An award-winning novel of immigration points to the vibrancy of American literature

04/11/2014 2:29 PM

04/12/2014 5:51 PM

Sales at American book stores rose a measly 1 percent in 2013, according to trade accounts. It remains unclear whether that sluggishness — sales of ebooks have also tapered off — truly represents a further chipping away of the importance of books in our culture.

In any case, people continue to wonder with reason about the state and influence of literature in our lives.

Well, don’t count it out just yet.

Based on what I saw and heard at a Boston literary event last weekend, the state of American literature remains vibrant.

Consider the self-made journey of NoViolet Bulawayo. A native of Zimbabwe, she emigrated to the United States, joining an aunt in Michigan, earned three college degrees — she’d intended to go to law school but “fortunately or unfortunately,” she said, “studied writing instead” — and now serves as a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University.

Bulawayo on Sunday received the PEN/Hemingway Award, which is given to an American author for a first published work of fiction. Bulawayo, in her early 30s, follows a long and multicultural list of award winners who are now notable writers, including Marilynne Robinson, Jhumpa Lahiri, Ben Fountain, Yi-yun Li and Teju Cole. (Full disclosure: I’m a member of the Ernest Hemingway Foundation and Society, which co-sponsors the award with the

PEN New England

writers’ organization and the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum, site of the Sunday event.)

Bulawayo’s novel, “We Need New Names,” is an extraordinarily vivid tale of a 10-year-old Zimbabwean girl experiencing the years of chaos a decade or so ago under President Robert Mugabe’s regime — Bulawayo’s own girlhood took place in relatively calmer years following the nation’s independence in the 1980s. The girl, Darling, and her friends steal guavas to satisfy their hunger and eventually watch homes being bulldozed during a brutal campaign against the poor and government opponents.

Before she departs, she visits an elder who conducts a tobacco ritual and declares, “The ancestors are your angels, they will bear you to America.”

The next brilliant paragraph shows off Darling’s narrative voice:

Finally he tied a bone attached to a rainbow-colored string around my waist and said, This is your weapon, it will fight off all evil in that America, never ever take it off, you hear? But then when I got to America the airport dog barked and barked and sniffed me, and the woman in the uniform took me aside and waved the stick around me and the stick made a nting-nting sound and the woman said, Are you carrying any weapons? and I nodded and showed my weapon from Vodloza, and Aunt Fostalina said, What is this crap? and she took it off and threw it in a bin. Now I have no weapon to fight evil with in America.

Bulawayo’s story of immigration is a sober yet often humorous document of America’s promise, America’s realities and the shifting idea of home in a transplant’s consciousness.

In that way it burnishes the notion that American literature, like America itself, is a melting pot, enriched as it ever has been by the voices of immigrants.

“American literature,” said Scott Turow, one of three judges who chose Bulawayo’s novel, “whatever the reports of its demise, is really in pretty good shape.”

In a keynote talk, the journalist turned novelist Geraldine Brooks (“Caleb’s Crossing,” “March”), spoke about the implausible truths that often inspire writers and how she has drawn from her own experience, like Hemingway, as a foreign correspondent and witness to war.

A writer toils in a quiet space and never really knows what difference he or she makes in the world.

All she can do is make the effort, Brooks said, “to make the suffering I’ve experienced count for something.”

That indeed is the work of literature.

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