Writing about Women at the Margins: An Interview with NoViolet Bulawayo

The Zimbabwean novelist NoViolet Bulawayo, a group of her friends and I are at Buka, a Nigerian restaurant in Brooklyn, and we are surrounded by fish heads, fufu, fish stew, fresh ginger juice, yam fries, and plantains. Around us, there is a little girl with wild braids jumping up and down, trying to reach a painting on the wall. She is grabbing at my hand, asking me to take her to the bathroom. She is running around the restaurant, asking me to chase her. Her mother is yelling, voice stern, demanding good behavior. The women are passing food, sharing dishes, giving advice, talking of love. The girl is looking at me, looking at my fufu, and then she grabs a handful and stuffs it into her mouth. The baby is breastfeeding. Over dinner, as the women’s voices hum around us, I talk to NoViolet about her debut novel We Need New Names (Little, Brown and Company, 2013).

We Need New Names is a coming-of-age narrative narrated by 10-year-old Darling, and is divided into two parts. The first part is about Darling’s childhood in Zimbabwe, and the second is about her life after moving to the United States. Darling and her friends — Chipo, Godknows, Sbho, Stina and Bastard — learn to navigate the everyday violence of life in Zimbabwe. They see a woman hanging from a tree, her dead body limp, and they are only momentarily surprised before being overtaken by hunger and deciding to sell the woman’s shoes for bread. In a scene in which the children are visited by NGO workers, Bulawayo captures all the irony of representations of Africa:

And when they asked us where we were from, we exchanged glances and smiled with the shyness of child brides. They said, Africa? We nodded yes. What part of Africa? We smiled. Is it that part where vultures wait for famished children to die? We smiled. Where the life expectancy is thirty-five years? We smiled. Is is there where dissidents shove AK-47s between women’s legs? We smiled. Where people run about naked? We smiled. That part where they massacred each other? We smiled. Is it where the old president rigged the election and people were tortured and killed and a whole bunch of them put in prison and all, there where they are dying of cholera – oh my God, yes, we’ve seen your country; it’s been on the news.

After Darling moves to the U.S. to live with a Zimbabwean aunt in Michigan, she struggles with cultural assimilation. In Michigan, Darling learns about porn, pop culture, friendship, and American standards of beauty. As she grows up, she realizes that America will never be her home, and the language of the novel – so full of life in the chapters set in Zimbabwe – reinforces this truth.

NoViolet is currently a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, and was recently awarded the Pen/Hemingway Award for Debut Fiction. We Need New Names was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and the first chapter, “Hitting Budapest,” won the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2011. –Alice Driver

Through the voice of Darling, your strong female protagonist in We Need New Names, we learn about the place of women in society and not just in Zimbabwe. To what extent were you consciously writing about women’s issues? Was that a driving force behind the novel?

I think when I write, subconsciously, I find myself writing women’s stories, women at the margins. It’s one of those things that you don’t set out to do, but it just happens. I think that speaks to where I’m coming from and where women are–you know the position of women and the kinds of lives that they are living, you know being a woman myself, and that shared compassion and the awareness and the importance of their story being told. For me it’s a natural instinct.

I’m thinking back to my earlier writing. I was always writing about women, even before I became conscious of the deeper issues that affect close family members in the larger community. I find it fascinating when I think back about it.

I am thinking in terms of activism…for me it’s not conscious. If it’s not conscious, then I think it says something, reflects something about the kind of space I’m coming from. The condition of women naturally becomes one of pressure. If I’m able to do it without even thinking, then it means that, without it even being considered an issue, women from where I come from inhabit those problematic spaces. It’s sad in a way, you know. I would rather be writing about women living better lives, but, no, I seem to be detained.

One of the scenes that really impacted me is the abortion scene. Darling and the other young girls know that they need a coat hanger, but they don’t know what to do with it. The moments when they stand around contemplating how to insert it into Chipo, who has been impregnated by her grandfather, are excruciating. However, at the same time, you manage to show the way children find humor in even the direst situations. Could you talk about the abortion scene and what it means to you?

I remember growing up and hearing how an abortion was carried out. It seemed like everybody was talking about it. I think you hear your older sisters and women talking, and you hear snippets of what goes on. I think children possess this layer of knowledge that they get from the world around them. That abortion scene is an instance of the age between innocence and not innocence. The kids in that space, they are innocent, yes, but they are surrounded by this world that is not…just knowing that you can use a hanger to perform an abortion.

The fact that one of the kids is pregnant by her grandfather –I think that is a form of violence that is out there. I am always concerned about children, not just in Zimbabwe, but in society. Children are part of everything, and it means that they suffer the most. What I find interesting is that, as much as the violence that they have experienced has been normalized, they don’t get to talking about what has happened to her, and they go on playing. You know, the abortion scene is part of the everyday. It was necessary to bring that light touch as a way of getting people asking why.

It is striking to me that, in spite of the fact that the children are constantly hungry, are forced to deal head-on with rape, abortion and suicide, you manage to capture so much of the playfulness of childhood in your book. Could you talk a bit about that?

There are many things that can speak to that. But I come from a place of laughter. People may be under pressure, women may be under pressure, but they are the ones who raise kids. They are the ones who have to get up and make sure everything is moving. Looking from a distance, you wouldn’t think they are under pressure at all, because they have that lightness. From an artistic perspective, I think that we are bombarded by serious literature or serious dialogues. I think sometimes we just shut off and disconnect and we think, “Well, it is just too much.” I’m aware that I am a storyteller. I wanted to make it impossible for somebody to put down the book and say, “This is too much.”

There are lots of different perspectives among writers and editors about the ratio of men to women in publishing, and about characterizing writers who happen to be women as “women writers.” What are your thoughts on these issues related to gender and writing?

When I grew up, people just told me stories. You are telling a story even before you are aware of yourself as a gendered self. You are aware of what story is there, somewhere, needing to be told. For me that was enough. My gender figures, of course. When you look at the politics of publishing in Zimbabwe, you can only count a few women writers. Male writers – there are more of them, more opportunities, they are producing more. But when I’m thinking of the state of women writers at home, yes, it is indeed a cause for concern. That said, I just went back home, and one of the things I ended up having to deal with is [the question of] how useful it is to look at it in that gendered way. Many writers now, especially in the last ten years, are suffering equally.

Could you talk a little bit about the relationship between the title of the novel, We Need New Names, and your own name and the names of the characters in the novel, which are spectacular?

(Note: NoViolet was born Elizabeth Zandile Tshele. In college, she decided to adopt the pen name NoViolet Bulawayo. “No” means “with” in the southern African language Ndebele; Violet was her mother’s name.)

[My mother] died when I was 18 months. I never saw her. I guess I grew up with a sense of something missing, especially since people didn’t talk about her. I [chose my name] as a way of honoring her, of wanting to be identified with my mother.

Bulawayo is the city of my people. That is where I grew up pretty much, and, you know, being away from home and not being able to return for more than a decade created a kind of nostalgia.

And then the names in the book, they are a celebration of my culture. We are given names that mean something, that speak to something. I notice that most of our literature in English tries to sound English in a sense. You don’t get those kinds of names popping. In We Need New Names, I was writing about things that were going on at home, so it was my quiet way of saying, “we need new names, you can remove names, we need a new president, new ways of thinking of ourselves, new ways of being.” But I also feel like it is something that can transcend the Zimbabwean space. I see it as a movement that can happen anywhere. I think the rest of the world can take something from it or apply itself in the equation.

Are you working on a new project?

Yes, I’m working on a collection of AIDS stories. When I started, I was trying to write a memoir. I lost a brother to AIDS when I was 14 or 15. I lost a sister to AIDS when I was living here. I never got to go home [for the funeral]. I come from a big family. I was telling a friend, “I’ve lost at least 20 people, at least 20 people to AIDS.” And she was like, “No way.” Yes, it’s true. But I’m also concerned with the silence. I’ve never sat down and talked about my siblings, for example. It’s that unspoken chapter in our lives.

When I was growing up with my brother, we thought he had TB. After he died, the evidence said HIV/AIDS. I found out later, when I was going through my father’s things. But now people know that AIDS is AIDS, and you can identify it, but the silence persists.

I just went home. The culture is changing. Kids are becoming sexually active earlier. This generation that was born with HIV is coming into sexual awakening. Going back to activism, it is one of the things that we need to think about and talk about.

In We Need New Names, Darling’s father returns home with AIDS. Darling has no idea why he is sick, which makes me think of what you said about everyone believing that your brother had TB. In writing about issues that are taboo, like AIDS, you open up a space for conversation. Do you see writing as a form of activism?

Yes, I do, because it is through writing that we speak the unspoken. It’s interesting, because some of the things that I write about are things that I never ever say. Because we have a language that does not allow you to have those kinds of conversations, or people just aren’t interested. In writing, I can create an illusion that I am just talking to a page when, of course, I know that I am talking about issues. I receive feedback from people. And that is when you realize that people are interested in talking about these things. I just wish I could see more of this, especially with young writers. There is so much that is a mess, that people need to be talking about. Our world is far from perfect.


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