Reagan Arthur Books, 2013
Reviewed by Patrick McGinty
I often feel uncomfortable looking at photos of children in Zimbabwe. I realize that discomfort is largely the point of such photos, but when National Geographic features these children—smiling or maybe sad, half-clothed or less than—the scenario never feels authentic to me. I’m overly conscious of the fact that the scene before me has been carefully arranged. Even if I allow for the most thoughtful, hands-off photographer imaginable, there’s still the problem of the kids. Rather than humanize them, such exercises often make these children feel even more distant, their thoughts impenetrable. They’re no doubt putting on forlorn or upbeat faces for the camera, but what are these kids actually feeling? Do they feel exposed? Do they look into that camera and think that help is somewhere on the other side of the lens?
NoViolet Bulawayo writes of such hopes then strips them bare in We Need New Names, her debut novel that is rightfully being praised as one of the year’s best fiction releases. Like the author, the main character Darling is a Zimbabwean-born immigrant to the United States. The novel’s first half covers her life in Zimbabwe, while the second charts her transition to DestroyedMichigan (Detroit, Michigan). Immigration and emigration, the AIDS epidemic, the false promise of the American Dream and the U.S. education system: all of these themes are given a fresh if cynical take in Darling’s authentic voice (“school is so easy in America even a donkey would pass”). But what makes the book so memorable in a year of strong releases is Bulawayo’s ability to cleave open our hardened, stock understanding of a term like “Children in Africa” with scenes that expose the process of exposure. Witness the beginning of a moment in which a photographer takes photos of Darling and her friends, one of whom is pregnant:
“After we sit, the man starts taking pictures with his big camera, They just like taking pictures, these NGO people, like maybe we are their real friends and relatives and they will look at the pictures later and point us out by name to other friends and relatives once they get back to their homes. They don’t care that we are embarrassed by our dirt and torn clothing, that we would prefer they didn’t do it; they just take the pictures anyway, take and take. We don’t complain because we know that after the picture-taking comes the giving of gifts.
Then the cameraman tells us to stand up and it continues. He doesn’t tell us to say cheese so we don’t. When he sees Chipo, with her stomach, he stands there so surprised I think he is going to drop the camera. Then he remembers what he came here to do and starts taking away again, this time taking lots of pictures of Chipo.”
Here Darling disavows us of the notion that the exercise is in any way “real.” In the syntax, there is an authentic childlike exacerbation with the proceedings (“take and take,” “taking away again”). The scene could stop here and feel complete—plenty is conveyed by a photographer taking pictures of a pregnant girl who doesn’t want her picture taken. But Bulawayo lingers in the scene a bit longer, stripping nearly all of the characters naked in ways literal and metaphoric:
“Now the camerman pounces on Godknow’s black buttocks. Bastard points and laughs, and Godknows turns around and covers the holes of his shorts with his hands, but he cannot completely hide his nakedness. We are all laughing at Godknows. When the camerman gets to Bastard, Bastard takes off his hat and smiles like he is something handsome. Then he makes all sorts of poses: flexes his muscles, puts his hands on the waist, does the V sign, kneels with one knee on the ground.
You are not supposed to laugh or smile. Or any of that silly stuff you are doing, Godknows says.
You are just jealous because all they took of you are your buttocks. Your dirty, chapped, kaka buttocks, Bastard says.
No, I’m not. What’s to be jealous about, you ugly face? Godknows says even though he can be beaten up for those words.
I can do what I want, black buttocks. Besides, when they look at my picture over there, I want them to see me. Not my buttocks, not my dirty clothes, but me.”
These children are not merely objects in a photo shoot or subjects in an essay. They aren’t grouped under a name like refugees or Lost Boys or child soldiers. They are fiction’s greatest asset: real, authentic characters. They are vain. They laugh. They’re petty. The photographer seeks out their nakedness and they both hide themselves and oblige. My hangups from above—what’s the incentive here? who’s framing this? is it real?—seem foolish when being confronted by the most basic feature of these characters, a quality that a thousand photo spreads can somehow make you forget: they are children.
This isn’t meant to discredit photojournalism, nonfiction, or any other medium that does the hard work of untangling life in Zimbabwe. Rather, it’s a exciting example of how a novel can still turn distant “subjects” and “objects” into realized characters. The moment with the photographer (which continues on) was one of the best moments of art I’ve experienced this year, and there are dozens of such moments in this wonderful debut, each of them reaffirming my belief that fiction can push us past sympathy and toward empathy when it comes to our relationship with distant cultures, be they a school district in Zimbabwe or Detroit, Michigan.
Patrick McGinty is a writer living in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Zyzzyva and Propeller Magazine.