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At BAM, Zimbabwean author NoViolet Bulawayo discusses language, place and going home

Author NoViolet Bulawayo discusses her work with writer Ben Greenman. Photo by Beowulf Sheehan

Brooklyn Rambler

Brooklyn Daily Eagle

Good food, good wine and good stories are the bedrock of an enjoyable evening, and that's what the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) is serving with its Eat, Drink & Be Literary events. Featuring readings by and question and answer sessions with a diverse array of authors, from Salman Rushdie to Pulitzer Prize-winner Jeffrey Eugenides, the series runs until the end of May.

This week, NoViolet Bulawayo took to the microphone, reading from her first novel, “We Need New Names.” Published last year, the story follows a girl named Darling as she comes of age, first in a Zimbabwean shantytown called Paradise, and a few years later in Detroit. Told from the girl's perspective, the narrative is filled with the minute observations of someone still wrapped within the cocoon of childhood while watching the adults she is close to learn how to survive in a new country, where communication can be difficult. It's the sort of story that anyone who has experienced being new to a place, population or process can relate to.

"I like to imagine my audience as anyone who is reading a human story," Bulawayo said to a full house at BAMcafé. "I'm trying to create some democratic country where anyone can peek and read."

There is nothing quite like hearing an author read the words she herself has written, and Bulawayo's soothing accent — with its lightly rolled r's, clipped i's, stretched-out o's and long e's — seemed to bring her imagery into sharper focus as she described the frustration a recent immigrant had in navigating the phone ordering process. The character needed to tell the story about her experience to someone, but it had to be a person who would know what she meant.

"Sometimes language fails us, especially when we cross borders," Bulawayo said. "It's tied to geographic areas."

Her descriptions are vibrant — a car can be hot enough to roast sinners; the television remote is pointed at the TV like a gun and shot; a young man has been lifting weights and looks like Will Smith in "Ali" — and woven into a larger fabric that describes what it is to become an American. Newcomers want to mimic television accents in order to blend in, but there's never really any place like home.

"Being outside is like being in a state of perpetual mourning for my homeland," Bulawayo said of her first 13 years in the United States, during which time she did not have an opportunity to return to Zimbabwe. "Emotionally, there's something — for me, at least — that is missing. Going home does something physical."

Dinner at the event was served by Great Performances, BAM's in-house caterer, and wine was provided by Pine Ridge Vineyards.

Upcoming events will feature Chang-rae Lee and Daniel Daniel Alarcón — with Q&A sessions moderated by Deborah Treisman — and Allison Bechdel and Meg Wolitzer, moderated by Ben Greenman.

Each Eat, Drink & Be Literary event includes a buffet dinner and wine before the featured author reads. Eagle photo by Samantha Samel

BAM’s Eat, Drink & Be Literary series is held in BAMcafé. Eagle photo by Samantha Samel

March 21, 2014 - 11:00am


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