with reality and descends into madness, though she also blames his condition on white imperialism.
Bulawayo also articulates displacement by setting up a narrative that describes Darling's time in her homeland and in exile in such terms that both places seem uninhabitable. Darling's immigrant experience of the US reveals that this pot of gold at the end of rainbow, which Zimbabweans and probably most citizens of Third World countries chase, doesn't deliver.
People live in cramped houses made from wooden planks, they work two, or three jobs and remain out of sync with the broader society.
Bulawayo was keen to expose the fate of those Zimbabweans who have been fortunate enough to find refuge in other countries, she says. However, this aspect is also the most subversive in the sense that she implies that life in the heart of democracy is in some regards no better than that in a failed African state.
This comes to light through Darling's observations about crime, violence and this seemingly schizophrenic culture in the US that inculcates overindulgence while selling "thinness" as the ideal - her Aunt Fostalina spends her leisure time perfecting her body to be able to "fit" in with this society.
Where Darling and her friends encounter violence in Paradise, in the US, young teens seek it out on the internet - Darling and her new American pals view a catalogue of porn on their laptops in the basement after school. In a way the latter is more twisted; the kids seek out a voyeuristic encounter with violence where the pay-off is assumed to be pleasure. As such, Darling paints an equally bleak picture of America, positioning it as a morally corrupt society too, though the ideologies informing it differ from those that have contributed towards Zimbabwe's.
For this reason, Darling - and perhaps even Bulawayo - is unable to feel settled there; the novel ends with her reminiscing about life in Paradise, though it is a bitter-sweet memory she recalls.
Bulawayo only returned to Zimbabwe in April this year, to be confronted with a country she no longer knew. "It was a different country. Life as I knew, the Zimbabwe of my childhood, was gone. It left me feeling like an outsider. I had to go to a space that I didn't recognise and I had to call it home. Because I stayed away for 13 years I missed the script that would have helped me to adjust. People don't realise that you are hanging out with your family, but you are having a hard time being part of them and the country."
Despite the fact that the home she knew no longer exists, she still yearns to return to it.
"Home is home, my family is still there. I don't want to be old in the US and thinking about my country, it's too painful." - published September 15, 2013.