There’s something wonderful, and also rote and depressing, about how surprising, original and hooky good short fiction needs to be. You can’t just write a coming-of-age-story or an immigration story, to succeed in the cutthroat and shrinking world of high literature, you have to find a new way to be more honest, more real, more touching than your competition. You have to do something totally new with language. You need, as NoViolet Bulaweyo has created, new names for things.
She’s done a smashing job. It was the freshness and surprisingness of “NoViolet,” that got me to buy the book. And the stories–it’s a novel in storylike chapters, basically– are wonderful, in just that direct, startling way, starting with the protagonist’s childhood in a refugee camp in Zimbabwe and moving, across a few beautiful pivot chapters that had me weeping, hard, on an airplane, into her experience as a young immigrant in the U.S. This is a young, fresh, female, African voice that it’s an absolute joy to hear, even when the protagonist is witnessing terrible things.
I don’t always enjoy the sensation of the hard hook and aggressively original voice, MFA crafted and honed, seizing me in its viselike grip, but I forgave this book for it, because ultimately, Bulaweyo wrote a beautiful and moving coming-of-age and immigration story. I hope she wins the Booker, which she’s on the shortlist for.