Monday, June 23, 2014

Reflections: We Need New Names

Short-listed for the Man Booker Prize and garnering some prestigious literary awards, this is a powerful and raw debut novel that candidly addresses the inter-tangled issues of immigration, identity, and coming of age. Darling is a young ten year old girl in the poverty-striken, ravaged land of Zimbabwe. She and her friends live through their family's despair by playing simple games through which they try to live their fantasies of living a better life; a life in the precious country of United States, a life where they can wear good clothes, eat decent food, go to good schools, and lead a dignified life. Darling's aunt lives in the United States, so Darling nurtures the strong hope that she would one day leave her wretched country and her bitter memories, and start a new life in America. One day, she manages to go to the U.S. But reality is different.

In the U.S, her aunt lives in a different kind of poverty and desperation. Darling sees her aunt working round the clock to send money and materials to the hungry family in Zimbabwe that assumes that everyone in the U.S lives a wealthy, comfortable life. The family back home appears parasitic to Darling. Amidst all the changes, confusions, and bitterness, Darling grows into a teenager who realizes she is now in no-man's land. She does not have enough money to go back home, nor a valid visa status to legally study or work in the U.S. Her only option is to work for low wages, be in constant hiding from the authorities, and make ends meet in a foreign land that does not offer any of the things she was hoping for. She has to face the heart twisting reality of probably never seeing her mom, her friends, or feel the familiarity of her land again.

When I read the book last November, I did not think much of it. It seemed like yet another book on immigration concerning a lost African child. What did strike me was how confident the writing was, and how un-apologetically raw, sharp and honest everything about it was. It has a rather abrupt ending, but rightfully so, because such stories have no ending in real life. Such real life stories are left hanging, just like the people that are hanging onto fragments of their past and present in hopes of making something of a future. I have realized that the more I let a book live with me in my thoughts, the more I learn about it, the more honed and mature my opinions of it are. After all these months, thinking about this book has made me revise my initial neutrality towards it. All the scenarios described in the book are coming back to me with rich, vivid frames that will always stay in my memory when I think about immigrants that have left their lands to barely make ends meet. And I think such strong recollections of key scenarios and characters of the book are marks of a good book. I can forget the story and the details, but I will never forget Darling's emotions and that of her aunt's. I may even forget Darling's name, but not some of the core scenes.

There is one scene in specific that clinched the book's essence. It's something I will always remember. Darling's aunt who is making her living in the U.S. decides to phone-order something for herself from Victoria's Secret. Her conversation with the sales representative from Victoria's Secret was so poignant and evocative of all her internal struggles and sadness that I will never forget the emotions that transpired. Her struggle to make herself understood to a foreign representative, her adamance to not change her accent because it is who she is, and her attempt at convincing herself and the girl on the line that she can, she ought to, and she deserves to order an expensive inner garment for herself said it all about the illegal immigrant experience.

Zimbabwe's socio-political scene is extremely complicated and riddled with historic legacies of racism. Bulawayo doesn't go into details, but merely outlines crucial aspects of it through the observations of a child's eye. This makes it all the more tragic.

In all, this is a strong and impressive debut novel that seems to require some time and reflection for the raw sadness to settle in. Although the book is short and the writing is simple, the writing evokes scenes and characters in a unique way, making the book memorable and powerful. I am looking forward to more of Bulawayo's books!

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