Let’s talk about why we should read books like We Need New Names

index1) It’s a fantastic novel. NoViolet Bulawayo’s debut novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2013 and won a bunch of other prestigious awards that I’m not going to list. It’s beautiful and that should be reason enough to read it. ‘But there are lots of beautiful books out there!’ you say. Please read on if you require a reason more complex than ‘because it’s good and I said so.’

2) Do you remember last week when I complained about We were liars and about the lack of diversity in popular young adult fiction? When I argued that we, as readers, have to start paying attention to characters that aren’t tall, blond, beautiful and rich and who have problems besides mean grandfathers who might withhold their trust funds? Perhaps the story of a child growing up in Zimbabwe and then transplanted to the American midwest might be a good place to start. Perhaps that child will have problems more complex than boys and bank accounts.

3) Yesterday as I rode the streetcar home and read We need new names, I sat beside two people who happened to be talking about Africa. The two knew each other, but not well. She said that she did a short stint as a student physiotherapist in rural Kenya and talked about going on safari through the Serengeti and encountering the Masai people. He had completed part of his education in Cape Town and had lived there for a year. Recently he went back and did an overland trip and was appalled that one of the attractions had been a visit to a Masai village. He was uncomfortable with the idea that poverty was being used as a tourist attraction. She sheepishly admitted that she hadn’t thought of it that way. All the while Darling, the protagonist of We need new names, is having her picture taken over and over by a team from an NGO that comes a few times a year with candy and toys. They take pictures and then they leave again. Darling can’t figure out why white people are so obsessed with taking pictures of her torn clothes and misery.

4) It didn’t dawn on me until about halfway through that the novel was set in Zimbabwe. We [North Americans] tend to think of Africa as a pretty homogenous dangerous place but if you’re spent any time there you’ll know how different individuals countries and regions are in terms of culture, safety, cleanliness, climate and so on. I was surprised because I hadn’t realized Zimbabwe was all that bad. Ignorant, right? My husband’s family is from Zimbabwe, only they still call it Rhodesia, and I’ve never thought  about that but it’s all I’m thinking about now. Thinking about new names for places and what the idea of Rhodesia means to my husband’s family and what Zimbabwe means to Darling’s family.

 

1 +2+3+4 = Reading books about people who are very different from you will teach you as much about yourself as it does about other people.

 

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