As an aspiring African writer, I thought it was vital to read as much African literature as I can while on my journey to being published. I’ve read the iconic novels; Things Fall Apart, Nervous Conditions and even a quick reread of The Heart of Darkness recently, but as for contemporary African lit..? Not much, Death by Carbs, aside.
This book has given me a great hope for African lit and also a rather large pair of shoes to fill. Shoes that I honestly feel totally incapable of filling. I am white. And African. Yes, it is possible. It’s an odd identity to have. So, here goes my ‘white’ review of a book set (partly) in Africa that deals heavily with culture, language and identity…
There’s a lot a person can talk about; Darling’s bizarre childhood, the devastation of racism and political injustices. The pervasiveness of male sexual deviance and the regularity with which young girls must face sexual assault. The American ‘dream’. But, for the sake of this blog I will focus on the use of names to denote culture and identity. Language, after all, is a vehicle for cultural propagation.
The thread that ties the fragmented story together is names, strange and sometimes funny names. Some of the stranger offerings are; Mother of Bones (I think this is a nickname?), Bornfree, Messenger, Godknows, Freedom and, of course, Darling. These names carry the essence of the culture but they are in English.
There are also a few Ndebele names; Tendai (Be Thankful) and Ncane (Little), etc. There is also the ridiculous Prophet Revelations Bitchington Mborro (he is as heinous as the name suggests) and the stubborn Tshaka Zulu who dies because he cannot surrender his culture or language.
As young children, Darling and her friends play many games that have deep political and social ramifications, however, their play is innocent and perhaps a very naïve. They play “ER” when Chipo (who is 11) is pregnant and they are trying to abort the baby. Sbho says “In order to do this right, we need new names” and they become ‘Dr. Cutter’ and ‘Dr. Bullet’.
After escaping the tragedies of Africa, Darling finds herself in an impossible situation. She can never belong in America. She explains it like this; “Because we were not in our own country, we could not use our own languages, and so when we spoke our voices came out bruised.” However, she can also never go back, she no longer belongs in Africa either.
The undocumented foreigners stick together mostly and when one’s name become too difficult to pronounce, they become known by their country instead. She feels a comradery with the other foreigners because they also have no place in America. Darling’s family visited very seldom, but when they did she “welcomed them to a home that was not ours”.
The break with her family is painful enough, she lies to them and promises she will come home soon but she can never leave; America is her prison and she “pulls tight the shackles”. The story seems to become allegorical at this point and Darling speaks for all illegal aliens explaining how names will forever shatter the next generation;
“And then our own children were born. We held their American birth certificates tight. We did not name our children after our parents, after ourselves, we feared if we did they would not be able to say their own names, that their friends and teachers would not know how to call them. We gave them names that would make them belong in America, names that did not mean anything to us: Aaron, Josh, Dana, Corey, Jack, Kathleen.” Pg 247
I think this is the crux of the story. She has sacrificed her identity so her children can grow up American but it means that she is forever in limbo, always an alien. Even in death, her ancestors will not welcome her. She says “the spirits will not come running to meet us, and so we will wait and wait and wait- forever waiting in the air like flags of unsung countries.” We only hear Darling’s full name once (Darling Nonkululeko Nkala) and by then she no longer holds that identity anymore. Nkululeko means “freedom” and Darling is not free!
Darling ceases to have a solid cultural identity. In America, she is an alien and only connects with other aliens. However, when she talks to Chipo, her friend from home, she is told; “Darling, my dear, you left the house burning and you have the guts to tell me, in that stupid accent that you were not even born with, that doesn’t even suit you, that this is your country?” The story of the power of names comes full circle in Chipo’s child (who they tried to abort), who is named Darling.
This idea of the power of names to convey culture and identity is furthered by the fact that ‘Noviolet Bulowayo’ in a pseudonym. Her real name is Elizabeth Zandile Tshele and she also moved from Zimbabwe to America as a child… Sound familiar? So, why does she choose to write under a pseudonym? I would like to think she is creating a new story for herself, a new identity and perhaps a new culture.