Tag Archives: AIDS

The Monday Book: WE NEED NEW NAMES by NoViolet Bulawayo

bulawayoI got this book out of the library on CD to keep my company careening up and down I-81. It was very good company indeed.

The opening chapter was the winner in a short story contest, and sets up the whole theme of the book: the innocence of children observing the folly of white people trying to “save” Zimbabwe (and a neighboring country or two). The whole book is one long lesson in irony. Had she taken a different approach to the writing, Bulawayo’s book could have been non-fiction history. Or horror.

One of the best features of her writing is how the children who are its heroes run through the insanity around them. They find a woman who hung herself because she had AIDS, and take her shoes to buy bread because they’re hungry. They run to meet the NGO truck that passes out toy guns without food. They lament that they no longer go to school because life is so boring, then they play “funeral,” imitating the machete-hacking death of a local leader who encouraged the citizens of the “Paradise” refugee village to vote. When the BBC crew that covered the actual funeral find them playing this game, they are horrified.

Not the children. They are living their lives in the circumstances surrounding them, watching the crazy go down with the sweet, confused, triumphant, intent on getting food and staying out of trouble for the most part. Not unlike the adults around them, just a little less aware of the subtleties.

I actually recommend this novel to people writing about trauma, because it shows how the voices of children narrating terrible things can make space for people to read about it without blaming the narrator or the writer. (It takes the me-me-me out of memoir.) That said, I don’t want to cheapen what Bulawayo has accomplished here. More than using innocence to point out guilt, shame, horror, she’s written with an internal voice of honest brutality that comes off as gentle. Her writing is lovely. What she’s writing about is not, on two levels: the violence of a country coming apart, and the whiteness that haunts both its dissolution and its recovery.

In a quest to be “woke,” several of my friends have begun a challenge: reading books or watching movies that represent African or Caribbean voices without white saviors. Bulawayo’s books should be at the top of this list.

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The Monday Book: TELL THE WOLVES I’M HOME by Carol Rifka Brunt

wolvesThis is a complicated book. Its central character is 14 and has that bouncy back-and-forthness of wisdom and childhood coming out in lovely sentences like “That’s what being shy feels like. Like my skin is too thin, the light too bright. Like the best place I could possibly be is in a tunnel far under the cool, dark earth.”

The book is about June, her older sister Greta, their late Uncle Finn, and Finn’s partner Toby. Finn is June and Greta’s mother’s brother, and both adults are talented artists. But one is doing taxes and one is dying of AIDS. Like I said, it’s complicated.

The writing is beautiful. Some of the main points are kind of unbelievable–like two girls from Westchester can get up in the middle of the night and drive to Bellevue without their parents noticing, etc. But overall the emotional range of the characters and the plot driven by their needs, angers, and hopes holds up well. Everybody wants something. Not everybody can say what they want, or why they don’t want some of their other family members not to get what they want. That’s the point around which the action rotates.

If you like character-driven drama, you will love this book. If you remember ’80s AIDS–ignoring, exploring, deploring–you will love this book. If you have no patience with unresolved plot points, you might not. There are some loose threads left dangling, but as Stephen King says, “Life has a lot of those. Why shouldn’t writing?”

The weirdest part for me, but the part that many reviewers liked the most, is how the sisters used a painting their uncle had done of them to communicate with each other. Worth a lot on the art market, the girls deface it to send coded messages when words fail them. It was an intriguing take on the art book genre.

Overall, I love the way Brunt writes, and how intensely she draws her main characters. One paintbrush up for TELL THE WOLVES I’M HOME.

 

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