x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Race for the prize

Debut novelist NoViolet Bulawayo speaks about landing on the Man Booker Prize shortlist.

NoViolet Bulawayo, author of We Need New Names. llustration by Alex Belman/The National
NoViolet Bulawayo, author of We Need New Names. llustration by Alex Belman/The National

The world will find out today who has won one of the most important literary awards, the Man Booker Prize. The first Zimbabwean ever to be shortlisted, NoViolet Bulawayo, was in Cape Town when she learnt that her first novel, the lyrical We Need New Names, had been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

“Such a perfect space to hear such news,” says Bulawayo, who was a featured speaker at the city’s Open Book festival. “I was surrounded by book people and fans.”

Bulawayo – which is a pen name, borrowed from the city that she grew up in – says that she doesn’t really come from a book family. When she moved to the United States, the family expectation was that she would study law, not creative writing, though she went on to earn an MFA from Cornell University.

Her novel’s narrator, Darling, is a young girl in Zimbabwe who spends her days with her friends stealing guavas, playing games, and dreaming of escaping to paradise locations including America, France and Dubai. Darling seems to win the golden ticket out of Zim’s landscape of poverty and Aids with a fresh start in the US.

The distinct clarity of the child’s voice has won rave reviews from heavyweight critics around the world.

At just 31, Bulawayo is the youngest contender this year, and the first Zimbabwean ever to be shortlisted. Previous winners from Africa are Nadine Gordimer, J M Coetzee (twice) and Ben Okri.

Bulawayo travels next to Zimbabwe to launch the novel there, before heading back to California, where she is a fellow at Stanford.

Congratulations on moving from the longlist to the shortlist. To which did you have a stronger reaction?

I didn’t even know that my book had been nominated, so [the longlist] was a shock. The shortlist was another shock. Scarier than the first. It’s a wonderful recognition and I’m very much encouraged to keep working.

The children in We Need New Names play the country game: “If you lose the fight, then you just have to settle for countries like Dubai and South Africa … They are not country-countries, but at least life is better than here.” How did Dubai get on the list?

That was a real game. I think that it sort of mirrors the larger politics of the world, power play within countries, the superior countries, the weaker countries.

During the Lost Decade, Zimbabweans were all over the place. I had friends in Dubai, and I remember [asking]: “What on Earth are you doing in Dubai?” Growing up, it wasn’t the country that was in our imaginations. What was in our imaginations was the US and UK. It’s quite interesting how that part of the world has become part of Zimbabwe’s narrative.

Then of course, Darling “wins” the real country game: she gets to go to America. She’s quite young, and doesn’t really appreciate what the intercultural challenges may be.

Children sort of live in the moment. For them it’s enough that they are going to America. But of course she gets there and finds a very different reality. No matter how much food she eats in America, she is always hungry for home, and then you do get the loss of self. Just being in limbo, never quite belonging. At the end, she is calling home and her friend is reminding her that she left the country, so [she has] no right to complain.

How does the oral culture that you were raised in affect your storytelling?

During the holidays, we went to the rural areas where we would meet my grandmother and storytelling was the daily form of entertainment. I grew up thinking that it was just normal, that the world was told through stories. And my father was also a storyteller. At school, I’d always be telling stories to my friends.

I started reading books and found a connection: they were also stories, just like the ones I had heard. It really gives a lot to my voice in that when I write, I think of a listener, not necessarily a reader.

I think the connection with told stories is more urgent, more true. You get one to two minutes to engage them, which taught me about voice and urgency. Which is why, when I write, my challenge is to write something that the reader can’t put down.