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“We Need New Names” by Bulawayo

The main character of We Need New Names is called Darling. The first half of the book follows her in a post-colonial Zimbabwe. Even though the country is officially independent, it is going through dramatic changes and is economically unstable. Later, Darling moves to her aunt living in the U. S. but cannot call America her new home. The novel discusses various topics, such as childhood in an impoverished, recently independent post-colonial country. It also talks about faith and the conflict between imposed Christianity and local religions, the struggle to believe in God under harsh circumstances. This essay discusses the novel’s perspective on migration and migrant’s experience and the role it plays in humanizing immigrants in the eyes of locals.

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In the first half of the book, NoViolet Bulawayo illustrates all the reasons that pushed Darling to immigrate to America. The girl is only ten years old, which allows the author to present the economic, political, and routine horrors of living in Zimbabwe at the time harshly, brutally, and honestly. In one of the chapters, Darling and her friends encounter a woman hung on a tree, which terrifies them. Despite that, they choose to steal her shoes since money is crucial for these kids in the difficult economic reality. It is even more critical to the children than the punishment God could inflict upon them for meddling with the corpse. It is just one of the many examples depicting the economic burden that Darling is forced to carry since childhood, linked to emotionally taxing experiences.

Before Darling moves to the U. S., she experiences the other side of migration. Her father leaves for South Africa and only comes back home when he is gravely ill. Upon returning, the father does not recognize his child, and Darling thinks, “go back to where you come from…, go back and leave us alone” (Bulawayo, 2013, p. 90). She does not know her father, who is a foreigner, an alien, a “monster” to Darling (Bulawayo, 2013, p. 90). She can only remember how angry he was before leaving, unable to realize his potential, not seeing life improvement after Zimbabwe gained independence, and now she will be going on the same path herself. There is no place for father in Darling’s life, he is a nuisance, and she hates him for leaving, as well as returning. Later in the novel, when she moves abroad, Darling will lose the connection with her homeland, and much like father, will not fully belong in either place.

Darling’s mother did not follow her husband, she worked by the border, but she stayed in Zimbabwe. The mother represents the people who hope the situation will improve and refuse to leave their country. She loves home and knows nobody is expecting them with open arms in a different land. The perspectives of both parents likely present an inner conflict every potential immigrant has. Darling herself will come to realize how hard it is to move away from home and to adjust to a new place, fit in with a new culture and society.

The readers who have considered immigration, but never followed through with it, are probably familiar with the mother’s perspective. Their fear of change or high patriotism and hopefulness prevents them from migrating. Others, who are content with the political and economic context they live in, may not know what forces people to migrate. Upon reading We Need New Names, both groups might understand why migration is a difficult choice, what it does to the families and friends left behind, how it can be challenging for an immigrant. Perhaps, seeing the world from a migrant’s perspective can make some people more tolerant of migrants and refugees in their countries. Thus, the book representing several experiences with migration is a valuable enrichment of the reader’s horizons, and it has the potential to facilitate kindness.

This education element is necessary because the western world does not welcome outsiders, as the second half of the story shows. That is hypocritical since the west created the global economic inequality between itself and the former colonies, which is the catalyst for migration. Some Americans try to be kind to Darling, but they still express a sense of superiority. Once, the character meets a white woman, who allegedly adores Africa, finds everything about it beautiful, and tries to help by donating some things. However, Darling notices that the woman “puts her hand over her heart and closes her eyes briefly, like maybe she’s listening to the throb of her kindness” (Bulawayo, 2013, p 176). It is clear that the woman is insincere; she does not see the real Africa, treats Darling not as an individual, but as an exotic foreign being whom she can kindly indulge for a moment.

In the earlier chapters, the readers also see the perspective of the African kids receiving charity. They are uncomfortable with the cameras pointed at them; they feel objectified. The supposedly kind benefactors disregard the feelings of those they are helping. By looking at the two examples, one can conclude that charity should consider the needs and perspectives of those whom it benefits. This is a valuable lesson because it is nearly impossible to be critical of one’s behavior without external feedback. After reading We Need New Names, those wishing to show kindness to migrants and other people in need will remember to be less self-centered and more empathetic.

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Apart from belittling and misplaced kindness, migrants face other unpleasant interactions showing them they are not entirely accepted. The locals feel entitled to ask uncomfortable questions based on stereotypes about less developed foreign countries. In Chapter 16, Bulawayo (2013) lists these questions, including “Africa… Is it there where dissidents shove AK-47s between women’s legs?” (p. 237). The writer illustrates the contrast between society’s views of insiders and outsiders. A community member is treated as a person, whereas when encountering a migrant, people focus on their background and potential peculiarities instead of individual qualities. Possibly, the generic pity towards migrants motivates Americans to view them as those who need charity and handouts, which is another aspect of feeling superior over the other nations. This tendency is yet another reason why it is necessary to read a book presenting a migrant’s experience, which may humanize immigrants in the readers’ eyes.

The rejection, dehumanization, belittlement, objectification, and fetishizing of immigrants push them to try to fit in with the new society by changing bits and pieces about themselves. Darling’s aunt, for instance, is striving to achieve a western ideal of a body based on a skinny white woman. She undergoes constant diets and endures plenty of exercises hoping that looking more western will earn her some acceptance. Aunt Fostalina’s goal is unattainable, and pursuing it must be physically and emotionally exhausting. At the same time, Darling picks up an American accent and receives criticism from her mom and friends for it: “that stupid accent that you were not even born with” (Bulawayo, 2013, p. 286). She has to constantly self-translate when she uses English, and she cannot fully express her identity. However, Darling is losing touch with her home and culture by adjusting to the new reality. Therefore, she is trapped; she cannot fully be herself, cannot go back anymore, and cannot fully adopt either. By reading this book, western readers can engage with an outside perception of their culture and understand the unique psychological challenges migrants face.

To conclude, by humanizing and immigrant’s experience, We Need New Names may serve as an instrument of mitigating racism and prejudice against migrants in the U. S. It can teach open-minded readers about their inherent prejudices and unintentional hurt they could be causing to others. NoViolet Bulawayo also answers the readers’ uncomfortable questions, potentially encouraging them to replace the stereotypes with an accurate representation of a migrant’s experience. Finally, the novel details the immigrants’ struggles caused by the hostility of the global inequality and American society, which could hopefully sway ignorant audiences’ opinions in favor of welcoming, respecting, and understanding immigrants. The book is a step towards diversity and representation in American literature. It can help the western society realize its unconscious hypocrisy and subsequently eliminate it.


Bulawayo, N. (2013). We need new names. Chatto & Windus.

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