Binyavanga Wainana’s fantastic new book, One Day I Will Write About This Place explodes the boundaries of memoir and our notions of what it means to be a contemporary African. The book is part travelogue, part coming-of-age story, part African geopolitical history, but really in the end a tale about how its author became a writer. The story is told through dispatches from a particular time and place—grade school in Kenya, the first year of a business course in South Africa—and woven through with commentary that extends beyond the moment. Wainana is a master of simultaneously tackling both the small and the large-scale. On one page, he writes about a woman he is watching on the Amtrak train into New York City, coming to the conclusion that he might have diabetes, watching ethnic conflict bloom in Kenya through poorly spelled rants in online chat rooms, and tales from his trip to Togo to report on the 2010 World Cup.
Binyavanga Wainana splashed into American literary consciousness with the publication of his essay “How Not to Write About Africa” in Granta in 2006. Here we heard a fierce new voice addressing American and European sensibilities concerning writing about and saving Africa. Wainana’s essay lambasted not only the inefficiency of the West’s so-called development efforts in Africa, but also the dehumanizing nature of philanthropy itself. For the past five years, Wainana has continued to publish short, intriguing pieces that only hinted at the deep well of narrative elegance and lyricism that defines his debut book.
Wainana’s book is at its best when it is taking on the feelings and doings of groups. After a long day at his first job in agricultural development in Kenya, we see a group of Kenyans huddled beneath the stars contemplating their lives, coming together over shared history and geography, exposing their vulnerability in the safety afforded by strangers and the dark. After a raucous evening at Johannesburg’s infamous club Tandoor, Wainana describes a cab ride that ends at home with a group of African immigrants. He shows us the precariousness of their situations: the rows of flimsy mattresses; a man coming in after a long work shift to study for a correspondence course; a woman who keeps order, food, and femininity in the house in exchange for protection and free taxi rides. The scene describing the author’s family reunion in Uganda for Wainana’s grandparents’ sixtieth wedding anniversary is deeply moving. And for Wainana, it is the urgency of writing down this experience that propels him to his first publication, an account of the reunion in South Africa’s Sunday Times.
This book is filled with moments of frisson where writers will recognize themselves. Wainana does not begin by presuming that he will write something the world wants to read, but instead we see him filling himself up with the works of other writers and then trying to propel himself into their company with his words. We also see the figure of the scribe, who is at once both deeply interested in and also detached from others. Describing the moments when he first starts to think of himself in his new vocation, Wainana writes,
I am starting to scribble my thoughts, to write these moments. It is only when this is all done that I do what I do best. I look up, confused and fearful…then soak in the safe patterns of other people, and live my life borrowing from them; then retreat—for reasons I don’t know—to look down, inside the safety of novels; and then I lift my eyes again to people, and make them my own sort of confused pattern.
One of the most impressive of Wainana’s many talents is his ability to put the body’s movement into words. Writing about the Congolese dance and music, dombolo, Wainana explains that, “to do it right, you wiggle your pelvis from side to side, while your body remains as casual as if you were lunching with Nelson Mandela.” Later, he writes about the triumph of finally getting it right, and the reader has a sense that dancing in the club is not just about finding the right moves, but also about finding one’s place within a community, a country, Wainana’s finding his place as a writer and storyteller: “My body finds a rhythmic map quickly, and I build my movements to fluency before letting my limbs improvise. Everybody is doing this, a solo thing—yet we are bound, like one creature, in one rhythm.”
Not only does Wainana succeed in making movement visible on the page, but he also animates sound. Here is Wainana relating the difference between English, Kenya’s official language, and Kiswahili, Kenya’s national language:
We are not allowed to speak "mother tongue" in school. In school, Mrs. Gichiri, our headmistress, reacts strongly to girls who are prr-oud, who show vanity, who prr-een themselves. Naughty boys get four on the buttocks; proud girls get four on their palm. Prrr, said the whistle. A warning not to exceed yourself. The world in English has sharp edges. Pr words in English promise good futures to people who stick to brittle boundaries; prrr words promise breaking to those who dare to dance to kimay.
If I take issue with the book, it is not with what is written or how, but what is left out. I wanted to know more about Wainana’s years in Cape Town before he moves back to Nairobi, to have a better sense of the moment that led to the founding of the literary journal Kwani?, to dig beneath the layers of the author’s trip to Lamu, the island off the coast of Kenya where he goes to clear his mind after the election-related violence in 2008. Any memoir will suffer some in the editing process, leaving some readers feeling unsatisfied, as not every moment or phase in the author’s life can or will be revealed. To me, though, this seems like the right kind of dissatisfaction for a reader to end a book with—to leave feeling resolved to read more of a writer’s work, in the hope that this longing might somehow be met.
A. Naomi Jackson is studying fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. A recipient of a Fulbright scholarship to South Africa, her work has appeared in Coon Bidness, The Caribbean Writer, and Sable.
One Day I Will Write About This Place
Graywolf Press: August 2011
$24.00, hardcover, ISBN: 9781555975913