At this weekend’s LA Times Book Festival I saw all the stars. I saw Ruth Ozeki and Karen Joy Fowler and Sandra Cisneros and many other brilliant readers and speakers, all of whom are funny and well-spoken and perfectly charming in front of a crowd. But first thing Saturday morning, on a panel dubiously titled ‘Stories from Around the Globe,’ I watched as NoViolet Bulawayo quietly killed it. She is very soft-spoken, very serious. Her Zimbabwean accent is thick. But nobody, not a single other writer at the festival, delivered a reading like hers. She dared to be poetic. She read a section riddled with repetition, lacking a character, with only her subtle language to guide her. And it left us all a little speechless. Around her, the other panel members tried to make up for their stunted readings by being loud. The clever Lebanese writer and a brash American were funnier and showier than her. They crowded her out. They cut her off. But we all know she’d won. She won the festival.
Later that night, Bulawayo also won the The Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction for We Need New Names. The novel is narrated by Darling, a Zimbabwean child living in a shanty-town called Paradise. Her life is a string of games, her country is a mess, and her family can only try to save her by sending her to crime-ridden Detroit. The coming-of-age story is terrifying, sad, funny and perfect. And the writer, for all her quiet ways, was the loveliest of all this weekend’s writer-stars.