The motif of names is one of the strongest in the story, starting from the title of the book itself. NoViolet Bulawayo uses a pen name herself constructed from her mother's name, Violet, the word "No" which means "with" in Bulwayo's home language, and the name Bulawayo which is the name of the author's home city in Zimbabwe. Bulawayo has also spoken about how the naming practices in Zimbabwe often lead to names chosen for meaning, and the way she has tried to translate this in the name of characters in her book.
In addition, the topic of names is explicitly discussed at multiple points in We Need New Names. 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. 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, demonstrating one aspect 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. Though 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.
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.
Both of Darling's two homes in the story are across from cemeteries - the cemetery called "Heavenway" in Paradise and the American cemetery across from Aunt Fostalina's home in Michigan. Darling tells the reader that cemeteries used to scare her, but being close to so much death makes her not fear them any more. Darling also uses cemeteries as one of many comparisons about the differences in appearance between Paradise and Michigan - while Heavenway had only mounds of dirt to mark graves, Darling at first thinks that the cemetery in Michigan is a museum because of the grandeur of the statues and large gravestones. Finally, burial is brought up in one of the more poetic, omniscient chapters called "How They Lived" in which immigrants being given improper, nontraditional burials by their American children dooms them to never join the spirit world properly.
Masks appear significantly at two points in the book, and their appearance and coloring hold insight about Darling's transformation and understanding of the world. First, when the children see a mob force a white couple out of their home in Budapest, they find a mask hanging in the ransacked home. Darling narrates, "In the sitting room, we stand before the large mask on the wall and stare at the black face, the eyes gouged out. It is a long, thin face, white lining the eyebrows and the lips..." (215). She goes on to further describe the mask, which gives the impression of an exotic African artifact uprooted and placed in the expensive home as a nod to the black, impoverished, and less modernized lives happening just miles away in Paradise and places like it. Bastard picks up this masks and wears it while barking like a dog, but none of the children find this funny, perhaps feeling uncomfortable with the strange artifact's place in the home.
Much later in the book, when Darling has already been living with Aunt Fostalina, Uncle Kojo, and TK for many years, Darling finds herself writing on her wall in marker and, embarrassed by her slip and frantic at the idea of Aunt Fostalina finding the mess she's made, she goes downstairs to find decorations to put on her wall to cover it. Darling now narrates, "I find this weird mask; it's split in the center, one half white, the other black. The black half is split further into numerous crazy patterns that I can't figure out, but it looks interesting to me..." (285). The mask being half black and half white parallels Darling's internal conflict regarding whether she is now Zimbabwean, American, or both, and even within her identity as a black person and Zimbabwean, there is much complexity like the "numerous crazy patterns" (285). Soon after she takes the mask to her room, however, she has an upsetting conversation with Chipo in which her friend accuses her of abandoning Zimbabwe and throws her computer so that it hits the mask and knocks it off the wall, symbolizing the way her sense of identity comes crashing down as a result of this encounter.
Objects in the Shape of Africa (Motif)
Darling observes multiple objects in the book that are shaped like Africa or Zimbabwe, which are important for their linking of material possessions, their possessors, and the concepts of Zimbabwe and Africa to them and to Darling. The first is a necklace Darling sees a wealthy, thin woman living in Budapest wearing; the woman wears a gold necklace with a charm shaped with Africa while telling the children that she has lived in London her whole life and is visiting her father's country for the first time. The shape of the necklace shows that the woman feels a connection to Africa as a whole, and perhaps has made this a large part of her identity to others in London, but her having a necklace and using material goods to show her connection to Africa demonstrates the disparity between her and the children. The further objects of import are linked together: a clock in the shape of Zimbabwe that Darling hangs on her wall in Michigan and a slab of ivory shaped like Africa that she finds in Eliot's house. Darling likes the clock, which likely reminds her of Zimbabwe and is special among these symbolic objects in that it represents only Zimbabwe, rather than grouping all of Africa together as so many do in their minds in America. The clock, however, reminds her of the slab she found at Eliot's house, an ivory slab shaped like Africa. Darling had stolen the object without really knowing why, and she now hangs it above her bed, still clearly not seeing stealing as wrong (a vestige of her upbringing in Paradise) and claiming Africa back from a man she does not like.
We Need New Names Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for We Need New Names is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.