Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina made an appearance at a monthly open mic poetry and spoken word event held in Nairobi on June 5, 2012. He was, it is safe to say, the most prominent literary figure to appear that evening. He was also, by some margin, the least comfortable performer, nervously lighting up a cigarette as he stumbled and hesitated his way through an extract from his 2011 memoir, One Day I Will Write About This Place.
Wainaina first gained fame in 2002 when he won the Caine Prize for African Writing, considered the most prestigious award specifically for African writers. Following this, he had established what became Kenya’s leading literary magazine, Kwani? (Sheng for ‘so what?’). It was the 2005 short satirical essay ‘How To Write About Africa’, however, with which Wainaina became virtually synonymous. It was a furious and funny castigation of assumptions about the continent which gained Wainaina sudden recognition. Over the past decade, Wainaina has also written numerous articles and short stories which have been featured in some of the world’s most prestigious publications.
Last year, Wainaina’s memoir was released to general, if occasionally lukewarm, acclaim. In Kenya, it was launched on May 31, 2012, with great fanfare. The author had been causing a stir on Twitter earlier in the month as he sent tweet after tweet about burning his Safaricom modem and uploaded a video called ‘One Day I Will Burn My Safaricom Modem’.
The timing and the title suggested that Wainaina was indulging in some shock tactic self-promotion. It was an act of rage, of catharsis, in line with his famous essay. A few days later, his article ‘How Not To Write About Africa 2012 - a beginner’s guide’ was published, and people began talking and revisiting his most famous work as the author himself promoted his ambitious project in his homeland.
It was two days after that piece was published that he gave a public reading in Nairobi. Surprisingly, Wainaina was no fire-breather or a master of manipulation. Rather, he was a man clearly uncomfortable and actually rather charming because of it. He made awkward little jokes and was notably quieter than the young slam poet that preceded him.
Wainaina’s performance was perhaps due to the background of his work. Wainaina’s Kenya is not one of oral traditions, unlike other lauded Kenyan writers such as Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Ngũgĩ released a memoir Dreams In A Time Of War in 2010 and his memories are underpinned at almost every turn by the stories he was told, the tales, the songs, the sounds of his family and friends. He writes, “We often crowded around whoever was telling a tale, and those who were really good at it became heroes of the moment”.
Wainaina does not fully belong to such a tradition. He is a man who has struggled to find his voice, feeling dislocated as a Kenyan with a Ugandan mother who also spent a significant period of his life in South Africa. He consistently describes himself as nervous when speaking, unable to voice his thoughts without writing them down.
Wainaina’s book contains paragraphs dedicated to the childish delight that he and his siblings had found in their maid’s mispronunciation of English words. His thoughts and descriptions show he isn’t wholly subsumed by his culture – he is slightly outside it, looking in, taking notes.
Wainaina’s memoir is not yet available in Uganda, and even in Kenya, the book took an extra year to appear compared to Europe. Many, including Wainaina himself, have also remarked that it is difficult to locate and purchase the book on the Kwani? website. It is possible that, as highlighted by Zimbabwean writer Tendai Huchu, the reason African readers struggle to get their hands on Wainaina’s book is a simple fact of numbers – knowing more books will sell outside Africa, publishers and distributors focus less on African writers’ home markets.
Kwani?’s managing editor Billy Kahora, however, plans to expand availability of the book into several cities in the continent. The delay in publication apparently came down to rights and marketing, and in both cases it was the greater financial muscle of the Western market that took precedence. Kahora explained to Think Africa Press that “unless one is part of a local curriculum, it is best to seek recognition and financial reward in the West even as you try and avail your book locally”. This might make economic sense, but it sits somewhat uncomfortably with Wainaina’s role as defender of African storytelling by and for Africans.
In his memoir, Wainaina seems to dwell on his struggles and gloss over his victories. Founding Kwani? is given just one line, while his recounting of his Caine Prize victory in 2002 is rushed – a reprinted version of an old email, not the story he had meant to send. Furthermore, he does not mention his famous essay directly, but alludes to clichéd African themes in reference to a different writing project. Most of the book is dedicated to feeling out of place in various locations, mental illness, feeling like a disappointment, depression, and the burden of family.
These are all important issues. Wainaina is also uniquely excellent at exploring and communicating them. His use of language is refreshingly unusual, for example, as he writes, “If crystal were water made solid, her voice would be the last splash of water before it set”. Sentences crackle and burst off the page. The fragmentary narrative form is employed to give the reader several lenses through which to see the story, delicately handled to avoid feeling overwrought or artificial. He found his voice, but it is not the voice of the firebrand burning across the opinion pages of Western newspapers.
Wainaina took his time coming to write. He spent a long time combating the depression which saw him abandoning his degree in commerce at the University of Transkei. He knew he wanted to write but didn’t commit to doing so for several years. He came late to his calling and, it seems to me, still has issues with properly committing to it.
The public performances Wainaina indulges in are, even at their best, a distraction from the serious business of fulfilling all the obvious literary talent that he possesses. With Wainaina in the spotlight, there is a relative lack of literary output – while it is an excellent read, One Day I Will Write About This Place is not the long awaited first book his readers crave. No amount of incendiary tactics in the public eye will make up for that.
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