We Need New Names

We Need New Names Essay Questions

  1. 1

    One of the most important moments in We Need New Names comes when Chipo accuses Darling of abandoning Zimbabwe and tells her that she cannot call Zimbabwe her country any more. Is Darling entitled to a sense of ownership of a place she has left behind?

    Even after working so hard to fit into American culture by cultivating close friendships with other black girls and picking up an American accent and American slang as quickly as possible, Darling undoubtedly still connects with Zimbabwe more than America. This can be seen from her frequent flashbacks to her life in Paradise and the way that she returns to her childhood, Zimbabwean self in times of high emotion (such as when hitting the child at the wedding or singing in the car after not being stopped by the police). However, Chipo also makes a valid point that Darling has left Zimbabwe behind and, though she cannot return because she has overstayed her visa in America, she does not make a concerted attempt to keep updated with or truly empathize with the situation in Paradise, because she is so swept up in her American life. Whether or not Darling is entitled to a sense of ownership, she certainly feels conflicted about her identity after living in America for many years but still feeling that her home(s) are back in Zimbabwe.

  2. 2

    Despite living in poverty in Zimbabwe, Darling and her friends are exposed to lots of American pop culture -- from Lady Gaga to the television show ER. What does this say about effects of globalization on contemporary African life?

    Darling and her friends, though seemingly cut off from the world by not having access to technology like computers or television, are still able to stay abreast of American pop culture, demonstrating the penetration of Western influence deep into the culture of Zimbabwe. These more benign examples demonstrate the effects of American influence, hinting at larger issues of global politics such as economic and political interference which the reader glimpses only through some of Darling's interactions with adults; for example, when Mother of Bones talks about the devaluation of Zimbabwean money. It is clear that Darling and her friends both identify strongly as Zimbabwean but place great value on being Westernized in some ways, as Darling is proud of speaking the best English among her friend group and when her friends fight over which countries to be while playing country-game.

  3. 3

    Throughout the first half of the book, which depicts Darling's impoverished childhood in Zimbabwe, Darling fantasizes about moving to America to live with her Aunt Fostalina. This suddenly happens halfway through the book, and Darling spends the rest of her adolescence living with Aunt Fostalina and her family in Michigan. How are Darling's ideas about America affirmed or challenged during this time? What about American culture does Darling like and what does she dislike?

    When Darling and her friends imagine moving away from Zimbabwe, they make comparisons almost like setting up for a round of country-game; they act as if countries can be ranked by their global influence and never ponder on the problems that might exist in those countries. Thus, Darling talks repeatedly about moving in with Aunt Fostalina and seems to conflate this with having a perfect life - she even believes she will be able to own a Lamborghini Reventon when she lives in America. When Darling first arrives in America, she mainly thinks about two things: food and snow. Food represents Darling attaining some of what she wished for all of the times she talked about going to America; at Aunt Fostalina's, she will never have to go hungry. However, Darling is shocked by the concept of snow and the fact that she stays inside, avoiding going out and experiencing the cold for the first time, represents the things Darling did not expect and does not like about America, especially the way she feels boxed in and lonely without the freedom and close friendships she had in Paradise.

  4. 4

    How does technology play a role in Darling's life in Zimbabwe and in America?

    In Paradise, Darling's family does not have any technology to speak of: no phones, no computers, no television. This means that they are cut off from the world to some extent, and certainly cut off from one another when they are not in the same place, meaning Darling's parents are wholly out of the picture for much of the time. The major piece of technology that Darling and her friends interact with are the cameras with which the people from the NGO and the woman in Budapest photograph them, which they only tolerate as a means of getting gifts they greatly need and which Darling is especially critical of.

    In America, technology is a major part of Darling's life. She uses TV and movies to work on her American accent and to understand American phrases. Aunt Fostalina's family is described largely through their habits with technology: Aunt Fostalina watches exercise programs, Uncle Kojo watches sports and later news about the war, and TK plays video games and posts on social media frequently. As Darling gets older, she keeps in touch with her American friends through texting even when there isn't much to say, showing the bonds she has formed with Marina and Kristal even if they are not as close as her relationships with her friends in Paradise, and she uses the phone and Skype to contact her family and friends back in Paradise, which is a troubling but important part of her American experience.

  5. 5

    How does Darling view race while living in Zimbabwe? How do her views change when she moves to America as an adolescent?

    Darling and her friends seem to link race strongly with ideas of Africanness, politics, and language, likely because the adults who inform them about the way society functions also imply that these are intertwined. For example, when the children watch the confrontation between a group of black people and a white couple living in Budapest, the argument spans from language use (one black man challenging the white man, "Can't you read? You brung English to this country and now you want it explained to you" [119]) to race relations and social hierarchy ("Stop your bullshit colonial mentality, what are you calling him sir for" [119]) to the role of race in identity as an African (the white man says "I am an African...I was born here, just like you!" [121]). All of this causes Godknows to ask, "What exactly is an African?" (121), which neither Darling nor any of the other children have an answer for.

    In America, however, racial divides are more clear. Though Africans and African Americans still have significantly different experiences and cultures, as the reader can see hashed out through the argument Darling, Marina, and Kristal have in the car about language use and Ebonics, Darling still associates solely with black people and feels most comfortable with other Zimbabweans. It is clear from this encounter and one in which Darling's mother laughs at her for speaking such American English that language and race are still intimately tied in America, though differently than in Zimbabwe.

  6. 6

    What does the title of the book refer to? What role do names play in the story?

    Bulawayo hints at the importance of names as a motif in We Need New Names through the title of the book, and within the story the topic of names is explicitly discussed at multiple points. One such time is when the young girls prepare to give their friend Chipo an abortion, though they don't really know what they need to do, and taking on the names of doctors from the TV show ER helps them to feel that they have the maturity and responsibility necessary for the act. It is at this point that the girls explicitly say that they "need new names" (84).

    Later in the book, in the chapter "How They Lived," the practice of immigrants giving American names that have no meaning or connection for them to their children born as American citizens demonstrates one aspect of the disconnect between generations of immigrants in Western countries. In another moment, Darling marvels at the fact that Tshaka Zulu has personally named all of his children and grandchildren living back in Zimbabwe, something that keeps him connected to each of them every time their names are said.

    A final, very important, moment in the motif of names is the fact that Darling's friend Chipo names her daughter Darling. The reasoning is somewhat dark - Darling's friends say the name was chosen "so there would be another Darling in case something happened to [her] in America" (212). Darling says that she doesn't know how to feel about this, and it is certainly an interesting choice, giving Darling a kind of rebirth in Zimbabwe even as she grows farther and farther away from her family and friends who remain there.

  7. 7

    How might the novel have been different if it weren't told by Darling in first-person narration? How would the story differ, for example, were it told in third person?

    A reader's experience of We Need New Names is highly influenced by the narrative voice Bulawayo has chosen to employ: first-person, limited narration through Darling as she grows from a child to a teenager, except for the three chapters told in an omniscient, highly poetic style that break from the story's narrative arc somewhat. By telling the story through Darling's observations and perceptions, Bulawayo shows the impact of a country's political instability on the life of a common person, and because Darling is just a child, the reader must put together the pieces of what has happened through her vivid memories and the games and discussions the children partake in as ways to cope with their situation. Were the story told in the third person, much of the wonder and vividness of Darling's voice would be lost, and the book would likely be much more dry as the politics and history of Zimbabwe would be explained more than lived.

  8. 8

    How does religion play a role in We Need New Names? What stance does Bulawayo seem to take on religion, especially in Africa?

    Religion is shown with a critical and ironic tone in We Need New Names, especially with regard to Western religion's influence in Zimbabwe. Darling is taken to a church on Fambeki mountain by Mother of Bones, and they watch as a man called Prophet Revelations Bitchington Mborro leads the congregation by yelling, shaking people, and occasionally poorly reading brief passages from the New Testament aloud. He has clearly fashioned his church to his own benefit, getting people to give him money and molesting a woman in front of the congregation under the guise of exorcising her demons, and Bulawayo shows this through his actions, Darling's criticisms, and even his jarring name in which the words Revelations and Bitchington are so juxtaposed.

    Furthermore, Darling questions the influence of Western religion in Africa herself by coloring Jesus's eyes brown on a calendar of Mother of Bones, which she is beaten for. She explains her actions as trying to make him look like her and the people she knows, which calls attention to the problematic nature of white, Western society expanding into Africa without alteration, supplanting African beliefs and identities rather than enriching them.

  9. 9

    The story is told almost entirely through Darling's first-person narration, but at least two chapters take on a more poetic, third-person style of narration. How do these sections affect the reading of the story as a whole?

    In the Reader's Guide that accompanies the 2014 printing of We Need New Names, Bulawayo comments on why she employs these shifts in narration and tone in We Need New Names. Namely, Bulawayo says that, "We Need New Names is at once about the individual and the collective. I'm telling Darling's story, but the reader can't forget that other people are struggling all around her... the collective voice acts as a beam of light illuminating her experiences, giving her story a power beyond the immediate specificity of her own experiences" (7). In other words, these sections both allow the reader to broaden their focus and remember that Darling's story is just one of thousands affected by Zimbabwe's political movements during this time, and this in turn helps the reader to understand where Darling's story converges and diverges with this common narrative.

  10. 10

    Darling and her friends spend much of their childhood in Paradise playing games they have created. What do these games help the reader to understand about contemporary Zimbabwean society?

    Games are an important way the children in Paradise process the world and an important window for the reader into the complex and somewhat damaged psyches of the children. In this passage, the children grapple with global politics and the disparities in quality of life between world powers and impoverished, politically unstable countries like their own at the moment. The most often played game in the story is country-game, in which the children argue over who gets to be various world powers and then play a relatively complex game of yelling and running. Another of their more popular self-created games is called "Find bin Laden" and allows them to parallel an important global conflict on a scale in which they have control. A final important moment in the story related to games comes after the funeral for a character named Bornfree who was killed because of his involvement in a political movement the children watch unfold. They stay after the funeral and act out Bornfree's killing, exhausting themselves through running and screaming, and when a man from the BBC asks them what kind of game they were playing, Bastard responds, "Can't you see this is for real?" (146). This moment demonstrates that the children understand on some level that they must use play to understand the harsh and confusing world around them.