BY SOPHY KOHLER |PHOTOGRAPHY BY GARETH SMIT
This year, NoViolet Bulawayo (pen name of Elizabeth Tshele) made literary history as the first Zimbabwean to be shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize, awarded yesterday to Eleanor Catton for The Luminaries. Bulawayo was shortlisted for her debut novel, We Need New Names, the first chapter of which, “Hitting Budapest”, was awarded the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2012. She is currently a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. I spoke to her in Cape Town in September, ahead of her appearance at the Open Book Festival.
Why do you write under a pseudonym?
I don’t consider it a pseudonym; it’s more than a pen name. NoViolet is my mother’s name, she died when I was 18 months old. I have no memory of her and she wasn’t spoken about when I was growing up, so that kind of messed me up as a kid and I’ve always felt like there was something missing, so I decided to use her memory, her name, just to honour her. And Bulawayo because it’s my hometown and I lived in the United States for more than a decade without being able to go back.
The main character of We Need New Names wasn’t able to return either. Was your situation similar to Darling’s experience — the result of not having proper documentation?
No, mine wasn’t as dramatic as Darling’s. Darling’s papers were screwed up, whereas I was in a much better position: my papers were fine. There was a brief period where I was out of status, but it wasn’t desperate. At that time, being a student, it was expensive to go home and it was also a time when really the country was unlivable.
Do you identify more as NoViolet Bulawayo than as Elizabeth Tshele?
I was telling a friend yesterday how Elizabeth for me didn’t have much meaning. I first encountered it when I started primary school, so at home I was known by something else; it’s always been a name that was just on my papers. And then your friends call you something else at school. So I come from a place where names are always changing, people are always assigning names and, to somebody who has never ever been called one thing, Elizabeth really wasn’t part of my identity.
Was this part of what informed the book’s title?
No, that’s just a coincidence. The title came from something else: a need for new identities, a push for new ways of envisioning ourselves, as a country, as a people, in ways of leadership as well as in ways of being.
The African country at the centre of the book is quite clearly Zimbabwe, as you’ve mentioned in other interviews, but it goes unnamed. Was this deliberate?
For me, it was obvious, I didn’t even need to put the names there. But, at the same time, I feel like it’s a story that can happen anywhere, so it was important to leave that sense of openness.
Do you identify as Zimbabwean rather than as American?
Yes, absolutely. If I had American papers, maybe this would be different, but I don’t. And papers are obviously a big part of one’s identity. I left Zim when I was 18 and I was already a formed individual to the extent that the American identity was something I struggled with. I couldn’t quite fit in.
Did you find yourself having to kind of reinvent yourself in America like Darling does?
Absolutely — I think that’s just the story of the immigrant, having to forge a new identity, just because who you are has a lot to do with where you are born.
How do you feel about being recognised as the first Zimbabwean to be longlisted for the Man Booker Prize?
It’s one of those gratifying things; it’s an honour, given that this is only my first novel. As for it being the first Zimbabwean novel, it’s an international feat, really.
The group of children at the centre of the novel are part of Zimbabwe’s “Born free” generation — one of them is even called Bornfree — but this term obviously has a different meaning in Zimbabwe than it does in South Africa. What does it mean to Zimbabweans; has it taken on a more negative connotation given the current state of the country?
It was even more charged in my time because we were the first generation of kids born after independence. Darling is a “born free”, but the term had more agency to my generation, the first generation. And it wasn’t negative at all — we were the only generation of kids in Zimbabwe who experienced normalcy, because those born before us were either born during the war or born during the colonial era. So, I remember my experience of Zim as being normal; we had a normal childhood, we went to school, whereas Darling is growing up at a time when teachers have left to work in South Africa and Botswana. It’s more tragic, I would say.
Obviously there is nostalgia for early post-independence Zimbabwe, but is there any nostalgia for pre-independence?
There’s no nostalgia for the time itself but, listening to other people, there is a nostalgia for working systems, because we all know that this past decade just came undone; the systems crashed, the inflation became the highest in the world. Those things were not happening pre-independence. And you’ll hear your grandmother saying, “Ha! During Smith’s time, this wouldn’t have happened”. But there is definitely nostalgia for post-independence — my generation, we are all on social networks, so we are always talking of the past and that past is gone. I was there in April and I was very nostalgic for that lost Zimbabwe, especially having been outside for such a long stretch of time. 13 years of being away is a long time, especially 13 years of Mugabe’s rule, so I just felt like an outsider in my home, which I think is something that I’m still processing.
When Darling first gets to America, she realises that life isn’t necessarily dramatically better somewhere else. What do you think are the costs of leaving?
For Darling, the immediate one is the impact on her identity. In Paradise, things are hard but they are outside and they are happy. We don’t get that in America: she’s always enclosed, either because it’s snowing outside or she’s dealing with that cultural disconnect, so there’s a very significant sense of this loss of self. Then you look at other characters around there — because, in America, I’m trying to go beyond Darling to that collective experience — you have people who like Aunt Fostalina and Tshaka Zulu who also project what’s coming for Darling. Aunt Fostalina’s always working her ass off, Tshaka Zulu’s old and in a home; those are the costs of leaving.
Was it challenging to write in the voice of a child and get it accurate?
No, it wasn’t. I think that, as an artist, you have to look at your strengths and weaknesses whenever you approach a project. I came into writing through the personal child voice, so it’s something that I was comfortable with. Then, because I was dealing with dense material, it made it easier for me to navigate what would have otherwise been a complicated space. So Darling really came with benefits that I think made the novel what it is. Children always remember to be children, regardless, and I think there are always some things we can learn from them. I wanted to capture that.
The young characters in the novel are simultaneously innocent and wise. Do you think we give children enough credit in terms of how much they understand, their capacity for insight and empathy?
We really don’t and it’s sad that children don’t have systems in our societies to express themselves. If you just look around, everything is adult-run and then you go beyond that to certain cultures where children simply don’t count. The youthful voice is often completely ignored.
What made you write this particular book; what do you want your readership to take away from it?
I wasn’t even thinking of the reader; I was responding to things at home. I started the book in 2008, which was the height of Zimbabwe’s challenges. I don’t even remember what I was trying to write before that, when things started coming undone in a way that freaked me out and started affecting my work, my concentration. One of my mentors suggested that I write about it, and I did, so writing the book became a way of coping, a kind of catharsis.
I was writing and blogging at the same time, sharing things on Facebook, and I was amazed by how we, as Zimbabweans, naturally came together on the social networks. Things would happen and I would respond creatively and people would respond back and, for me, it became a national project, it became about bearing witness, it became about sustaining ourselves.
Budapest may be a fictional place within Zimbabwe but it echoes a system we have in South Africa where names are borrowed from other places — like “Rotterdam” and “Kosovo”. Does this strange naming convention exist in Zimbabwe?
No, I don’t think it exists like in South Africa, but at that stage I was writing from a space where names say something. Like the human names, Godknows and Darling — those are real names that you get in Zimbabwe. But with the space, with Budapest, I was interested in the by-product of these migrations, what it means for people to go in and out and what it is to go back.
The Caine Prize has been criticised for creating what Helon Habila has called an “African aesthetic of suffering”, for “performing Africa” for the world. What are your thoughts on this?
I think that’s nonsense. Writers write about what moves them and it’s just a coincidence that the kinds of stories that get told seem to be about one thing. I think there’s also a shallowness in readers reducing stories based on things that they see. I feel like people need to read beyond this. I’m hard-pressed to talk about stories other than my own but Darling, for example, is such a rich character and she shouldn’t be judged by her space; she has so much humanity. Beyond that, I feel like some of these things are simply realities.
I also feel like it’s a point that’s been adopted — it just depends what people feel like writing about and instead of looking at this, we should look at the publishing system. South Africa is much better, but in Zim, for example, there are no magazines that would have published my Caine Prize story. There are voices that need outlets and I think that’s where the energy should be focused. I feel like our writing is as diverse as it comes, but unfortunately I meet lots of writers who have nowhere to send their work and I think that if they had that opportunity, we would naturally see more than the stories that tend to exist.
Did you decide quite early that you wanted to be a writer?
I was supposed to be a lawyer — that’s what I left home to do. We were raised by parents who wanted us to do sensible things, and writing, at least in the space in which I was raised, is not a profession. It’s one of those accidents that came of me being in a space where I could follow my passion.
Do you think that would have happened if you hadn’t gone to America?
No, because in Zimbabwe you can’t study creative writing formally, whereas in America I was able to do my MFA and I’m now doing a fellowship at Stanford University. When you look at writers like Dambudzo Marechera, Yvonne Vera and Tsitsi Dangarembga: those are people who left the country and found their voices outside. Being outside has played a big part in our imaginations and careers.
Writing for The New York Times, Uzodinma Iweala suggested that “the more Darling becomes an American, the less vibrant [your] writing becomes.” Was this shift deliberate as Darling enters a landscape that has a different kind of bleakness to it?
Yes, I think that’s a common-sense thing. What is obvious is that Darling’s voice is very much tied to space — she is who she is because of where she is and because of the kinds of friends she’s hanging out with. It would make less sense for Darling to be in the US and still be the same amazing Darling.
I spent my first year in America in college in silence — you couldn’t get me to say anything in class — whereas in Zim I was always booked down for being one of the noisy ones. People who didn’t know me thought I was very quiet and subdued, but my natural self just couldn’t exist in the US at that time. That’s exactly what happened to Darling and the writing and language has to reflect that.
Have you ever felt like you needed to narrate Zimbabwe for the rest of the world?
No, there’s no need; I think there are people who just take it upon themselves to do that — that’s what writers do. What I know is that I write what moves me and that’s all that matters — if I’m telling the Zimbabwe story, it’s not for the rest of the world, that just becomes a fact of who reads it afterward. I think writing comes from a more meaningful place than that. Especially now — I mean young African writers have become more independent, we aren’t working from the spaces that haunted early generations of writers. There’s more freedom.
How has the response been to the book from within Zimbabwe?
There has been response from Zimbabweans both within and without, but there are more Zimbabweans who are reading abroad than inside, one reason being the near-collapse of the book industry. People are just not buying books, as you can understand. But, that being said, my work has really been supported.
How do you cope with criticism?
You just realise that, by embracing the fact that my work has been done and it’s no longer my book, the book belongs to whoever is reading it and people are allowed to have their opinions. When I was just starting out, I had a more romantic idea of what it means for people to read and like your work, but that’s not the case anymore. It’s about just accepting that once it’s out there, it’s out there.
We Need New Names is published by Chatto & Windus, R265.