Binyavanga Wainaina decided he wanted to become an author as a child in Kenya. But it took him awhile — and two down-right disastrous stints as a college student in South Africa — to actually start writing. It might also take time for you to burrow your way into this memoir and to feel truly entwined in Wainaina’s story.
At first, his tale is a meandering one of an awkward child with his head in novels. It’s not immediately clear why Wainaina is writing this book and why you are reading it. What is the story he has to tell, other than the story we all have, of becoming what we are? Yes, he is Kenyan, which is of interest enough, possibly, to those in other countries that are content with glimpsing life in a faraway place. It’s when Wainaina heads off to South Africa as a young adult, as the weight of dislocation and despair weigh down on him, that you become invested in his struggle to figure out who he is, and whether he will ever finally sit down and put pen to paper. The memoir’s title, One Day I Will Write About This Place, captures the delayed gratification for both writer and reader.
From sluggish beginning to satisfying end, it’s Wainaina’s astounding imagery that carries you along. He’s a master of the simile. He gives you fresh ways to think about old things (“icing tastes in your mouth like Styrofoam sounds when it is rubbed against itself”) and the words to conjure up the foreign and new (dancing the Congolese dombolo requires you to “wiggle your pelvis from side to side while your upper body remains as casual as if you were lunching with Nelson Mandela”). His description of Nairobi makes you feel the beat and buzz of the city and see the colors fly past. When the police come to shoo away some sidewalk traders: “Dust rises; tomatoes scoot onto the road and bleed as matatu [public transport van] wheels smash them. There are plastic shopping bags everywhere, floating and flapping…and the dull, wet thump of heavy sticks on soft bodies”.
Wainaina has the ability to viscerally feel words. (“Russet is an emotion inside me that comes from reading things about horses, and manes, and many hairs tossing, and autumn. I see no color when I see the word russet“.) His writing makes you feel words, too. He tells of playing with sounds as a child — his mother putting on lipstick (mp-ah), trumpets (mprrr) — and inventing words as needed. One, kimay, represents the sounds and languages of Kenya swirling around that he doesn’t understand, and are therefore disquieting. By the end of the book, Wainaina has come to understand that kimay is the music of life that ties all Kenyans together and is their strength, even amidst political unrest, tribal factionalism, and global economic reverberations.
Wainaina’s evolving understanding of kimay is a reflection of the development of his own political consciousness, informed by his mother’s family tales from Rwanda and Uganda, years spent in post-apartheid South Africa, the re-emergence of Kenyan tribal politics in the aughts. As Wainaina gains confidence as an author, he becomes more political, or perhaps more confident in expressing his political views. He questions why there are so few well-known African writers, laying blame at the feet of donor countries that only support African writers for their own purposes, not for the sake of art. He’s critical of the organizers of the Caine Prize for African Writing, which he wins in 2002, because they require that entries be published in print — despite the lack of opportunities for African writers to get their words published in books and magazines.
This political side to Wainaina is no surprise to those of you familiar with the article that bolstered his name recognition: his 2005 tongue-in check “How to Write About Africa”, the most popular article on the Granta website and one that makes you wince because you’ve read those books, seen those movies. (The article concludes: “Always end your book with Nelson Mandela saying something about rainbows or renaissances. Because you care.”) A follow-up article (“How to Write About Africa II: The Revenge “, Bidoun.org) skewers the white people who now contact him, desperate to avoid the pitfalls he described and seeking his approval for what they have said/done/written about Africa.
Wainaina has a lot to say — about language, about politics, about colonization — and it’s fascinating to watch him weave these revelations into his own story because he is such an astute observer. In between his “studies”, while working part-time with farmers in rural Kenya, Wainaina writes that “[a]ll this time, without writing one word, I have been reading novels, and watching people, and writing what I see in my head…. I have never used a pen — I have done it for my own sensual comfort. If I am to grow up, I much do some such thing for others”. This concept of growing up is one we can all learn from — recognizing what brings you joy, and then figuring out how it can bring joy to others. It’s a simple idea that takes courage to put into practice. You’ll care about this book because it is not just a story of becoming what you are, but what you are meant to be.