We Need New Names
In We Need New Names, Darling grows up in Zimbabwe among a pack of children in the specter of poverty and violence. School has been canceled because the teachers have all gone to neighboring countries where the pay is higher. Many adults, including Darling’s father, who had been in South Africa for years without contacting his family, contracted AIDS (“The Sickness”). Others, like Darling’s mother, have to travel long distances for work or to sell their goods. The children steal guavas from Budapest–the wealthy neighborhood–to assuage their hunger and act out games like find bin Laden. One of their crew, an eleven-year-old-girl, is pregnant as the result of incest.
The first half of the novel, set in Zimbabwe, is amazing, as it describes very adult problems through a child’s eyes. When an angry group of men evict a white couple from their house and the children observe from a hiding place in a guava tree, once the men take the couple away, the children quickly forget the violence to take glee in jumping on the bed in the destroyed home and eating the food left in the kitchen. A visit from an NGO to distribute packages–including toy guns to children–is especially poignant.
For me, though, I thought the book lost focus when Darling moved to the United States with her Aunt Fostalina. Darling recounts the painful position of not-belonging and of being unable to return to visit Zimbabwe because of money and her visa status. To fit in, she emulated her peers, going so far as to adopt an American accent, but she was never accepted fully by them. At the same time, she was estranged from her family and friends in Zimbabwe who either didn’t understand her life in America or who felt she abandoned the country. As a result, she lost a vital connection with herself. I empathize with these themes, but feel they were presented more skillfully in Behold the Dreamers and Amerikanah. I also did not care at all for how the book ended.
I do though think We Need New Names is valuable to read for the rich content of the first half and the insight it provides into growing up in Zimbabwe.