NoViolet Bulawayo: ‘I’m encouraged by this new generation that wants better’

The Booker-shortlisted author talks about Zimbabwe after Mugabe - and drawing on Orwell for her brilliant new political satire

On the day I talk over Zoom with NoViolet Bulawayo in Zimbabwe, she is relying on a generator to power her internet connection; when she has a tickle in her throat and excuses herself to fetch water, she returns laughing, having forgotten that there is none today, and relieved that her sister has furnished her with a bottle. Ahead of travelling to the US for the publication of her second novel, Glory, she is in Bulawayo, the home city that provides half of her pen name; the other half, NoViolet, links the Ndebele word for “with” to the name of her mother, who died when her daughter was 18 months old. It was an early loss that, she says, means her writing will always have a strong awareness of how personal lives intersect with larger historical and political forces. “Some of these things that we carry, we don’t sign up for. But we’re here and, you know, everything and anything can happen to us. It’s part of my story. But it also doesn’t define me or define who I am and where I’m going.”

Born Elizabeth Zandile Tshele in 1981, the year after Southern Rhodesia became Zimbabwe and Robert Mugabe its first prime minister, Bulawayo has used her work to explore the importance of naming as an act of self-possession, so much so that her debut novel was entitled We Need New Names. She herself, she once said on stage, grew up with many names, and didn’t know she was called Elizabeth until her first day at school.

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