The choice of which lens to use to tell a story is far from arbitrary. It affects the tone. It affects the story’s intimacy. It affects your options for building tension. We Need New Names recounts horrific, trying times in a unique voice that lends levity and deepens emotional impact.
We have all had the experience of needing a break from the news. Yes, bad things happen everywhere, all over the world, all the time, and it is important to shine a light on them. However, the emotional wear and tear from constant negativity can be too much. Turn it off. Shut it down. Walk away. The same stories will be there tomorrow.
We Need New Names could be like the news – heavy and overwhelming. It avoids that by its choice of narrator and perspective.
Obligatory warning: From here on, there may be mild spoilers.
We Need New Names is told in the first-person past tense in the voice of a 9-year-old girl knee-deep in trying times. She does not fully understand what is happening around her, and her naiveté is a buffer to the depth of her suffering. Her daily concerns are stealing fruit and playing games with her friends. She notices that the adults in her life are not as attentive or available as they once were, and she remembers a better life as a dream, but she has little context for expecting anything different or better from her life.
Darling is not completely ignorant – she knows that many things are wrong with her world – but she does not feel the depth of the wrongness in the same way her parents do. It is up to the reader to interpret Darling’s experience to find the horror beneath the child’s innocence. Placing that emotional burden on the audience etches the story in our minds more effectively than a rote, omniscient recital of facts ever could.
Interestingly, when Darling eventually comes to America, she is almost more taken back by the culture shock of the Midwest than she was by the struggle in her refugee camp. The challenges of carving out a place for herself as a first-generation immigrant is almost more shocking to her young mind than her life back home.
The choice of narrator is not the only trick of perspective that Ms. Bulawayo pulls off. There comes a point, near the end, when the reader is struck with the lack of progress, the lack of change in Darling’s life. It seems that she is at her lowest point, and we despair for her. How will she elevate her station? Savvy readers expect a turn at this point – there is nowhere to go but up, right?
This is where Bulawayo strikes. She lifts us right out of the narrative. The next chapter is written in high, first-person plural. For a chapter, we don’t hear from Darling. We hear from “We.” It is equal parts essay and poetry, and it hits you right in the gut, marching through the collective experiences of those caught in the diaspora.
The change in narrator underscores the message, highlighting the chapter just as if it were printed in a different font or on colorful paper. It was a bold choice. I imagine the author may have fought with more than one editor to keep the shift in, but that is pure conjecture. It was an effective choice.
What other books have you read that use a unique voice or even a perspective shift to make their story more effective? Drop a comment below.
As always, thank you for reading, and happy writing.
Get Mornings with Murray in your inbox whenever there’s a new post.