One enjoyable part about setting yourself the goal of reading all the Man Booker Prize longlist each year is the fact you come across new authors, new voices. You hear stories from diverse regions of the Commonwealth. Whereas some of the novels may not be as challenging or diverse as some of the selection from the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, you still manage to find a few areas of literature that you haven’t explored before.
NoViolet Bulawayo is a Zimbabwean author who moved to Michigan when she was eighteen years of age and she is currently s Stegner Fellow at Stanford University in California. In 2011 she won the Caine Prize for African Writing and in 2009 she was shortlisted for the South African PEN Studzinsi Award. A pretty impressive resume and this is her first novel, straight onto the Man Booker Prize Longlist!
Our novel is narrated by Darling, who we follow through the ardour of growing up in Zimbabwe and follow to schooling and work in America. With the usual themes of displacement, not having a homeland, being rejected by your adopted country etc. this could be classed as standard Booker Prize fare (look at “The Garden of Evening Mists” by Tan Twan Eng last year or “Pigeon English” by Stephen Kelman the year before or “Half Blood Blues” or right back to 1971 and V.S. Naipaul’s “In a Free State” the list of similar themes in endless). But the difference here is the story told in Zimbabwe where local currency is worthless, human life is worthless, a country in total decline where locals are taking back the land from the white people.
Jesus Christ died on this day, which is why I have to be out here washing with cold water like this. I don’t like cold water and I don’t even like washing my whole body unless I have somewhere meaningful to go. After I finish and dress, me and Mother of Bones will head off to church. She says it’s the least we can do because we are all dirty sinners and we are the ones for whom Jesus Christ gave his life, but what I know is that I myself wasn’t there when it all happened, so how can I be a sinner?
I don’t like going to church because I don’t really see why I have to sit in the hot sun on that mountain and listen to boring songs and meaningless prayers and strange verses when I could be doing important things with my friends. Plus, last time I went, that crazy Prophet Revelations Bitchington Mborro shook me and shook me until I vomited pink things. I thought I was going to die a real death. Prophet Revelations Bitchington Mborro was trying to get the spirit inside me out; they say I’m possessed because they say my grandfather isn’t properly buried because the white people killed him during the war for feeding and hiding the terrorists who were trying to get our country back because the white people had stolen it.
Told in an innocent voice throughout, Darling and her friends play game like “Find bin Laden” (we’d call it hide and seek), steal guava’s from the trees in the built up neighbourhood they call Budapest, await the monthly relief trucks (the NGO) and wear recycled “Go Green” t-shirts. They dream of a better life in America, Europe…anywhere.
Let’s sing Lady Gaga, Sbho says.
No, let’s sing the national anthem like we used to at school assembly, I say.
Yes, let’s sing, and me, I’ll stand in front because I’ll be president, Bastard says. We line up nicely by Merjury’s shack and sing at the top of our voices, sing until the little kids come and gather around us, but they know they must not join.
Wayyyt, wayyyt, wih neeeeed tuh tayke a pictchur, whereh ease mah camera? Godknows cries, making like he is the NGO man, and we laugh and we laugh and we laugh. Gondknows runs and picks up one of those bricks with holes in them and holds it like it’s a camera and takes and takes and takes pictures. We smile and we strike poses and we look pretty and we shout, Change! Cheese! Change!
I think it is really important that diverse and important stories and voices like Darling’s are heard, the reality of the shanties in Zimbabwe are truly brought to life, where food is scant and simple pleasures of singing, playing with your friends, eating stolen guavas until you burst, raise their hopes. But we are also told the horrors of AIDS of pregnancy at age eleven of extreme hunger, civil war, destruction and a despot president.
Darling manages to escape the horror and make it to America (on a visitor’s visa) but from there she longs for home, even though her dreams of owning a Lamborghini were far-fetched and the reality of working the worst of jobs as you are an illegal immigrant bring a touch of further reality to our story. America is still the country of plentiful:
We ate like pigs, like wolves, like dignitaries; we ate like vultures, like stray dogs, like monsters; we ate like kings. We ate for all our past hunger, for our parents and brothers and sisters and relatives and friends who were still back there. We uttered their names between mouthfuls, conjured up their hungry faces and chapped lips – eating for those who could not be with us to eat for themselves. And when we were full we carried our dense bodies with the dignity of elephants – if only our country could see us in America, see us eat like kings in a land that was not ours.
This is a powerful story that gives you a decent reality check on what is transpiring in other parts of the world, an important story, a story that leaves you shocked and amazed at the resilience, a story that will linger long after you’ve read the final page. Not only an indictment on Zimbabwe but also the USA the innocent, naive voice of Darling tells us the horrors in a voice that only a child could own. The only criticism I do have is there are sections where it lacks a little cohesion, as though the chapters are short stories reliving a theme that were heard pages before. For example, the food example above was explored a lot earlier with the story of one kids eating enough pizza for lunch to feed a Zimbabwean family for a week. This is not to say that this is a novel that is not worth exploring, however it may be sufficient to see it miss the short list cut.
Next up “Almost English” another tale of displacement and a lack of a home or identity where our main character explores what it’s like to be of Hungarian descent and living in London…hmmm.