Wearing the mantle of eminence and African-ness can be tricky. In an interview with The Guardian, fellow Zimbabwean novelist Petina Gappah, often referred to as “the voice of Zimbabwe,” rejected the role. “I get irritated by the term ‘African writer,’” she said, “because it doesn’t mean anything to me. Africa is so big.” In her essay “What Makes a ‘Real African?’” Ethiopian writer Maaza Mengiste expressed a similar sentiment: “The question is problematic,” she wrote. “It assumes a static and compressed definition of Africa. But Africa is a continent of 55 recognized states, with a population of over one billion and more than 2,000 languages. There are so many possible responses.”
Bulawayo, by contrast, embraces her role as an "African writer" and, as her novel reveals, doesn’t let expectations circumscribe her. “For me, I always insist that I am an African writer because it is true,” she said. “I am an African. If I deny that label, my work will scream otherwise.” We Need New Names, set in a colorfully dilapidated Zimbabwean township called Paradise, celebrates its African sources. The first portion of the book follows 10-year-old Darling and her friends through their days in Paradise, sidestepping broken bottles and “brownish puddles of something,” racing up and down its dirt roads in search of mischief and the odd snack. Their antics range from the mischievous to the truly dangerous: They steal guavas from the tony nearby housing development; they also attempt an abortion on playmate Chipo, 11 years old and impregnated by her own grandfather.
However dire the circumstances du jour may be, Darling delivers a narration that is artfully childlike: aware of hardship, but not defined by it. In one scene, she and her cohorts encounter the corpse of a woman strung up in the branches of a tree. Darling can’t get away from the grisly sight fast enough. But as she turns to leave, Bastard, the most precocious of the bunch, points out an irresistible opportunity. “Look, did you notice that woman’s shoes were almost brand new?” he asks. “If we can get them then we can sell them and buy a loaf, or maybe even one and a half.” The promise of fresh bread, a scent that haunts Darling throughout the book, wins out over fear, and they follow Bastard back to the dangling cadaver.
“Then we are rushing,” Bulawayo writes, “then we are running, then we are running and laughing and laughing and laughing.”
But does that sort of stoic cheer in the face of brutality risk conjuring up stereotypical “African-ness”? In a piece about Bulawayo, the Nigerian novelist Helon Habila alluded to a problematic tendency one critic called “performing Africa,” the impulse “to inundate one’s writing with images and symbols and allusions that evoke, to borrow a phrase from Aristotle, pity and fear, but not in a real tragic sense, more in a CNN, western-media-coverage-of-Africa, poverty-porn sense.”