The National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35, 2013
We Need New Names
(Reagan Arthur Books/Little, Brown, 2013)
Selected by Junot Díaz, National Book Award Finalist in 2012 for This is How You Lose Her
was born and raised in Zimbabwe and now lives in the United States, where she is a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. She earned her MFA at Cornell University, where she was recognized with a Truman Capote Fellowship. She won the 2011 Caine Prize for African Writing and her work has been published in numerous anthologies, Boston Review, Callaloo, and Newsweek. Bulawayo’s first novel, We Need New Names, is shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
Interview with NoViolet Bulawayo by Claire Vaye Watkins
Claire Vaye Watkins: Can you tell me your book's artistic origin story? What image/story/phrase/character/etc. did you start with? How long did it take to write? What was the research, composition, and revision process like? What most shocked, confused or surprised you about that process?
NoViolet Bulawayo: We Need New Names was inspired by Zimbabwe’s lost decade, especially the years from 2005-9, when the country came undone due to failure of leadership. I remember there were many haunting stories, characters, images, from the ground that figured in the making of the story, but what really got me was this image of a kid sitting on the remains of his bulldozed home—I just couldn’t get him out of my head. It took at least three years to write Names, with enough misses of course, as I did not always know what I was doing, or where it was going. Research feels a bit high-sounding for my process, but I simply immersed myself in the Zimbabwean story as it was playing out as much as I could—when I called home I listened a lot and just cared about what was happening, what was coming out of people's mouths. I was also reading the news and following events and connecting to people on social networks, which is generally what every Zimbabwean in the diaspora was doing at that rough time. Anyway, I was affected by what was going on, and bled it all in my notebooks, typed it up later, and kept going, workshopping pieces and revising as I went. I’d never written a novel before, so I was shocked by how brutal the process was—at least for me, there was no sweetness in the writing.
CVW: How about your book's journey to publication: How did your project go from being a Microsoft Word document to being a real life glued-together book? How long did that take? Any helpers along the way? What's been the most shocking/confusing/surprising part of that process?
NB: It took a village and a half to produce Names for sure—workshop-mates, teachers, mentors, cheerleaders, etc.; I cannot imagine the book without the many forces that came together. When I had what I felt was a solid draft after my three years of working on it, I queried agents but found myself back to the drawing board after a few rejections. I’d been fortunate enough to connect with the brilliant Jin Auh (who later became my agent) who, together with Helena Viramontes, my mentor at Cornell, sort of challenged me to dig deeper, and I'm glad and grateful they did. About eight or so months later I had a stronger draft. I arrived at Names as we know it now with my insightful and super editors, Laura Tisdel at Little, Brown, and Becky Hardy at Chatto & Windus in the UK.
CVW: The phrase ‘emerging writer’ always makes me feel like I'm stuck in a birth canal somewhere, so forgive me, but: were high-profile spotlights on emerging writers—like 5 Under 35, the Granta ‘Best of...’ lists, The New Yorker's 20 Under 40, or the defunct Best New American Voices series—on your radar as you were coming of age as a writer? Did they influence or inspire or intimidate or nauseate you? Were there other, now-emerged writers whose career trajectories &/or early work you followed via these venues, and if so which? Or were you looking up to major already-established writers as a young person considering one day writing and publishing a book? Basically: did you have contemporary writer role models, and where did you find these?
NB: There were inspiring young writers I was aware of (Justin Torres, Tea Obreht, Alexi Zentner, Maaza Mengiste, Cathy Chung), but I wasn’t working hard to follow high profile spotlights and people’s careers and stuff. I suppose I was just concentrating on myself and work, things can be distracting. And yes, I’m always looking up to older writers, not necessarily because of their writing careers, but rather what their work means to me—Toni Morrison, Edwidge Danticat, Yvonne Vera, Colum McCann, Michael Ondaatje, Jhumpa Lahiri, Edward P. Jones, Zakes Mda to mention just a few.
CVW: This is year's 5 Under 35 list is composed entirely of women. Care to share your thoughts on how gender affects a writer's encounters with the literary world?
NB: I’m not speaking from personal experience, but I believe the literary world is not totally exempt from sexism, and I suppose this can be frustrating. This year’s list is indeed made up of women, but somehow I don’t find that detail particularly interesting.
CVW: What makes you write?
NB: Because I am moved.
Claire Vaye Watkins is the author of Battleborn, winner of the Story Prize. She currently teaches at Princeton University.
Zim Ngqawana, “Quala Kwedini”
Zim Ngqawana is for summoning the ancestors and muse, always; his music gets me in the zone.
Lovemore Majaivana, “Kuleliyani ‘zwe”
Majaivana is singing about his better days in Zimbabwe, and of course as someone who is stuck in Zim’s past (I left the country at 18) I connect to the song; it’s my nostalgia anthem.
Lucky Dube, “House of Exile”
This lament of a displaced freedom fighter is still relevant to anyone who knows something about leaving one’s homeland. It definitely suits the second half of the book that’s set in the US. I remember listening to the song a lot around 2008-9, the height of the Zim crisis.
Brenda Fassie, “Vulindlela”
Dancing is one of my favorite things, and it’s really not unusual for me to do it when I’m writing as it helps with my expression, thinking, fluidity. Vulindlela is one of the most danced to songs in my studio.
Black Motion feat. Jah Rich, “Banane Mavoko”
If Darling, Bastard, Stina, Godknows, Chipo and Sbho (the young characters in We Need New Names) had ipods, this is what they’d be listening to.
About Junot Díaz
Junot Díaz was a National Book Award Finalist in 2012 for This Is How You Lose Her. Born in the Dominican Republic and raised in New Jersey, he is also the author of the critically acclaimed Drown and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. He is the recipient of a MacArthur "Genius" Fellowship, PEN/Malamud Award, Dayton Literary Peace Prize, Guggenheim Fellowship, and PEN/O. Henry Award. A graduate of Rutgers College, Díaz is currently the fiction editor at Boston Review and the Rudge and Nancy Allen Professor of Writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.