NoViolet Bulawayo—pen name for Elizabeth Zandile Tshele, is the author of ‘We Need New Names’ a novel whose first chapter ‘Hitting Budapest’ won the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2011.The novel was also awarded the Pen/Hemingway Award for Debut Fiction and was short listed for the Man Booker Prize. NoViolet means ‘with’ in Ndebele a Southern African language and Violet is the name of her late mother who passed away when she was 18 months old. Bulawayo is her hometown in Zimbabwe where she grew up. NoViolet is currently a Stegner fellow at Standford University. AfroElle caught up with the Zimbabwean writer during a book signing in Kampala to talk about her debut novel and her writing. | Interview by Brenda Ibarah
Photo credit: Gareth Smith
While reading ‘We Need New Names’ I was struck by the spectacular names of the characters and the title of the book itself, how did you come up with the title and what influenced the names of the characters?
The title of the book was a happy accident. I actually came up with a list of possible titles and I had decided on a different title altogether when I chanced upon ‘We Need New Names’. I settled for it because it spoke volumes about what I was going for in the book. The names in the book are a celebration of my culture. All our names mean something and speak something. In this story, I was writing about the things that were happening at home and by giving my characters such names I was also quietly saying ‘we need new names, we need a new president, a new reality’. I call this book a love letter to my country. I also believe it applies to the rest of Africa. So much needs to be done and we need new ways of doing things.
Darling was inspired by a photograph of a kid in Zimbabwe who was sitting next to the remains of what had been his home after it had been bulldozed. The operation had been carried out by the government to destroy all informal settlements. As I looked at this photograph, I wondered to myself what would happen to him now, where would he go and how would his story unfold. I imagined his life after his home was destroyed and that is why Darling ends up in the United States. I also wanted to share the story of the many Darlings I know of who leave Africa to go abroad expecting paradise only to be disappointed by the hardships they face including race. I personally left Zim when I was a little older than Darling but I experienced the same things as her. People found my accent strange and I also struggled with school tuition. So my characters cut across between my experiences and of those around me.
One of the scenes that caught my attention was the abortion scene where one of the young girls has been impregnated by her grandfather and Darling and the others try to remove the pregnancy using a coat hanger but they have no idea how it’s done. What does this scene mean to you and how do you manage to write about such confronting issues?
I have had many people come up to me asking about the abortion scene. Some people applaud it while others think I went too far with it. Some have even asked why the little girl had to be raped by her grandfather of all people, that I should have used someone else. But I do not write stories to make anyone comfortable. I am very sensitive when it comes to issues of child abuse and as someone who has been a girl child before; I know how powerless they can be. It is very unfortunate how girls are abused. I feel it’s my responsibility to tell their stories and engage people in these issues even if they don’t like them. They may not like them but they will talk about them.
The story of Darling and her friends is pretty sad but I could not help but laugh along the way in spite of the harsh circumstances that the children were faced with. You somehow managed to capture their playfullness and humour regardless of their demise. What were you going for with that?
I was raised in a home filled with laughter. No matter how hard things would get, people would find humor amidst tough times. Growing up, the women around me had a certain lightness and humor that they carried with them that made you forget that they had any problems at all. I think it’s an African thing. You have to maintain a sense of humor lest you go crazy. Also as a writer, I feel that readers are often times bombarded with serious literature and they just can’t take it sometimes and so I had to keep it lighthearted.
You also tackle the issue of foreign aid with wit and humor. What were you going for and do you think you achieved it?
I just wanted to talk about foreign aid differently. Yes, everyone knows about the evils of foreign aid but when you hear about something in the same way over and over again, it becomes monotonous. I wanted to engage people in these issues without sounding boring. I hate sounding like a broken record so I had to play around with the issue but also make sure that it leaves a reader confronted and I’d like to think that I did that.
I have read that, your family didn’t know about your writing until you won the Caine Prie for African Writing. Can you tell us a bit about that?
That was definitely a huge secret I carried around for a long time. My father thought I was studying law. I remember having to lie to my family about why I was taking so long to graduate. They kept on asking when I would start working and start sending them money but I just kept telling them that I was finishing soon. I even got to a point where I made the tough decision not send them any money when I started working because I had to pay for my tuition. It’s a sacrifice I had to make . Of course I would have loved to tell them the truth from the beginning but my father is so old school I couldn’t ask him to understand why I wanted to write. I’m just glad all that is out of the way now.
Did you always want to be a writer?
Actually I didn’t think much about being a writer, all I know is that I liked writing and when I started writing I didn’t know that it would turn into a career. I wrote because I enjoyed it. In a way writing for the sake of it protected me from writing for other reasons like money or fame or whatever. I’m glad that I was unaware of all that and that helped me to find myself on my own terms without the pressure of making it as a writer.
There’s a lot of characterization of writers who as ‘African Writers’ and if they are women they are ‘women writers’. What are your thoughts on such labels?
We live in a world where we cannot escape some of these labels. We have all sorts of labels and African writer is a label I embrace because it’s true, I am African and that doesn’t take away anything from me as a writer. I’m comfortable with my Africanness and when I write about my country, I’m writing about my Zimbabwe and I like that my Zimbabwe is mine to own.
As for being labelled a woman writer, I‘m okay with that. I am a woman who writes women’s stories. It comes naturally to me because I relate to some of their stories and I feel it’s my responsibility to tell them. I don’t cease to be a writer because I’m called a woman writer or African writer for that matter.
What are your thoughts on the progress of African literature?
I think we are doing quite well. I love how there’s so much talent especially in the young people. I also like that we are investing in our young writers. Many are coming through to tell their stories and I’m at peace knowing that our stories will always be told.