An African teenager living in Detroit can't understand why her immigrant aunt is always dieting when people back home in Zimbabwe go hungry every day.
The teenager, named Darling, is the creation of the first Zimbabwean and black African woman to be nominated for the coveted British literary Booker Prize. NoViolet Bulawayo's novel touches on the woes in her troubled homeland.
"We Need New Names" is one of six works on an annual shortlist of the finest English-language writing from Britain, Ireland and the 54-nation Commonwealth of former British colonies. The winner of the award officially known as the Man Booker Prize after its sponsor, financial services firm Man Group PLC, will be announced on Oct. 15.
Bulawayo, 31, writes on the search for identity in the United States by Africans escaping poverty and upheaval at home, and leaving behind childhood friends and what she describes as the vibrant "colors and magic" of their continent.
In Bulawayo's book, the character, Darling, grows up in a Zimbabwean shanty town with friends with equally quirky names - Chipo, Godknows, Bastard and Sbho. The cheerful urchin gang raids the gardens in wealthy suburbs to steal fruit. The book title comes from the fact that immigrant children are given American names as they struggle to be accepted in a different world, Bulawayo said.
At home, "the kids transcend poverty and are funny and hopeful and they have spunk. But even with the American dream, Darling's character flattens out. She is out of her geographical space and becomes lost," Bulawayo said in an interview with The Associated Press in Harare, Zimbabwe's capital.
Bulawayo, who was visiting Zimbabwe to promote her debut novel, went to the United States to study law in 1999. Later, she earned a master's in fine arts at Cornell University, where she was awarded a Truman Capote fellowship. She is currently on a fellowship at Stanford University.
In Zimbabwe, Bulawayo has met with her Zimbabwean publishers, the Weaver Press of Harare that specializes in promoting Zimbabwean writers and earlier published her work in a collection of short stories. She talked to aspiring writers and held signings of her novel, described by Zimbabwean media as sassy, witty, intricate and elegantly written. It also received positive reviews in the United States and Britain.
"I am overwhelmed and humbled. It's a national win" and an inspiration for other Zimbabweans, Bulawayo said.
Born Elizabeth Zandile Tshele, her adopted name derives from her mother Violet who died when she was an 18-month-old baby. In the local SinNdebele language of her western Matabeleland province, "NoViolet" means "withViolet." In English, it signifies deep remembrance of an absent mother and traditional family values. Bulawayo is the western provincial capital, Zimbabwe's second city and her home town.
In America, the author said, she strove to understand political violence and economic turmoil that reached its height in Zimbabwe in 2008 and led to at least 2 million Zimbabweans fleeing the country to become diaspora communities around the world.
In the novel Darling, in a phone call with a childhood friend, is accused of abandoning her home rather than staying to deal with the challenges. That is the kind of discomfort experienced by many Zimbabweans exiles living abroad.
The shanty homes of Darling's friends were razed to the ground, a description of the brutal, real-life slum clearance operation in 2005 known as Murambatsvina, or "clean out the trash" in the local language. President Robert Mugabe's government called it an urban renewal program, but critics said it aimed to crush burgeoning support for Mugabe's opponents in the impoverished townships. The United Nations said as many 700,000 people were left homeless.
"We have ways of looking at our destiny. I write what moves me. I am driven to write. When things were getting hectic (in Zimbabwe) it became a matter of catharsis for me, of putting a face to it," said Bulawayo, born after independence from colonial era rule and the first all-race elections that brought Mugabe to power in 1980. Mugabe was recently re-elected, brushing off accusations from the opposition that his supporters engaged in widespread fraud at the polls.
"Any decent government should provide for its people. You make a dangerous society by having a disgruntled people. I am just a writer. I don't make policy to change lives at a tangible level. I only have a voice," said Bulawayo, who spent her early childhood in rural western Zimbabwe. There, she listened to the folktales of her grandfather and father, who had been in the colonial Rhodesian police force and was branded a "sellout" after independence.
Bulawayo, without access to a television until she was 18, was an avid reader. The leading chain of bookstores where she picked up cheap titles is virtually bankrupt now, after years of economic meltdown.
Electronic media aside, "I hope somehow we go back to a culture of reading," Bulawayo said. "There's an economic issue. What you can afford - getting something to eat or reading?"