Noviolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names is a book that clearly focuses on the nature of immigration, experience and the racism that this experience can lead to and draw out of a particular society. In particular, passages in the latter half of the book as loaded with social critique, not only of race relations in America but also of labour relations and ways in which they intersect with race. This paper will consider chapter seventeen of the novel in order to demonstrate how this critique is manifested and carried out by the author.
This chapter begins with a description of Darling, the novel’s main protagonist, work once she has reached American and is as a cleaner and a sorter of recycling. The chapter begins with a description that is clearly intended to be underwhelming, but at the same time powerful. Bulawyo writes; ‘When I’m not cleaning the toilets or bagging groceries, I’m bent over a cart like this, sorting out bottles and cans with names like Faygo, Pepsi, Dr. Pepper, 7-Up, root beer, Miller Budweiser, Heineken’ (20133, 251). This long sentence appears boring and drab, however Bulwayo uses it in order to establish a delicate critique of both labour and of her speaker’s relationship towards it. The names of the cans are clearly familiar to an American reader, who would most likely think that they contain recognisably different products, which some people would and would not prefer to drink.
However, Darling speaks of them in a way that emphasises the fact that they are alien to someone who is not familiar with them. She describes herself as bent over them, as if she were prostrate in front of them and almost bowing down to an series of objects. At the same time, it is clear the use of the list in the sentence does not serve to make the reader think that each item is unique, but rather to emphasise the fact that each may be exchanged for any other. This introduces the delicate sense already that the choice in commodities that is such an important part of American ideas of freedom, may be false, or at least ridiculous as it involves choosing different names for what are often very similar things.
As the chapter progresses, it can be seen to contain subtle criticisms of the way in which Darling’s work appears strange or unnatural. In particular, it contains an element that makes it clear that her work is a place in which she is expected to be completely normal, and in which she cannot say anything out of the ordinary or unexpected. When Darling panics after have seen a cockroach for the first time, she smashes a beer bottle and, after having been calmed down by her co-worker, she is informed that she is ‘just acting up’ (253). Her co-worker, Jim, then informs her that he knows that she ‘has seen a lot of crazy shit over there’ (ibid) but that there’s no need for this to come through at work. Darling’s behaviour is policed at work, and the remits of this at by Jim’s implicitly racist and ignorant opinions regarding the nature of her previous life.
Finally, the passage also contains a critique of the nature of American life and the way in which it is centred around objects that, although they are clearly filthy, must be made to appear clean and spotless. At one point, Darling remarks that; ‘The beer bottles are the worst. They come with all sorts of nasty things. Bloodstains. Pieces of Trash…, and one time, a used condom’ (254). It is Darlings to clean up the bottles in order for them to be processed, and in this way, it is her responsibility to ensure that it is her responsibility to ensure that the actual reality of life in America is removed from sight prior to processing.
In conclusion, therefore, the passage at the start of chapter 17 of We Need New Names could be read as criticism of work that demands a person is subservient to objects, as well as often ideology that demands the appearance of cleanliness and uniqueness amongst often dirty and fungible objects. In this way, the passage critiques key elements of the US working life and its ideology.