Migration and Identity Crisis in NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names

We Need New Names is NoViolet Bulawayo’s first book whose events revolve around the crisis, poverty and disenchantment in Zimbabwe. This is a coming of age story that focuses on the lives of children whose lives are dictated by the harsh and hopeless environment they have been born into. These children suffer a lot of hardship ranging from poor shelter to inadequate feeding that they have to survive largely on their own.

The text presents the hopelessness of a country ruined by repeated maladministration and lack of foresight. Aside the primary theme of the book that is the level of decadence and decay in the country as presented by the text, there is also the matter of migration and identity crisis, which is the focus of this project. There will be an exploration of the representation of migration and identity crisis in NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need Need New Names.

In the criticism of identity crisis, there cannot be much analysis without recourse to the title of the text and the situation of its use in the text. Plagued by poverty, and the resulting effects of poverty, the children play all sorts of games and take all sorts of risks. The text represents their daily actions, and their consistent push for survival. In one of the events, one of the children, Chipo, is pregnant.

Coming in contact with such oddity with experience of a terrible past of a similar situation, the children resort to the elimination of the pregnancy. However, to eliminate the pregnancy, they assume symbolical adult roles and act as they had seen on TV. Thus, assuming these adult roles to eliminate the pregnancy, the text represents children who act adult roles of surviving and depending on their own hands to feed. The narrator writes,

I saw it on TV in Harare when I visited Sekuru Godi. ER is what they do in a hospital in America. In order to do this right, we need new names. I am Dr. Bullet, she is beautiful, and you are Dr. Roz, he is tall, Sbho says, nodding at me …

Well, that’s who I remember, either you are that or you are nothing, Sbho says, making a cutting motion across Chipo’s stomach. (183)

To perform such adult roles, they would have to switch identities. They would no longer be children, even Chipo, literally, is no longer a child, by becoming pregnant, she has become an adult. This switching of identity is what occurs as Darling leaves the country to America.  In America, Darling, like the rest of her family, would have to assume a different identity, an identity that is largely non-existent and filling in the stereotypical mindset of Americans about Africans.

Going along in agreement with the title of the text, these people migrate to America assuming new identity and mannerisms. Darling, for instance, comes across a lot of stereotypes about Africans from Americans. Even if the stereotypes are not entirely true, Darling would have to agree to such stereotypes to keep her job or to get away from problems from the Americans. Her co-workers has this perception and identity about Darling and Africans as this,

I mean, you’re like all the other kids and all but then you’re still different. You’re not full of shit. It’s an African thing, ain’t it? My cousin is dating this guy from one of them little islands in Africa and he is the sweetest guy I ever seen. Nothing like this son of a bitch, who can’t even keep a damn appointment, she says, kicking her purse. Hmmn, I say. I’m not even listening to Megan. (570)

Darling’s lack of response to Megan is to show her lack of agreement to the said words. Megan’s perception and mentality about Africa is just stereotype she has built overtime. Darling not saying any disagreeing word does not mean she agrees to that perception; however, in her future relations to Megan, she has to assume such perceptions and roles. This her reaction is totally different from the reaction she gives another of her employer in America.

Her second employer on the other hand has this perfect understanding and view of the continent of Africa, an almost utopian view. This particular event is ironical, because while the young girl suffers from slight overweight and watches what she eats, admiring the situation of Africa, Darling is made irate by the girl’s decision not to eat in the midst of food all around her. This situation is made worse by Darling’s remembrance of the hunger and anguish she suffered at home with her friends. She vents her frustration and anger on her employer as this,

But you are not the one suffering. You think watching what you are watching on BBC means you know what is going on? No, you don’t, my friend, it’s the wound that knows the texture of the pain; it’s us who stayed here feeling the real suffering, so it’s us who have a right to even say anything about that or anything and anybody, she says. (627)

Darling’s employer is as guilty of stereotyping Africa as Megan is. Even though the perception they have about Africa is on the positive side. This perception is nowhere near the actual reality on ground for Darling and other characters in the text. These characters whose thoughts have been examined have this exotic view about Africa.  Africa to them has a different reality from the actual reality on ground.

These characters having an exotic perception of Africa is not the same with the other Americans in the text. Another Darling’s employer does not have such a positive perception about Africa. To him, if America could be just bad, then Darling’s experience in Africa would be way worse. Darling would come to encounter a reality where another understanding and interpretation of Africa is given. These Americans do not know Africa in its totality, they also do not understand the lives and procedures of living in Africa.

Apart from Darling coming to discover that America is not free from crease and dirt like she thought, she would also come to discover the exaggerated or poor perception they have about Africa. Darling has failed expectations of America, gets another identity, a warped non-existent identity. In her interactions with other characters in the text, she slowly comes to accept the identity given to her. In one event in the text, while cleaning and coming to find cockroaches there, her employer has this view,

It’s just a cockroach, Jim says, turning around to give me a look, his voice sounding like he is really talking about just a cockroach. Now it has parked itself next to a can of Heineken … Come on, now, back to work, he says when he appears. You don’t have cockroaches in Africa? Jim does this thing that gets on my nerves: he always speaks as if Africa is just one country. (555)

The scenario above is cited based on two fronts of argument. Darling realizes a different American reality where to Jim it is acceptable to find cockroaches lodging in things close to eating and drinking stuffs. Jim expects that Africa’s reality would be worse off, and then has a different understanding of Africa. Darling is not comfortable with the identity he gives to her and her continent, but she does not argue about it.

Furthermore, writing about identity cannot be exhausted without writing about the different identity that Darling thought she would assume on coming to America, only to realize that all that she expected do not work all that way. In Zimbabwe, Darling and the rest of the children survive on their own by hunting the richer neighbourhood, Paradise, for fruits and food, and so they longed for a different reality where they wouldn’t have to suffer to get food. While imagining this, they assumed other foreign countries would offer better alternatives and held country like America in high esteem.

What Darling comes to discover is a country where she does menial works she had not expected. She recounts one of this experience as, “when I’m not working at the store, I have to come here, even though I don’t like the idea of cleaning somebody’s house, of picking up after someone else, because in my head this is not what I came to America for” (579). On coming to America, she assumes she would be in for greater things, but she is shocked at the reality she gets.

In another experience she recounts as she has to do two jobs even though she is not yet an adult, she writes about her experience in a dirty environment that’s supposed to be a drinking and eating place. This time, America’s identity is changed. She writes that “the beer bottles are the worst. They will come with all sorts of nasty things. Bloodstains. Pieces of trash. Cigarette stubs drowning in stale beer the color of urine, and one time, a used condom. When I started working here, back in tenth grade, I used to vomit on every shift” (556).

Even though Darling did not have in mind that she would be doing this kind of work in America, in the process of doing the work, she is disillusioned with the environment provided. Aside the environment, there is also the matter of sexual harassment and indecency that Darling and other workers of Jim would come to experience. It is Megan, Darling’s co-worker who writes of the sexual indecency at the work place as, “and I know that clown Jim was gonna let her go too because he’s trynna get into her panties, she says” (557).

The final destination of the migration of Darling and the rest of her family in America is that they are presented to a non-existent identity.  From Uncle Kojo down to Darling, they all have no identity in America. They live away from the database and records of the government. While in Zimbabwe, they are recognized by their own people, even though they are not documented; in America, they do not exist at all. The narrator presents Uncle Kojo’s situation when he was in dire need of travelling as this,

He went to the doctor and was told to take some time off,which he did, and to go home, which he couldn’t do; even though he went to college and has been here for thirty-two years and works and his son, TK, was born here and everything, Uncle Kojo still has no papers. So the best he can do is drive around. (571)

Uncle Kojo is broken further by this after losing his son to the Afghanistan war. The war makes him lose his son, and he couldn’t even connect to his home soil, breaking him further. The lack of identity or warped identity heaped on them makes them uncomfortable in America and incapable of doing certain things they are supposed to do.

Work Cited

Bulawayo, NoViolet. We Need New Names. 2013.

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