Identity Discourse in Noviolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names


KWASU, K. J., Daniel, J.


Discourses on identity formation are replete with how rejection and acceptance in a particular society goes a long way in determining a person's self-esteem and sense of accomplishment. This paper interrogates unstable identities in the Africans domiciled in the diaspora. By adopting Karen Horny Strand of Psychoanalysis, it investigates the nexus between personal identity and collective identity and how both are problematized and constituted. The paper uncovers that identity for the African immigrant living in the diaspora is a construct, an idea of contestation that changes in response to the reality in the Diaspora. Identity for the immigrants is a strategy for survival in cases of hostility, racism in the Diaspora or disillusionment of the reality in Africa for the African immigrant living in the diaspora.


Unstable Identity, Horneyan Psychoanalysis, Diaspora, Immigrant, Strategy.


The subject of identity is succinctly explored in Bulawayo’s We Need New Names and is closely tied to the notion of being aware and attached to multiple societies mostly; Africa and the diaspora. This multiple consciousness inspires mutations in self-perception as a reaction to the psychological conflict, racial discrimination and the social conditions of the African immigrant living in the diaspora. There are close similarities between the experiences of Africans living in the diaspora that belong to the second generation of immigrants from Africa and that of African Americans - an offshoot of slave trade. These combinations or, blends of worlds have dualised the identity of the aforementioned thus; making them to fight over the reconciliation of these worlds (dual-heritage) in accordance with the prevailing circumstances and historical influences. It is in line with this trend of thought that Dubois (1963: 215) posits: The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife, this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that the Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both Negro and an American, without having the door of opportunity closed roughly in his face. Both African Americans and African immigrants in the diasporas experience a conflict of affinity to dual and sometimes multiple societies. The fight to retain both creates the diaspora character, or characteristics. Gyasi (2016: 3) who was brought to the US as a 6-year-old lends weight to this saying: “I don’t feel Ghanaian enough when I’m in Ghana, I don’t feel American enough when I’m in America, and this straddling of these two worlds where I feel some kind of alienation from either side of things was really eye-opening.” It is this feeling that creates a transient identity that attempts to pledge allegiance to conflicting cultures within the African immigrant’s psyche. As Procter (2004: 109) posits, “we have moved from a time of stable, unified identities to unstable plural ones…identities have become increasingly unsettled.” This is epitomized through most of the characters of the text under study. Although some of these African diaspora characters like Tess Onwueme (2016: 34) feel that “Anywhere I am, Nigeria is. I carry my cultural identity with me. So, when they see me, they see Nigeria, they see Africa. I live it. I breathe it and I eat it…I live the values. I feel a sense of pride being an African.” A feeling of cultural estrangement sometimes sparks this feeling of cultural nationalism in African immigrants living in the diaspora. If the feeling of estrangement is allowed to wither away it couldn’t have been a problem but it is the effort to resurrect the felt lost or eroded heritage that gives the African immigrant to the diaspora not only a double-edged identity but a double heritage as well. All of the effort put to reclaim, to reassert this past that form cultural history be it anthropological or political is what makes African immigrant to the diaspora not only interesting but relevant in the study of our changing world. A world of transnationalism as Selasi would have us believe in her TED Talk (2013).


As Horney (1885: 45) argues that the dynamism in identity formation is a defense mechanism in response to prevailing social reality. She postulates that the unconscious part of the human mind is associated with hidden conflict. This conflict spurs “constellation of defenses,” within the unconscious and these defenses contributes an integral role in establishing a fluid identity. Hogg and Vaughan (2011: 123) foreground the basis or foundation of identity thus: Identities probably have their origins in the vast array of different social relationships that form, or have formed; the anchoring points of our lives, ranging from close...


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