NoViolet Bulawayo is slight, graceful and very smart. Born and brought up in Bulawayo, and the winner of the 2011 Caine Prize for African writing, she is halfway through a two-year writing fellowship at Stanford University in California. Last week she was shortlisted for the Man Booker, the first Zimbabwean to make it.
She is just 31 years old, but that’s “old enough”, she said cheekily when we met after a panel discussion during last week’s Open Book Festival.
She’s “over the moon” at making the cut, but also scared. If you win the Booker with your debut novel, how do you top that?
The novel is called We Need New Names, and is about Darling, one of a bunch of kids living in a squatter camp called Paradise. Life is hard, but Bulawayo does not succumb to what one of the panelists referred to as “poverty porn”.
Darling and her friends – Bastard and Godknows – steal fruit, play games and wonder how on Earth the baby is ever going to get out of Chipo’s stomach. And they dream of leaving Paradise for places like the US, Dubai or Europe.
After independence in Zimbabwe, life becomes tougher. Darling’s family lose their house and her school closes as teachers leave.
Eventually Darling achieves her dream of going to the US, but she discovers climbing on an aircraft doesn’t mean leaving the past behind.
Bulawayo knows all about that. At 18 she left Zimbabwe to study law in the US, and found herself in a very different world.
Last week she took part in an Open Book Festival panel discussion on the role that place plays in the novel. She shared the stage with Nigerian-American Teju Cole, author of the acclaimed Open City; another Nigerian-American, Tope Folarin, winner of this year’s Caine Prize; and Kenyan-American Mukoma wa Ngugi, author of Nairobi Heat.
All four discussed the experience of growing up in one country, living in another, and the impact straddling two continents and cultures has had on their writing.
Bulawayo said she was a little like her character, Darling, seeing herself in two halves. “The first is my Zimbabwean self. I never accepted to myself that I was black, I’d never had the need to cross racial boundaries or force myself to look at my racial identity.
“Then I moved to the US, a place – as someone put it – that’s a melting pot where nothing melts. It became urgent to look at my Zimbabweanness and my blackness, because the US is a very racial space. It is also a place where blackness is not a single concept – are you, for instance, an ‘African-American’ or an ‘African’?”
* The other novels shortlisted for Man Booker are: Irish writer Colm Toibin for The Testament of Mary; English writer Jim Crace for Harvest; New Zealander Eleanor Catton for The Luminaries; Indian-American writer Jhumpa Lahiri for The Lowland; and Canadian Ruth Ozeki for A Tale for the Time Being. The winner will be announced in London on October 15.
* We need New Names is published by Chatto & Windus