NoViolet Bulawayo Wins 2014 Pen/Hemingway Award

This year's Pen/Hemingway Award — a $10,000 prize given for an outstanding debut novel — has been awarded to Zimbabwean writer NoViolet Bulawayo for her strikingly emotional novel, We Need New Names.

This isn't the first piece of literary cred in Bulawayo's pocket. At 32, she's a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, holds an MFA from Cornell, and was the first black African female — as well as the first writer from Zimbabwe — to be shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Bulawayo's real name is Elizabeth Zandile Tshele, and she's a refreshingly honest, slightly self-deprecating writer; one of her reactions to being on the Booker shortlist was that the whole thing was a bit "awkward."

We Need New Names follows characters who go by names like Darling, Stina, Chipo, Godknows, Sbho, and Bastard. They live in a shantytown in Zimbabwe called Paradise, though in some semi-remembered past they used to have real houses, real furniture. Eventually, Darling moves to Detroit to live with her aunt. The novel is told from Darling's perspective — she's 10 — and according to Bulaway, the plot was inspired by the photo of a child sitting on the rubble of his bulldozed home.

Junot Diaz has said of Bulawayo, "I knew this writer was going to blow up. Her honesty, her voice, her formidable command of the craft — all were apparent from the first page." For a taste of her writing, you can read a heartbreaking, lyrical blog post of hers from December 2013, titled "Sweet Seed," in which she mourns a brother, who died of AIDS. The opening sentence is as as stunningly sad as the photo of the skeletal child that accompanies it:

He could have been wearing an expensive dress of bones, my brother Ronald...

Congratulations to Bulawayo and her formidable fiction! Grab a copy of We Need New Names here.