NoViolet Bulawayo: The only choice is play

By Gemma Ware

Posted on Wednesday, 11 September 2013 16:22

NoViolet Bulawayo admits she has had to rein in her politics. The first draft of her debut novel, We Need New Names, was “very charged, very political, in your face”, the Zimbabwean writer recalls.

She had to find a way to put some distance between the page and her political views.

“Doing it through children helped me keep them at bay,” says Bulawayo, who won the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2011.

Nevertheless, politics skirts beneath the surface of her novel, a coming-of- age story told by Darling, a 10-year-old girl who spends her days roaming around with friends in Budapest, a rich white suburb of Bulawayo.

They live with their families in Paradise, a shanty town built by displaced people after Operation Murambatsvina, or ‘clean out the trash.’

As the novel unfolds and political tensions mount, Darling and her friends bear witness to anti-white violence, the desperation caused by AIDS and the disintegration of their parents’ hope for change.

In one scene, following the burial of an activist the children re-enact his murder, watched by two men from the BBC. “What kind of game were you just playing?” one asks. “Can’t you see this is for real?” responds one.

For Bulawayo, “That’s trauma right there. We don’t have instances where they are actively confronting it and dealing with it, so the only choice is play.”

Like Darling, who leaves Zimbabwe to live in the US with her aunt, Bulawayo left to study and live with her own aunt.

And like her protagonist, who finds it harder and harder to phone home, Bulawayo is familiar with the guilt of leaving.

In April, she returned home for the first time in 13 years.

One of the most heartbreaking things, she says, was to walk into what used to be the biggest bookstore in the country, Kingston Books, and finding they do not sell novels anymore, only stationery.

“Books have been our way of engaging with the system, with what’s going on around, so I feel like things are being lost,” she says.

Despite the challenges facing the publishing industry, Bulawayo says she is “very grateful” to have found a local publisher, Weaver Press, that will publish her novel in August, a couple of months after its publication to acclaim in the US and UK. ●

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