“WE NEED NEW NAMES”, NoViolet Bulawayo’s debut novel, which was recently shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, excited more international acclaim than any Zimbabwean book in the recent past. Zimbabwe’s literary arena had some rich pickings recently including the overdue comeback of Charles Mungoshi with “Branching Streams Flow in the Dark”, Spiwe Harper’s “Footprints in the Mists of Time” and the most improved Zimbabwe International Book Fair in recent years.
All these went virtually unnoticed by the international media except “We Need New Names” which was not only nominated for the Man Booker but also revelled in glowing reviews in British and American newspapers, notably The Guardian and New York Times.
This brings the criteria used by these Western cultural institutions and media echo chambers up for scrutiny.
Is greater emphasis being placed on merit or rather on works that align with the West’s stereotypes on Africa in general and Zimbabwe in particular?
The Western media is in consensus that Africa is a dark continent and Zimbabwe is a trouble spot.
Stories about local achievements and authentic African aspirations always get overlooked while Africa is only a synonym of war, poverty and civil unrest going by the lenses of Fox, CNN and BBC.
This is apparently the same criterion when it comes to the literature which excites the West.
Reviews of “We Need New Names” in the papers were more politically themed than artistically contrived, giving the impression that Western papers never miss a chance to adopt a first-hand endorsement of its mean view of Africa.
“Bulawayo’s tome is remarkable for the way it ticks every box in the way the West sees Africa,” writes Indian critic Professor Vikram Kappur.
Reading it, you get the sense that the writer is attempting to cover bases rather than tell a story. It would be a real surprise if she won.”
“They flee their own wretched land so their hunger may be pacified in foreign lands, their tears wiped away in strange lands, the wounds of their despair bandaged in faraway lands, their blistered prayers muttered in the darkness of queer lands,” Bulawayo contrasts Zimbabwe and America in her novel.
Global media institutions, who have been perpetuating the Dark Continent mantra ad infinitum, understandably had a field day securing an extension of their slanted coverage on Africa in Zimbabwean writing itself, hence the hullabaloo.
New York Times conveniently follows up: “The place they are leaving, in this case, is Zimbabwe, that African nation brutalised by more than 30 years of malignity and neglect under the autocratic rule of Robert Mugabe — a country reeling from unemployment, hunger, inflation, Aids and the Government’s torture and violent intimidation of all political opposition.
“The place many of them are hoping to flee to is the United States — the destination of the novel’s young narrator, Darling, who will begin a new life there with her aunt.”
The Guardian had more to say on politics than literature with such screaming banners as “NoViolet Bulawayo tells of heartbreak of homecoming to Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.”
“My generation is known as the born free generation: We really don’t buy this stance against the West because we are aware of our problems, and our problems are really specifically home grown,” Bulawayo told The Guardian.
Authors and critics of a pan-African sensibility would obviously be quick to differ in light of how the West’s far-flung tentacles in Africa are at the heart of the continent’s problems.
America’s underclass, reeling from the problems listed by The NY Times, not in Zimbabwe but in the US, would be also quick to differ.
More than settling for alliances, the real concern is how powerful Western institutions are directing the agenda in African literature by giving exclusive eminence to works that concur with their biased view on Africa.