Identifying the connection between land, language and identity through narrative analysis in ‘We Need New Names’ by NoViolet Bulawayo

NoViolet Bulawayo’s choice of narration in her novel, We Need New Names, is a story in itself. The voice of the narrator speaks to the growth of a young Zimbabwean girl who transforms and matures after relocating to the United States of America (USA) in her teenage years. The narration is in the first person, where the protagonist, Darling, recounts her life experiences in Zimbabwe and the USA. Bulawayo has written the narration in a linear progression which chronicles Darling’s life in chronological order from childhood to adolescence. Darling’s use of language changes as the novel progresses. In this essay, I will analyse the features of Darling’s narration in relation to the changes in narrative style that indicate Darling’s coming of age. I will begin with a discussion of the dialogue between Darling and her friends, followed by an interpretation of the songs and symbolism used in the novel.  

At the beginning of the novel, Darling is a young girl, and her voice amongst her friends is quite strong. She is opinionated amongst her friends (Bastard, Chipo, Godknows, Sbho and Stina). Her speech is vulgar at times, and she insults people by name-calling in negative ways. Her friends speak in a similar way. It is their style of speaking, based on their socio-cultural background in rural Zimbabwe. Darling uses the repetition of words to emphasise descriptions instead of using strong adjectives as descriptors. As an example, she repeats the word ‘big’ when describing the houses in Budapest (Bulawayo 2013:8), instead of using a stronger adjective such as ‘huge’, ‘enormous’ or ‘gigantic’. This indicates her lack of Standard English vocabulary, and draws attention to her Afrianised version of English. Later in the novel, whilst Darling is new in the USA, her voice loses strength as she  loses confidence in herself in her new surroundings. This is due to the alienation she feels from being in a foreign country, and from the bullying she experiences at her American school. Darling recounts: 

When I first arrived at Washington I just wanted to die. The other kids teased me about my name, my accent, my hair, the way I talked or said things, the way I dressed, the way I laughed. When you are being teased about something, at first you try to fix it so the teasing can stop but then those crazy kids teased me about everything, even the things I couldn’t change, and it kept going and going so that in the end I just felt wrong in my skin, in my body, in my clothes, in my language, in my head, everything (Bulawayo 2013:106). 

As a result of being teased about her appearance, way of speaking, accent and mannerisms, Darling consciously decides to change her identity. Darling tries to become more American in the way she carries herself. She does not like that her voice has weakened in America; she does not want to lose the strong voice which she had in Zimbabwe so she chooses to adapt to her new environment. Darling decides: 

I have decided the best way to deal with it all is to sound American, and the TV has taught me just how to do it. It’s pretty easy; all you have to do is watch Dora the Explorer, The Simpsons, SpongeBob, Scooby-Doo, and then you move on to That’s So Raven, Glee, Friends, Golden Girls, and so on, just listening and imitating the accents. If you do it well, then before you know it, nobody will ask you to repeat what you said. I also have my list of American words that I keep under the tongue like talismans, ready to use: pretty good, pain in the ass, for real, awesome, totally, skinny, dude, freaking, bizarre, psyched, messed up, like, tripping, motherfucker, clearance, allowance, douchebag, you’re welcome, acting up, yikes. The TV has also taught me that if I’m talking to someone, I have to look him in the eye, even if it is an adult, even if it’s rude. I don’t know why Aunt Fostalina doesn’t think to learn American speech like this, seeing how it would make her life easier so she wouldn’t have to have a hard time like she is right now (Bulawayo 2013:123). 

Darling begins to incorporate American obscenities and slang words into her language to replace the vulgar and slang African words which she used to say in Zimbabwe. As an example, she replaces the word “kaka” (Bulawayo 2013:7) with “shit” (Bulawayo 2013:180). As Darling assimilates to a new culture, her language and narrative style change. 

By the end of the novel, Darling’s use of American colloquialisms comes naturally to her. Without thinking, she uses the word “dude” in front of her uncle to describe Bin Laden. She only realises after she has said it, “That terrorist dude, I say. I catch myself too late, but today Uncle Kojo doesn’t say anything to me for using the word ‘dude’” (Bulawayo 2013:181). Darling’s use of Standard English has also improved by the end of the novel. She uses grammatically correct sentences more frequently. Not only has Darling’s English language skills improved, but so has her levels of maturity, as she uses less vulgarity when speaking.   

After a few years in America, Darling has grown from a girl to a teenager. The experiences of broadening her horizons, encountering other cultures, and facing personal traumas through bullying and homesickness, have changed her. In America, Darling is introduced to new technology. She finds herself texting her friends on her mobile phone using English abbreviations such as: 

u weren’t thr, Marina texts.

wtevr. guess wht? I text.

wht? she texts.

i made up w. Tony, I text.

wht? she texts.

out. made out w. Tony, I text. 

OMG! she texts, and before I respond, she adds, whr? hw ws it? wait, he’s not gay? (Bulawayo 2013:174-175) 

Darling also tries to describe things without knowing the right words to use. As an example, she refers to the sound made by the microwave as “nting” (Bulawayo 2013:100). Darling is in the process of encountering new things, and must learn a new set of vocabulary to go with these new items. All of this leads to Darling’s growth as a person, and as a speaker of the English language. However, Darling finds herself at breaking point, and has an outburst by vandalising the walls of her bedroom. During the upheaval of her life, Darling seeks to find belonging in a foreign land. Darling finds herself within a group of outsiders in America, these being illegal immigrants in the USA. 

As Darling joins this group of fellow Africans abroad, she begins to take on the identity of the group, and with this, there is a change in Darling’s narrative style. The narrative remains in the first person, but shifts from “I” to “we”. Darling speaks on behalf of all Africans living illegally in the USA. Darling finds a place for herself within a collective, and this broadens her thinking from an individual mindset to a community-based mindset. Darling’s communal voice has changed as a result of her new circle of friends. Her community made up of Bastard, Chipo, Godknows, Sbho and Stina is replaced by the African migrant workers in the USA. Frassinelli (2015:720) has made the same observation about Darling’s new communal voice; she writes: 

By the time they [African migrants] manage to reinvent their new life in the United States, the nationally identified “those” who “are crossing borders”, whom we met in the middle of the novel, have reconstituted themselves into a “we” whose being in common is marked by the recognition of their shared condition and fate.

Within Darling’s group of new friends, she can enjoy a blend of American and African life. Whilst living in the USA, they cook African food, and understand each other on a cultural level. During this part of the novel, there is a reversal in the narrative. At the beginning of the novel, Darling and her friends (Bastard, Chipo, Godknows, Sbho and Stina) are in Africa while speaking (and dreaming) about countries abroad. They compare parts of Zimbabwe to foreign countries, and describe the developed countries which Africans want to live in: 

But first we have to fight over the names because everybody wants to be certain countries, like everybody wants to be the U.S.A. and Britain and Canada and Australia and Switzerland and France and Italy and Sweden and Germany and Russia and Greece and them. These are the country-countries. If you lose the fight, then you must have to settle for countries like Dubai and South Africa and Botswana and Tanzania and them. They are not country-countries, but at least life is better than here. Nobody wants to be rags of countries like Congo, like Somalia, like Iraq, like Sudan, like Haiti, like Sri Lanka, and not even this one we live in – who wants to be a terrible place of hunger and things falling apart? (Bulawayo 2013:34)

By the end of the novel, Darling and her new African friends in America are in a foreign country, and thinking back to life in Africa. They try to revive their African heritage in their gatherings where they eat traditional African food, and dance to African music:

The uncles and aunts bring goat insides and cook ezangaphakathi and sadza and mbhida and occasionally they will bring amacimbi, which is my number one favorite relish, umfushwa, and other foods from home, and people descend on the food like they haven’t eaten all their lives. They tear off the sthwala with their bare hands, hastily roll and dip it in relish and pause briefly to look at one another before shoving it in their mouths. Then they carefully chew, tilting their heads to the side as if the food speaks and they are listening to the taste, and then their faces light up. When they cook home food, even Aunt Fostalina will forget she is on a fruit diet. After the food comes the music. They play Majaivana, play Solomon Skuza, play Ndux Malax, Miriam Makeba, Lucky Dube, Brenda Fassie, Paul Matavire, Hugh Masekela, Thomas Mapfumo, Oliver Mtukudzi—old songs I remember from when I was little, from Mother and Father and the adults singing them. Some of the songs I don’t know because Uncle Charley says I wasn’t even born then. When they dance, I always stand by the door and watch because it is something to see (Bulawayo 2013:103). 

This reversal in the narration shows that Darling has come full circle in expanding her personal vision, and view of the world. The change of the identity which is demonstrated in the narrative, is emphasised in the title of the novel. We Need New Names as a title directly indicates that African migrants (we) need to change their identity (names).  

The crux of the matter in this narrative is that Darling (and African migrants) experience some form of identity crisis when moving to a Western country because they feel lost without their language and land. According to McLaren (2009:97): “The move to erase Africanised linguistic elements in the social sphere suggests an underlying dilemma of identity.” This is the type of identity crisis Darling and her African migrant friends experience in America when they are mocked and excluded for their Africanised English. McLaren (2009:98) points out that terms like ‘broken English’ and ‘non-standard English’ have negative connotations which are derogatory of individuals from the African diaspora who use English as a language of communication. Due to these negative connotations, Darling feels the need to change her way of speaking English. Furthermore, Magosvongwe and Nyamende (2015:237-238) point out that Africans’ identity is tied to land through their beliefs in spirituality. Darling’s separation from the land of her ancestors exacerbates her feelings of isolation and alienation, therefore leading her to find a social circle where she can relate to in terms of the challenges with identity in a foreign culture. These are the issues which Darling and her friends experience that lead to their feelings of exclusion from American society. 

Darling’s narrative is filled with songs from her childhood. She refers to songs sung by herself, her friends and her community members: 

Kill the Boer, the farmer, the khiwa!

Strike fear in the heart of the white man!

White man, you have no place here, go back, go home!

Africa for Africans, Africa for Africans!

Kill the Boer, the farmer, the khiwa!  (Bulawayo 2013:72)

Tshiya lumhlaba, lentozawo,

thabath’ isphambano ulandele,

ngcono ngiz’ hambele mina ngalindlela,

tshiya lumhlaba, lentozawo  (Bulawayo 2013:89)

Sobashiy’ abafowethu

Savuka sawela kwamany’ amazwe

Laph’ okungazi khon’ ubaba lomama

S’landel’ inkululeko  (Bulawayo 2013:102)

Who discovered the way to India?

Vasco da Gama! Vasco da Gama!

Vasco da Gama! Vasco da Gama! (Bulawayo 2013:139)

These songs are representative of Darling’s rich and complex cultural identity. The songs are in different languages, showing that Darling is exposed to several languages in childhood. The socio-political, cultural, and historical elements of these songs live inside Darling’s memory, forming a part of her personal history and identity, which accompanies her to the USA where she encounters new languages, dialects, and other linguistic styles. Similar to reference to songs, Bulawayo uses symbolism to convey meaning. 

Throughout the novel, Darling makes reference to guavas. In the context of stealing guavas from rich white people’s homes in Zimbabwe (Bulawayo 2013:6,11), the guavas represent wealth. Darling and her childhood friends are hungry, they have no access to food so they steal guavas from the rich neighbourhoods to fill their stomachs. Even though the guavas cause physical pain through constipation (Bulawayo 2013:15) and jeopardises the children’s safety (due to the risk of being caught stealing), they continue to steal the guavas because it is their only option for food. Later, when Darling is in the USA, Messenger brings her guavas from Zimbabwe; this makes Darling happy as she fondly remembers her country, and friends (Bulawayo 2013:118). She also feels happy knowing that her friends at home still remember her. This gift of guavas from Messenger to Darling, shows that Darling and her fellow migrant workers have now attained the wealth in America which they did not have in Zimbabwe. Their move to America is successful because they can now afford to buy the guavas which they once had to steal. In addition to guavas, Bulawayo writes about stones symbolically. 

Darling refers to stones when she is talking about anger, violence and crime. When describing Chipo who has been sexually molested and impregnated by her grandfather, she says that Chipo has breasts as small as stones (Bulawayo 2013:7), and a stomach as hard as stones (Bulawayo 2013:54). She also references kicking stones when talking about the bulldozers destroying their homes (Bulawayo 2013:44), and throwing stones at each other (Bulawayo 2013:69). Stones as memorials for the dead are also described (Bulawayo 2013:85). Stones seem to be a metaphor for occurrences that cause pain, while the Chinese fortune cookies which the children eat, seem to foreshadow the future lives of the children. The fortune cookies state: 

Godknows’ said If you eat a box of fortune cookies, anything is possible. Bastard’s said Your talents will be recognized and suitably rewarded. Chipo’s said If I bring forth what is inside me, what I bring forth will save me. Sbho’s said The nightlife is for you. Stina’s said A new pair of shoes will do you a world of good; lucky numbers 7, 13, 2, 9, 4. And mine said Your future will be happy and productive (Bulawayo 2013:32). 

Foreshadowing is also used to predict death in the novel. The first chapter ends with the hanged women, and the last chapter ends with the death of the dog. During the novel, Darling’s father, Bornfree, Tshaka Zulu and Bin Laden die. Each of these deaths represent the different types of problems affecting Zimbabweans: Darling father’s death represents the HIV/AIDS pandemic, Bornfree’s death represents the political violence in the country, Tshaka Zulu’s death represents mental illness from the trauma of the displacement, and Bin Laden’s death represents the impact of global affairs on Zimbabwe. Each of these deaths, and the issues which they symbolise, affect and transform Darling personally in her developmental youthful years. Bin Laden’s death also symbolises the closing of a chapter in Darling’s life. The book begins with Darling playing the game, Find Bin Laden, and it ends with Bin Laden being captured and killed by the Americans. During the span of the search for Bin Laden, Darling’s life went through multiple changes; she endured several transformative experiences during this period until she settled down in America.  

In conclusion, it can be summarised that Darling’s narrative voice changes as she grows older, and encounters new experiences. During her childhood in Zimbabwe, Darling speaks “broken English”, uses obscenities when talking to her friends, and name-calls people in insulting ways. As Darling transitions into expatriate life in America, she is mocked for her way of speaking and accent. This prompts Darling to Americanise her language, which results in changes in the narrative style. Finally, as Darling matures in America, she shifts from a personal perspective to a collective perspective where she begins to identify with a larger body of people of similar identity (African migrants in America). Darling’s changing identity reflects in the shifting narrative styles at the different stages of Darling’s life, as she expands her awareness from a limited space to a larger global perspective. Darling’s hybrid identity combines the British English she learns in Zimbabwe, her own Africanised version of English, and the Americanised English she learns in the USA. The transformations within Darling create a strong narrative voice which tells a powerful story about the struggles facing young Africans who move to Western countries, and how they cope with and overcome the difficulties surrounding language, land and identity. 


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