Binyavanga Wainaina is probably best known for his 2005 Granta essay “How to write about Africa”. It is a scathingly funny description of the collected clichés of white literature about the continent, in which Africans play swollen-bellied bit-parts in their own stories. Funnier than that article, however, was the response it got. People wrote in to Wainaina to ask him for the stamp of approval for their own articles, novels, holiday photos and school projects. He had become the voice of Africa, called on to legitimise or reject the next generation of white writers.
His new autobiography, One Day I Will Write About This Place, recently released in the UK by Granta books, is much less a work of satire than a Kenyan bildungsroman, a portrait of the writer as a chubby, bookish boy and a clever, aimless young man.
There are glimpses of the same frustration shown in “How to write about Africa” such as when he describes sitting in an aeroplane next to a neat middle-aged man, hair neatly combed rather than hanging in backpacker’s dreadlocks, clothes tastefully hovering between Kenyan and western, embarrassing the author with his aggressively correct Swahili and perfect manners. The story of the Swedes who come to his school in the seventies, and set up a manure-gas processor beneath the Kenyan flag, where they are not allowed to play, mixes anger with wry humour.
The author’s abortive trip to South Sudan meanwhile is simply sad. Wainaina is asked to write a book about sleeping sickness by the “European Union Humanitarian Something”. He does so, but is told that his work has statements out of line with EU policy. The language is unseemly; he can keep the money but they will scrap the book. He tells them “to fuck off in seemly language” and publishes the book himself. Is this, he asks, the answer to where Kenya’s writers are? Producing “donor-funded edutainment” for $7,000 a shot?
In July 2007, Wainaina wrote a long piece for Vanity Fair, called Generation Kenya. It detailed the despair that had overcome the country in the early 2000s, and the growing optimism that was replacing it. Kenya, Wainaina said, was not just part of an undifferentiated African mass, it was a country set on growth, on equity and freedom. In December of the same year, a set of contested elections triggered brutal political and racial violence that saw thousands killed and hundreds of thousands displaced. Wainaina was in Kenya during the riots and he refused to leave until the peace deal was signed. Afterwards he flew back to America where he cried at a podium, when giving a lecture on his country.
Politics however, as mentioned above, takes a back seat to sharp description and funny or moving vignettes from his life. There is a remarkably well-observed moment when Wainaina describes acting as translator for a group of middle-aged Senegalese women travelling round Kenya. They want to buy bras, but are disappointed by the plainness of what is on offer. The beautiful, urbanised sales girl, meanwhile, does nothing to hide her disapproval that women of their age should be interested in anything other than practicality when buying underwear.
Beautiful urbanised girls are something of a theme in the book. The tension between a rural, tribal Kenya that he knows only tangentially, but feels he should revere, and the middle-class world he inhabits, is often expressed sexually. His parents have a painting of a Nandi woman with ankle rings and bells on her nose. As an adolescent he wishes he could find her attractive, but he would rather sleep with Pam Ewing or Iman, the glossy haired Somali supermodel. It is many years later that he realises had been so obsessed with the thickness of the Nandi woman's lips, and the conflicting effects they had on him, that he had never noticed her enigmatic smile.
These sexualised themes of urban-rural divides in fact return again and again through the autobiography, eventually crossing over into cliché. When Wainaina leaves school he gets drunk with friend in a nightclub. They meet a fashionable woman, profitably divorced from her white husband. After many drinks he looks at her face, and sees tribal scars beneath the makeup. This scene in a work of fiction would be rejected as trite, a crass insistence of a manufactured dichotomy. I am not sure that it is made any better just because it happens to be true.
This is not the only problem with the book. There are interesting moments in Wainaiana’s childhood, and some of the best have nothing to do with nation and identity whatsoever, such as when he describes his sneaking admiration for the former head boy, exposed as a sexually predacious homosexual, who walks down the corridors with his head held high, daring others to pity him. But there is too much about childhood, which adds little. At their worst, the childhood passages adopt a twee faux-naif quality that should be beneath Wainaiana, and the second half of the book is so notably better than the first that readers may well be put off unnecessarily. By the time the book reaches the author’s lacklustre spell at university in South Africa it hits its stride with vigour. The breakneck prose proves much better suited to drinking and fighting in post-Apartheid Jo’burg than to detailing his childhood in suburban Nakuru.
Having previously enjoyed Wainaina’s columns for the South African Mail & Guardian newspaper, I was looking forward to reading One Day I Will Write About This Place. However, it is by no means a perfect book. The seemingly endless selection of perfectly described moments struggle to come together into a convincing narrative. Huge sections of his life seem to barely be mentioned. The most striking absence is the lack of time devoted to his establishment of Kwani?, Kenya’s leading literary magazine. The pacing is chaotic, the narrative often confusing. However, there is no doubt about Wainaina’s writing, or his eye for detail. This was not, in the end, the book I was hoping for from him, but it makes it quite clear that he is a talent that cannot be ignored.
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