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In Conversation: NoViolet Bulawayo

When Zimbawe’s NoViolet Bulawayo, who was recently shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, won the 2011 Caine Prize for African Writing, for her short story, Hitting Budapest, the unanimous consensus was that a new literary star was born. Her debut novel, We Need New Names, is a poignant and thought-provoking narrative about her homeland., which she intricately tells through her lead characters, Darling and her peers Bastard, Godknows, Sbho, Stina and Cjhipo. So, just how did she cleverly weave a story that will tug at you emotionally and make you laugh at the same time? 

we need new namesThe themes that jump at you include “Parental neglect, political instability, lost childhood, the burden of shame”… how did each one come to you and contributed to your ability to dig deep and bring these different issues to the fore and explore them like you have as it relates to Zimbabwe?

These themes came to me because they are urgent, in one way or the other, and I’m speaking here as an empathetic human being concerned about the state of my country, my world and the universe. Zimbabwe is emerging from a rough decade where things fell apart in ways that made these issues prominent, and naturally provide a soundtrack to Zim life, so in a way I didn’t have to hunt for them, they were just there in your face. They haunt most Zim writing that came out of the time, not just mine alone by the way. I’ll own I happen to believe in art that is socially engaged, is against wrongs, and promotes dialogue, and changes attitudes, and this is part of how I arrive at my themes. At the same time it’s worth remembering that you look around in any society you will find these things, they are not necessarily my story or a Zimbabwean story or issue, they are simply real issues affecting real people across borders today and now.

Did writing the book make you revise any impressions you had of your own childhood or see events in a different way?

The book is not autobiographical. The events are created. But I suppose I did look back to my childhood which was full of laughter and beauty and awesome friendships to get the energy that would fuel my child characters.

The names – Darling, Bastard, GodKnows, Mother of Bones – are they symbolic of anything and how in the world did you come up with such humorous names, given the serious nature of the story that is unravelling in their lives?

I come from a culture where names speak, are carefully thought out, and mean something, and since I look at We Need New Names as a painting of my culture among other things, of course I had to bring that dynamic though of course it feels natural to me versus a gimmick cause. I have friends with names like Forgiveness, Knowledge, Moreblessing, so what do you expect? With my characters, I look at who they are as people and carefully give illuminating names that serve more than being a label that says something and anything from character to circumstance. I think it’s a pretty sensible way of going about life and I suspect it’s going be my trademark.


For the complete interview, click on pdf: NoVolet Bulawayo: We Need New Names




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