One of Africa’s most gifted writers; she has been described as a ‘writer who takes delight in language’.
Born and raised in Zimbabwe, NoViolet Bulawayo left for the US when she was 18. In 2010, she earned a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Cornell University, where she was also awarded a Truman Capote Fellowship.
She won the 2011 Caine Prize for African Writing for her short story ‘Hitting Budapest’, which was first published in The Boston Review. She was also shortlisted for the J.M. Coetzee – judged 2009 SA PEN Studzinsi Award.
Her new book, We Need New Names, which The New York Times described as ‘a deeply felt and fiercely written debut novel, was shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize. The Zimbabwean writer was the only African on the list. The novel was also shortlisted recently for the 2013 Guardian First Book award.
Bulawayo – who is currently a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University in California, USA – had a chat with Kolade Arogundade at the Open Book Festival in Cape Town, South Africa.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Congratulations on being shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
NoViolet: Thank you.
Sam Umukoro Interview: NoViolet Bulawayo is obviously a nickname. What is your real name?
NoViolet: I go by NoViolet Bulawayo, but my real name is Elizabeth Tshele.
Sam Umukoro Interview: And you were born in Zimbabwe?
NoViolet: Yes, I was born and raised in Zimbabwe; I lived there for the first years of my life.
Sam Umukoro Interview: In what ways has growing up in Zimbabwe influenced you? Did you set out to be a writer or were you, like others, mentored towards becoming a doctor or lawyer?
NoViolet: You do not choose to be a writer. When I think of my formative years in Zimbabwe and just being exposed to storytellers who told me stories, I think that is where I picked up the interest because writing books is very much about storytelling. That is where I picked up my love for language and I did not know that at the time I was being prepared to be a writer, but I was. My connection to the homeland is still an obsession in my work. I am writing because I care so much about Zimbabwe and I don’t think I would care so much if I had left maybe when I was five. So, my upbringing and being in that space for those 18 years was very important.
Sam Umukoro Interview: You grew up in a country that had its notions of racism formed, much like the rest of Africa, during colonial times, and then you went to the US. How does your background, in terms of race in America and Zimbabwe, impact your views and your writing?
NoViolet: I grew up in a post-colonial state; I was born right after independence. So, I didn’t experience racism like my father had. My blackness had never been an issue, until I went to the US. But, that being said, my experience there was mostly in terms of categorisation, the fact that in a ‘racialised’ state, you are black or white and your blackness sort of influences the kind of life that you are going to be living. At the same time, I was also not an American make, I was an African make; it made me an outsider. So, I didn’t necessarily have to go through the things that my African-American friends were going through, because they were from there. I had the cushion of being an outsider, sometimes you are ostracised, but it also made me exempt from the intimate struggles that they were dealing with.
Sam Umukoro Interview: In terms of issues regarding categorisation and labelling, what do you readily identify yourself as – a Zimbabwean or a Zimbabwean-American?
NoViolet: I’m so many things and then labels are useful, and at the same time they are not useful. So, it really depends on the context. I am black; I am Zimbabwean; I am a woman.
Sam Umukoro Interview: In which ways are labels useful?
NoViolet: (It is useful) In terms of identity, in terms of grounding yourself, especially for somebody who is living somewhere else where you don’t necessarily fit in the culture. So it helps knowing yourself and having something to hold on to.
Sam Umukoro Interview: How do you immediately identify yourself – a Zimbabwean or an American?
NoViolet: I am not American. I do not have American papers, so obviously that is not a tangible identity. I am very much Zimbabwean.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Tell us a bit about your book ‘We Need New Names’, which USA Today described as a stunning debut novel.
NoViolet: It is about a 10-year-old girl named Darling and her growing up in a shanty town in Zimbabwe. Her life is that of struggle, and at the same time she is also a happy child. What I was going for there is that sometimes being poor doesn’t mean you are dysfunctional. She was poor but she was also ambitious and funny and active. She is lucky enough to leave Zimbabwe for the United States in search of a better life, but she gets there to realise that being in the US is not all that because she loses a lot of her identity and she is never at home. So that is what the book is about.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Identity?
NoViolet: Yes, in a way. The book is about a lot of things, and identity is part of it.
Sam Umukoro Interview: What influence has your background had on your work? Did your being Zimbabwean and moving to America have any direct impact on the book you have written?
NoViolet: The book deals with Zimbabwe in the last 10 years; it is a story of a country that is coming undone, and is falling apart; that is suffering for the first time since independence, a period of instability, highest inflation in the world, political violence, and social structure unravelling. So, that environment makes the book what it is, because it is a book about undergoing crises.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Must a good book be about politics?
NoViolet: No, obviously not, it doesn’t have to be, it’s just what I care about at this particular time.