Tuesday 26 May 2015


The book is called We need new names (Chatto & Windus 2013) by NoViolet Bulawayo, a Zimbabwean woman living in the US. Half the book is Zimbabwe and destitution, half the US, and at the transition point between them is this short short chapter How They Left, which provides a powerful answer to any person wanting to know why some Africans are desperate to live in the West or more generally, what it means to be a refugee.

How they left
Look at them leaving in droves, the children of the land, just look at them leaving in droves. Those with nothing are crossing borders.Those with hopes are crossing borders. Those with strength are crossing borders, those with ambition are crossing borders, those with loss are crossing borders, those in pain are crossing borders. Moving, running, emigrating, going, deserting, walking, quitting, flying, fleeing – to all over, to countries near and far, to countries unheard of, to countries whose names they cannot pronounce. They are leaving in droves.

When things fall apart, the children of the land scurry and scatter like birds escaping a burning sky. They flee their own wretched land so their hunger may be pacified in foreign lands, their tears wiped away in strange lands, the wounds of their despair bandaged in faraway lands, their blistered prayers muttered in the darkness of queer lands.

Look at the children of the land leaving in droves, leaving their own land with bleeding wounds on their bodies and shock on their faces and blood in their hearts and hunger in their stomachs and grief in their footsteps. Leaving their mothers and fathers and children behind, leaving their umbilical cords underneath the soil, leaving the bones of their ancestors in the earth, leaving everything that makes them who and what they are, leaving because it is no longer possible to stay. They will never be the same again because you just cannot be the same once you leave behind who and what you are, you just cannot be the same.

Look at them leaving in droves despite knowing they will be welcomed with restraint in those strange lands because they do not belong, knowing they will have to sit on one buttock because they must not sit comfortably lest they be asked to rise and leave, knowing they will speak in dampened whispers because they must not let their voices drown those of the owners of the land, knowing they will have to walk on their toes because they must not leave footprints on the new earth lest they be mistaken for those who want to claim the land as theirs. Look at them leaving in droves, arm in arm with loss and lost, look at them leaving in droves.

Americanah (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013) by Nigerian woman Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is also excellent. Dressing her hair triggers memories and analysis. African hair has its own character which is different from Western or Asian hair. The way is styled or lacks style expresses to some extent one's state of being - I think that's true of anyone anywhere, man or woman.

Ifemelu's mother wears her lovely hair long, until she becomes a religious fanatic. When Ifemelu first arrives in the US, her hairstyle expresses her desire to fit in, as she attempts to look like an American. Then she adopts the African fashion of braiding, augmenting, relaxing, which is expensive and harmful to her hair, until the wheel turns again and she allows her hair to just be itself.

In Americanah Ifemelu reflects directly on race relations in America via her blog, which is witty and trenchant. The blog's style is viscerally different from the story (where the same issues are less obviously manifest). It muses critically on the state of race relations, on the differences between Africans who migrate to America and Americans born black, on white people's perceptions and behaviours and everyone's misunderstandings. On how little we know about another person's world. "Before I came to America, I didn't know I was black."


Both writers invoke a novel from a previous generation which answers the question How the hell did we get to this? Chinua Achebe, also a Nigerian, wrote the beautiful novel Things fall apart, published in 1958. Like Bulawayo, Achebe writes economically. Their books are short, all the more powerful for their brevity.


From still an earlier generation, Cane by Jean Toomey, published in 1923, is a novel "structured around a series of vignettes on the experiences of African Americans" (Wikipedia). In Americanah Ifemelu reads and loves this book. Toomey's writing does not to fit well into existing categories, much like Toomey himself, an American who did not consider himself a Negro, as they were called then. He would say that he descended from seven different races, Black being just one of them.

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