We Need New Names (Bulawayo)

Discussion Questions
1. As the novel opens, we see that Darling is living in a close knit community of extended family members and friends. When she moves to Detroit, Michigan, she lives in a smaller family unit, and perhaps a more conventional one. Does living with fewer people in probably more middle class circumstances give Darling a more intimate family life? Or was her family life in Zimbabwe more supportive or affirming for her? What are the advantages of living in a more open community like the community Darling is born into in Zimbabwe, and is it possible for us to achieve that kind of family structure here in the U.S?

2. When Darling is living in America, she Skypes with Chipo, who tells her that she can't refer to Zimbabwe as her country anymore. Do you think this is a fair accusation? Does Darling owe anything to Zimbabwe? And is she still entitled to a sense of ownership over the place she left behind?

3. How do Bulawayo's descriptions of Zimbabwe diverge from other portrayals of Africa? In some of the tragic moments in the book—for example, when Darling and her friends try to remove the baby from Chipo's belly—there are unexpected moments of levity. Does Bulawayo's method of depicting tragedy make the harrowing elements resonate with you in an unexpected way? In recent years, elements of the media, such as video games and movies, have been taken to task for possibly desensitizing us to tragedy. Do you think that is true? What role does literature play in how we experience and understand global tragedy and other cultures? How does Darling's voice contribute to that picture for readers?

4. Despite living in poverty, a world away from American culture, we see through the lives of Darling and her friends that lots of American pop culture makes its way firmly into the imagination of these young people—from Beyonce to McDonald's to the television show ER. Did that surprise you? How do you see pop culture moving from the U.S. to Zimbabwe? How are Darling's ideas about American pop culture affirmed or challenged when she arrives in Detroit?

5. The scene in which the aid workers visit Darling's village gives insight into the sometimes dehumanizing impact of charity: "The man starts taking pictures with his big camera...they don't care that we are embarrassed by our dirt and torn clothing...we don't complain because we know that after the picture-taking comes the giving of gifts." How did this passage make you feel? If this scene were written from the point of view of the aid workers, how do you think it would be different? What role does our intention play when we contribute to charitable causes?

6. How do you think your country of residence affects the way you read and interpreted this novel?

7. The title of the book refers to the choice that many immigrants make to give their children names that, as Darling says, "make them belong in America." How important is a name? How much weight do names hold in your family or in your culture?

8. In what ways does America change Darling's personality? Is America the reason for this shift or is it Darling herself? Does your personality change depending on where you are or who you are with?

9. How would your reading experience have been different—and how might the power of Darling's message have been affected—if the novel hadn't been written in her voice? Are there places you think you would have understood more about the story? What did Darling's particular voice bring to this story that might not have been achieved another way? What role did her voice play in establishing the moments of humor and cultural insight in this story? The prose is also full of deliberate misspellings and phonetic language—like "destroyed" Michigan. What did those choices reveal to you about Darling's experiences?

10. Since the novel's publication, NoViolet Bulawayo—and other writers published around the same time, like Taiye Selasi who wrote Ghana Must Go and Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie who wrote Americanah—have fielded questions about being labeled as "African writers." Africa is a diverse and vast continent, and yet we oftentimes lump these writers together. Is that fair? When asked about the label, Bulawayo said, "For me, I always insist that I am an African writer because it's true; I am an African. I feel that even if I deny that label, my work will scream otherwise." She added that her aesthetics and themes were all inspired by Africa and its modes of storytelling, including the oral tradition. Do you agree, or disagree, with Bulawayo?
(Questions issued by the publisher.)

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