On March 7th, San Francisco State University was cordially visited by the talented writer NoViolet Bulawayo, winner of the Caine Prize and author of the soon to be published novel, We Need New Names. As Professor Sarah Manyika introduced Bulawayo, the author greeted her audience with a reserved attitude and a magnetic presence. Bulawayo began by introducing her new novel and reading a short passage from the section titled “How They Left”, which is a fictional account of the realities people of Zimbabwe experienced during a dark period in the countries recent political history. The passage talked about the complexity of leaving ones home and identity behind, in order to secure a fulfilling life elsewhere. Part of the excerpt Bulawayo read said,”you can’t be the same once you lose who and what you are”. The immigrant experience is a transformation on many levels. The change of environment an individual undergoes inevitably alters a persons identity, since a persons environment has such a powerful influence on who they are.
Here in California, the immigrant experience is an important attribute of our culture. People from all over the world have immigrated to California for hundreds of years. Yet, the issues of immigration rarely go as far as conversations about the experience of the individual. More often than not, conversations stick to the political sphere, which targets individuals in groups. Bulawayo targets an issue that is quite focused on the individual, the change that a person undergoes when they have no choice but to forget their old names and get new ones in order to survive.
In Zimbabwe, like many other African countries, names carry a meaning with them. Bulawayo said that,”these names speak.” The question is what do the names say about the individual, and once they are changed is the individual changed as well? Is the old identity lost, is a part of it left, or is the immigrant a new person?
I asked Bulawayo these questions and she replied that, “it is all of these things… it’s complicated”. Bulawayo explained that changing ones identity can be a choice, but a lot of the time it isn’t. An immigrant undeniably undergoes a huge change, yet generally people can’t help and hold on to parts of their past because those are the things that have made them who they are. As a result, an immigrant is a melting-pot of an individual. The past and present environments melt together to create a person who is something old and something new. Yet the immigrant is still a person, and like any other person there is always some choice, other times less than others, to make oneself a good person. So, the struggle that one may face to identify themselves can be used as a tool to reinforce the virtues of the person that once was and the one that will become.