via NoViolet Bulawayo tells of heartbreak of homecoming in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe theguardian.com by David Smith in Johannesburg
‘I went there in search of the Zimbabwe I knew and it was a shock: power cuts, water cuts … and 80% of the population not working,’ says author NoViolet Bulawayo. Photograph: Jordi Matas
A striking pen name certainly never did an author any harm on a crowded bookshelf. NoViolet Bulawayo passes with flying colours. NoViolet means “with Violet”, in memory of her mother who died when she was 18 months old. Bulawayo is her yearned-for home city in Zimbabwe.
“I come from a place of colourful names and identity’s a big part of my creative process,” the 31-year-old, whose passport still says Elizabeth Tshele, explained during a book tour of neighbouring South Africa. “I needed a meaningful identity that could carry the weight of whatever I’m doing. Just being without my biological mother shaped the person I am, the way I see the world.”
Bulawayo’s debut novel, not entitled We Need New Names by accident, is the first by a Zimbabwean to be longlisted for the 44-year-old Man Booker Prize and is also in contention for the Guardian first book award. It has announced her as one of Africa’s most luminous literary talents and, it was evident in an interview this week, a eloquent voice among a new generation of Zimbabweans unafraid and trenchant in their criticism of president Robert Mugabe.
Bulawayo was born after Mugabe came to power at Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980. She emigrated at 18, joining her aunt in America, and returned from exile for the first time in April this year. In just 13 turbulent years, she discovered, the Eden that she ached for had turned into a place she hardly recognised. “It was a strange country,” Bulawayo told the Guardian. “I went there in search of the Zimbabwe I knew and it was a shock: power cuts, water cuts, just driving down the streets the potholes were amazing, and 80% of the population not working. Just seeing the desperation, wherever you went, people were struggling. That was a picture of the country that I never knew.
“I knew from news and stories that things were hard, but being there and seeing it for myself was just heartbreaking. Even now knowing that there are no answers, and it’s not going to get better any time soon, is crushing.”
The homecoming was a bittersweet experience for the writer, currently based at Stanford University in California. “On one hand I was happy to be home and seeing my father- he’s 74 and his health was acting up at that time – and my siblings, but at the same time I couldn’t relate to anything, I couldn’t understand anything, I felt like the country had changed the people and culture and I just felt like an outsider in my home. So I would be having conversations and I’d just tune out, and yet people didn’t realise what was happening, that I was home but I was also lost.”
During her absence Zimbabwe endured chaotic farm seizures, economic meltdown, hyperinflation and elections scarred by political violence and, in July this year, allegations of ballot rigging on an industrial scale. She respects Mugabe’s part in the liberation struggle but believes the 89-year-old must now bear responsibility for her paradise lost.
“There was a time when he was good for the country but I feel like that time is gone. The last election spoke to it all, obviously. I think a balanced person would be hard pressed to just stand and say this guy is a good guy, with all the facts on the table. It’s quite sad that a country with so much promise is forced on its knees because of the ruling party. I just hope that culture changes.
“I feel like we need a new breed of leadership, not just a presidential figure but a new gang. For me the answer lies with the young people because I feel the current generation is old, it’s outdated and it has failed the people.
“The government has been in power since just before I was born and I think it’s time to give the ball to better players. I feel like Zimbabweans are capable enough and the reality is they don’t have a voice or the space.”
Following his disputed election win, Mugabe received a standing ovationfrom the presidents of his southern African neighbours and was elected the next leader of their regional bloc. But Bulawayo has no truck with attempts to rehabilitate the legacy of a man accused of ethnic cleansing, orchestrating political violence and serial cheating at the polls.
“If you haven’t directly suffered, if you haven’t directly felt the brunt of the cost of his person and his rule, it’s easy to have that perspective from a distance. In the States, people actually hail him as one of Africa’s leading statesmen, but the reality is the people on the ground have a different story and that’s part of why I wrote the book.
“My generation is known as the born free generation: we really don’t buy this stance against the west because we are aware of our problems, and our problems are really specifically home grown. I feel like it’s a distraction, it’s time people faced up to who and what is our problem.
“The election wasn’t stolen by the west, the violence of 2008 wasn’t carried out by the west. It’s time to deal with facts as they affect us.”
Bulawayo’s father Noel, a retired police officer, had hoped she would become a lawyer in the US, and it was only after she won the 2011 Caine prize for African writing that she confessed her literary calling. Drawing on her own experience, We Need New Names tells the story of a girl who loses her home in Zimbabwe and emigrates to America, where she is shocked by the grim weather and feels the tug of childhood nostalgia.
Bulawayo mused: “For me, life outside the homeland is a story of perpetual mourning for what is gone. It’s amazing how the simplest things can trigger that melancholy, from walking down the street and hearing on the car radio a song from home, to the smell of food, to a face that looks like somebody’s face.”
Should she win the Booker, it is not inconceivable that Mugabe will seek to congratulate her in person, as he once did a runnerup in the African version of television’s Big Brother. He will be disappointed. “Out of principle I wouldn’t,” Bulawayo said firmly. “I don’t think we’ll be seeing ourselves shaking hands any time soon.”