Man Booker Prize nominee “We Need New Names” tells a complicated story about the American dream

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The worst part of the American dream is waking up.

Nominated to win this year’s Man Booker Prize, NoViolet Bulawayo’s debut novel “We Need New Names” explores the difficult, fragmented lives of the people from her home country, Zimbabwe. The novel tells the story of Darling, a Zimbabwean girl who is given the opportunity to leave Africa for a “better life” with her aunt in the United States.

But life in America is strange, and not without its own difficulties. Darling wonders why her aunt is always dieting when, back at home, one of the only ways to eat was often to steal. She listens with disdain to so-called humanitarians who lament the conditions of Africa “as if it is just one country.” She must work multiple jobs to make enough money to send some home to her struggling family, and the longer she spends in America, the farther she feels from where she belongs.

Americans often pride themselves on being in the land of opportunity. The American dream, they say, is to come to this place and create a new life. Bulawayo’s novel, with a voice at first naive and bitterly perceptive, tells a different story. At the outset, she brags to all of her friends in Zimbabwe that she will soon be living a better life in “Destroyedmichygen” — better known as Detroit, Mich. But as Darling becomes more accustomed to life in America, readers are given a picture more of confusion than satisfaction. Darling assures her friends before she leaves that in America she will have the most beautiful car they’ve ever heard of: a Lamborghini Reventon. When her American friends tell her that she’ll never be able to have one, she is forced to ask herself, “If I can’t own it, does that mean I’m poor, and if so, what is America for, then?”

Bulawayo’s novel is one of six nominated on the Man Booker Prize shortlist for 2013. The prize, which was first given in 1969, is meant to award the best work of fiction by an author that is a citizen of the Commonwealth, Zimbabwe or the Republic of Ireland. Past winners have included Yann Martel’s “Life of Pi” and Thomas Keneally’s “Schindler’s Ark.” 

In the novel’s first chapter, Darling’s friend Bastard tells her, “You have to be able to return from wherever you go.” Bulawayo’s novel is a powerful reminder that we should never forget our roots, because they can never be completely severed, only painfully torn away.

It is for this message, and for her powerful voice that Bulawayo’s nomination for the Man Booker Prize is well-deserved. The winner will be announced Oct. 15.