Alumna’s debut novel is SMU’s 2014 Common Reading

'We Need New Names' by NoViolet BulawayoFor the incoming class of 2018, SMU has chosen an acclaimed first novel that is also the first Common Reading selection to be written by an SMU graduate.

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo tells the story of 10-year-old Darling, a Zimbabwean girl who lives in a shantytown called Paradise. Darling’s father has contracted AIDS – euphemistically called “the sickness” by the book’s characters – while working in South Africa. Her mother has left town in her own attempt to provide for the family.

Unexpectedly, Darling gets the chance to live in the United States with an aunt. But the golden opportunity doesn’t pan out according to her dreams when she begins her new life as an undocumented immigrant in Detroit.

“Bulawayo describes all this in brilliant language, alive and confident, often funny, strong in its ability to make Darling’s African life immediate,” wrote Uzodinma Iweala in The New York Times Book Review.

> SMU Magazine: Alumna traces career awakening to SMU

Judy Wertheimer’s review in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette states that “Ms. Bulawayo’s artistry is such that we can’t help but see ourselves in that wider world…. Darling is a dazzling life force with a rich, inventive language all her own, funny and perceptive but still very much a child.”

“We believe that this narrative will provide students with a wholly original reading experience,” said Associate Provost Harold Stanley in an e-mail to faculty and staff members dated Monday, May 19, 2014.

Bulawayo, known to many at SMU by her given name of Elizabeth Tshele, earned her master’s degree in English from the University in 2007 after receiving her bachelor’s in English from Texas A&M University-Commerce. In 2010, she received her M.F.A. in creative writing from Cornell as a Truman Capote Fellow. She recently completed a 2012-14 Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford.

Her pen name is a tribute both to her mother, who died when she was 18 months old (NoViolet means “with Violet” in her native Ndebele), and to her childhood home, the second-largest city in Zimbabwe.

Bulawayo’s semi-autobiographical first novel has received several prestigious awards and recognitions, including the 2014 PEN/Hemingway Prize for Debut Fiction, the 2014 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for First Fiction, and the 2013 Etisalat Prize for Literature. Additionally, she became the first black African woman to make the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize (in 2013) and made The New York Times’ 2013 Notable Books of the Year list, as well as National Public Radio’s “Great Reads of 2013.”

We Need New Names is only the second work of fiction chosen for the University’s Common Reading since the program began in 2004. The first, How to Be Good by Nick Hornby, was SMU’s Common Reading selection in 2007.

Past SMU Common Reading books also include Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman (2004), Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich (2005), The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman (2006), The Devil’s Highway by Luís Alberto Urrea (2008), Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama (2009), Zeitoun by Dave Eggers (2010), The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (2011), The Big Short by Michael Lewis (2012), and The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore (2013).

The Common Reading Selection Committee is now seeking leaders for the pre-Convocation reading discussion. Discussion leaders will receive a free copy of the book. Active and emeritus professors from all SMU schools are invited to take part, as well as University staff members.

To volunteer as a discussion leader, or for more information on this year’s selection, contact Diana Grumbles, 214-768-3832.

> Learn more from SMU’s Common Reading homepage: smu.edu/commonreading

About Kathleen Tibbetts

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