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Author’s novel mourns Zimbabwe’s lost decade We need new ways of living, new ways of leadership: Booker nominee

JOHANNESBURG, Sept 16, (AFP): Zimbabwean author NoViolet Bulawayo, who is nominated for the prestigious Man Booker Prize on Tuesday, called for new leadership in her country where President Robert Mugabe has been returned to power in disputed elections. “We have been with one set of leadership from right before I was born. That is really not healthy in a democracy,” said the 31-year old, whose debut novel “We Need New Names” is one of six titles shortlisted for the literary award. “I feel we need a constant injection of new ideas, as in new personalities. It makes any space richer,” she told AFP in an interview in South Africa where she is currently on tour. “When something is not working, you need to change it. So we need really a new breed, a new culture of politics to carry us to where we need to be,” said the author, whose real name is Elizabeth Zandile Tshele. Mugabe swept to power in 1980 as an independence hero bringing democracy to millions of black Zimbabweans, and was widely credited with health and education reforms. He was sworn in for another five years in August. But in the last decade, the economy has crumbled following the introduction of disastrous land reforms in 2000.

Study
“The book came out of Zimbabwe’s lost decade,” said the writer, who grew up in the country’s second largest city of Bulawayo before going to study in the United States. “What inspired it is so fresh in people’s imaginations.” The semi-autobiographical novel’s sums up the message. “What I was saying was we need new ways of living, new ways of imagining ourselves, new ways of leadership, just a revamping of systems — starting from the self to the larger communal.” Life is a daily struggle for the main character, a 10-year-old girl named Darling and her friends who live in an slum area named Paradise in Zimbabwe. Darling is lucky to emigrate to the United States, though there she finds that the grass is not always greener on the other side as she starts to grapple with foreign cultures. “She really loses a large part of herself,” said Bulawayo, “and the book ends with her still trying to negotiate with the American terrain.” Bulawayo, who left Zimbabwe 13 years ago, only returned home this year and was shocked. “What happened to my country? It was a shock to the system. The able and beautiful country of my childhood had given way to something so new that I couldn’t relate to,” she said.

Realities
She found herself grappling with realities such as electricity outages or water cuts. Born in 1981, a year after Zimbabwe gained independence from colonial power Britain, she is part of the so-called born-free generation and said she yearns for the her country to recover its lost glory. She uses the pen name NoViolet — which means “with Violet” in her native Ndebele — in honour of her mother who died when she was 18 months old. She also took the name Bulawayo, after the city she grew up in. A fellow at Stanford University in California, Bulawayo authored a short story Hitting Budapest (2010), which won the 2011 Caine Prize for African Writing. Her novel has also been nominated for Britain’s Guardian newspaper’s First Book Award.

Bulawayo, the first Zimbabwean shortlisted for the Booker, will be the fourth African winner if she triumphs on October 15. South African J.M. Coetzee won in 1983 and 1999. His countrywoman Nadine Gordimer was joint winner for her novel “The Conservationist” in 1974, while Nigerian-born Ben Okri won for his third novel “The Famished Road” in 1991. Bulawayo is surprised at her nomination for the Man Booker Prize. “I feel very lucky and honoured especially as this is my first novel,” she said.

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