It was to a gathering of over a hundred guests that NoViolet Bulawayo this week launched her book, ‘We Need New Names’, in Zimbabwe ahead of a busy schedule that sees her attending a host of high level literary festivals in the coming weeks.
However, in spite of all the international attention that is currently focused on her, Bulawayo seems to have maintained her grounding with old high school friends and close family members – including sisters, cousins, nephews and nieces – all in attendance to support the launch.
In arguably the most emotive moment of the Zimbabwe event, Bulawayo paid special honour to her 74-year-old father, Noel Tshele, who she praised as a “master storyteller” with an engaged relationship to language which has influenced Bulawayo’s own foray into the world of telling stories.
“When I look in the mirror of my writer identity, I not only see myself, but I also see his shadow hovering there somewhere,” she said before asking him to stand up to applause from the audience. “In essence, I am because he is. And I am absolutely lucky to be his daughter and to have received all the gifts that he came with.”
Watch a clip of the event here.
Earlier in the year, Bulawayo returned to Zimbabwe for the first time after a 13-year-long hiatus. In an article she wrote after her trip, Bulawayo movingly recounted the experience of seeing her father and other family members again, and of their ageing; something which she had largely observed from a distance through voice and images.
“I have tried to be what she needs in life, but of course, growing up, I couldn’t be all things to her,” said her father who expressed pride at Bulawayo’s achievements. Her assumed name (Bulawayo’s real name is Elizabeth Tshele) is a tribute to her mother, Violet, who died when Bulawayo was a baby.
NoViolet means ‘with Violet’.
Filmmaker, Rumbi Katedza, also joined Bulawayo onstage to facilitate an intimate conversation about, among other things, the main protagonists in Bulawayo’s debut novel which launched internationally in May to rave reviews. Chronicling the journey of main character, Darling, into different worlds and spaces, ‘We Need New Names’ has been long listed for the prestigious Man Booker Prize and the Guardian First Book Award.
“I look at this book as a national project as it’s the first Zimbabwean novel to be long listed for the Booker,” stated Bulawayo who said she felt humbled and encouraged by the recognition.
Bulawayo also indulged audience members, many of whom bought copies of the book, with a short reading from the text. The world of Zimbabwe’s arts who’s who was well represented at the event with guests including Barbara Nkala, Jesese Mungoshi, Nevanji Madanhire, Ethel Kabwato and Batsirai Chigama.
Asked a range of questions by the audience, one of the more striking ones was around whether Bulawayo considers herself an ‘African writer’, an issue which has been discussed by a range of writers across the continent, including Zimbabwean author, Petina Gappah. In an article a few years ago, Gappah is quoted as saying that she did not see herself as an African writer because of the expectations that come with the identity.
“For me, I always insist that I am an African writer because it’s true; I am an African,” stated Bulawayo in response to the question. “I feel that even if I deny that label, my work will scream otherwise.” She added that her aesthetic and themes where all inspired by Africa and its modes of storytelling, including the oral tradition.
Listen to some of what NoViolet had to say here.
The launch was held at the British Council premises in Harare. The event was supported by the British Council Zimbabwe in partnership in Weaver Press. The Zimbabwean edition of ‘We Need New Names’ is published by Weaver Press. Learn more about how to purchase a copy here.