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Stanley Mushava: Did NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names Receive Acclaim Because it Concurs with the West’s View of Africa?

 
We Need New NamesBranching Streams Flow in the DarkFootprints in the Mists of TimeIn an article for the Zimbabwean Herald, Stanely Mushava has questioned why NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names, which was shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize, has received so much attention from Western cultural institutions and media.

He mentions Charles Mungoshi’s Branching Streams Flow in the Dark and Spiwe Harper’s Footprints in the Mists of Time that have not received much coverage outside of Zimbabwe. He wonders, “Is greater emphasis being placed on merit or rather on works that align with the West’s stereotypes on Africa in general and Zimbabwe in particular?”

Mushava goes on to quote from We Need New Names, where Zimbabwe and America are contrasted, and from reviews of the book that have appeared in American and British newspapers, which he says are “more politically themed than artistically contrived”.

Mashava’s concerns echoes those of critics of this year’s Caine Prize for African Writing. Chika Oduah was one of these who commented on “clichéd portrayals of Africa” in stories submitted for the prize and speculated that “in the desire to win the Caine Prize, African writers are being influenced by stories that have won in the past”.

“WE NEED NEW NAMES”, NoViolet Bulawayo’s debut novel, which was recently shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, excited more international acclaim than any Zimbabwean book in the recent past. Zimbabwe’s literary arena had some rich pickings recently including the overdue comeback of Charles Mungoshi with “Branching Streams Flow in the Dark”, Spiwe Harper’s “Footprints in the Mists of Time” and the most improved Zimbabwe International Book Fair in recent years.

All these went virtually unnoticed by the international media except “We Need New Names” which was not only nominated for the Man Booker but also revelled in glowing reviews in British and American newspapers, notably The Guardian and New York Times.

Book details

Image courtesy Mail & Guardian

 

Recent comments:

  • <a href="http://kelwynsole.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Kelwyn Sole</a>
    Kelwyn Sole
    October 24th, 2013 @17:09 #
     
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    Aha. The dissing of the novel has begun. And how can one resist such logic, when it appears in that paragon of objective reporting in and about Zimbabwe, the Herald? One mjst however feel sorry for those other recent black Zimbabwean writers who have written critically of the country - in ways that make Bulawayo seem tame - but who somehow have escaped the Booker Prize Western-running dog Judges attention ....
    (Some suggested reads: Brian Chikwava's 'Harare North'; the stories in Irene Staunton's 'Writing Still'; and Terence Ranger's article ''Rule by historiography: the struggle over the past in contemporary Zimbabwe' in Muponde and Primorac, 'Versions of Zimbabwe: New Approaches to Literature and Culture')

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  • <a href="http://bookslive.co.za" rel="nofollow">Carolyn</a>
    Carolyn
    October 25th, 2013 @09:55 #
     
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    Thanks for some much-needed context, Kelwyn.

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  • <a href="http://kelwynsole.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Kelwyn Sole</a>
    Kelwyn Sole
    October 25th, 2013 @11:32 #
     
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    This doesn't mean, of course, that the main point isn't correct - quite a few Zim writers are pretty damn good, and have not had the international coverage they deserve. (Mungoshi, for instance, is a superb short story writer).
    This whole issue of who supports what is difficult so sort out - Kanengoni, who writes probably the sharpest critique of Zim in 1997 in 'Echoing Silences', is now one of Mugabe's most vocal praisers. Hove is a consistent critic. Dangerembga has come out in support of ZANU in Fair Lady a few years ago etc etc......

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  • <a href="http://philyaa.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Phillippa Yaa</a>
    Phillippa Yaa
    October 27th, 2013 @13:00 #
     
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    I still haven't read the book, but I've read about the debate.

    I think the values of the marketplace have a subtle yet powerful influence on whose books get promoted. Is it superficial of me to mention that so many young, pretty writers are coming to the fore, while others who are equally capable and sometimes more brave and interesting remain in the back shelves of our shopfront library of who's who in the writing world? As I advance in age and fade into the obscurity of menopause I can't help wondering about this, because I only really started writing seriously well into my forties, and I know that it's seems to be much more of an achievement if the writer is 26 than if they are 50. I too celebrate a person who has the gumption, discipline and smarts to write books before they're thirty, I was not that person. I celebrate NoViolet, and I also celebrate Makhosazana Xaba, who is a fabulous writer who has not been 'noticed' and I wonder if that's because she's not younger.

    Oy vey I feel like I'm about to get shot down. Sour grapes, I fear is what some people may be thinking, but I'm not saying fresh young looks are everything but are they not something? I know we writers like to think we're above such superficiality but are we being entirely honest? Some writers are incredibly shy and should never be publicly interviewed, yet the mass media is the main platforms for selling books these days so if you can't do that PR thing it's a bit tough.

    I think if we were to ask writers who their favourite writers are, rather than marketing managers of big book concerns, we would get a more interesting collection. I think that these prizes, which are all about finding new talent, should also look into people's body of work over the years, it's not always about that individual short story or poem but about a person's output over decades.

    It's all a question of what umlungu wants, or what we think umlungu wants. When we say 'the West' I immediately think of well-heeled British or North American liberals who can offer me a nice stipend so that I can enact the African Lady Writer for their edification. It is hard to maintain one's integrity in the reality of market pressures, even if you're an African writer. I concede withm Mukoma wa Ngugi that a writer explores his or her anxiety and there's more than enough in Zimbabwean society for a person to feel anxious about. Mushava is just the latest exponent of the subtle pressure on black writers to not let the side down, or risk being told that you're not African enough. But there is so much more to our identities than our racial footprint. And writers need to eat. At some point, you'll do what you have to in order to feed your family. Unless you get that stipend... which might make it easier for you to breathe.

    People sometimes trash Oliver Mtukudzu, the Zimbabwean musician because they see him as a yes-man for Mugabe. Such purists praise Thomas Mapfumo for his ongoing critique of the Mugabe regime, which he can only continue because he lives in exile in the United States. Before anyone shouts at any artist about what their politics are, one should look at the circumstances in which they find themselves and whether or not they are able to use their voice.

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  • <a href="http://kelwynsole.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Kelwyn Sole</a>
    Kelwyn Sole
    October 27th, 2013 @15:39 #
     
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    I think that's right - but I have one or two questions here. First, Phillippa, I'm not sure to what degree 'the West' is synonymous with 'the marketplace'. Certainly the great thrust of demands on writers comes from the Northern countries ('the West'), but I'm not sure .... for some time I've been unhappy with the effects of making this sharp 'West' vs 'Africa' distinction (Neil Lazarus slices and dices this homogeneous notion of the 'West' in his article 'The Fetish of the 'West'' in the essay collection 'Marxism, Modernity and Postcoloniality'). Also, the degree to which local publishers are prepared to buy wholeheartedly into these global markets says something about whether they roles in furthering SA literature are benign or malign, again imo.
    I found Bulawayo's book angry and heartfelt, whatever her politics are - and dissing her by playing 'the West card' is annoying, and denigrating to a pretty fine novel.

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  • <a href="http://kelwynsole.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Kelwyn Sole</a>
    Kelwyn Sole
    October 27th, 2013 @15:42 #
     
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    To conclude ... I recently saw a suggestion from a local academic that our writers simply saw the South African market as a small stepping stone that they had to use before getting into the bigger pool of the global market. If that is true (and I think personally that it's not true, for the majority of writers) then we are truly still colonized, and f*****ed.

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  • <a href="http://philyaa.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Phillippa Yaa</a>
    Phillippa Yaa
    October 27th, 2013 @21:10 #
     
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    I look forward to reading NoViolet's book and if it's critical of her country, so are my favourite American, British, French, Chilean, Spanish, Indian and Colombian writers.

    As for the market... whatever its colour and shape - in my lifetime I'll never read everything I want to read, such is the generosity of the human genius. There will always be more great writing in another language that will thrill. I want to be a better writer than I was yesterday. If anyone noticed, I'd be glad. Anyway, with Rumi being the bestselling poet of all time, we probably won't be around to benefit from our soaking up the bigger pool of the global market, if we're anywhere near as popular as he is. Better get back to work!

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  • Lindsay
    Lindsay
    October 29th, 2013 @13:23 #
     
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    Sophy asked NoViolet what she thought about the criticism of the Caine Prize in the Aerodrome interview from this post: http://umuzi.bookslive.co.za/blog/2013/10/28/noviolet-bulawayo-discusses-the-nature-of-names-and-identity/

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