Books: Taking his own advice

Six years after writing a comic essay entitled ‘How To Write About Africa,’ Kenyan writer Binyavinga Wainaina finally has his answer.

Binyavinga Wainaina 521 (photo credit: Jerry Riley)
Binyavinga Wainaina 521
(photo credit: Jerry Riley)
In 2005, Kenyan writer Binyavinga Wainaina wrote a short piece for Granta magazine, “How To Write About Africa,” a barbed send-up of the trends and tropes embraced by many writers – native and not – when writing about the continent and its people.
“Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize,” he advises.
“Make sure you show how Africans have music and rhythm deep in their souls, and eat things no other humans eat.”
Equally funny and furious, the piece struck a chord; it became the most circulated piece in the journal’s history. It also brought Wainaina – winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2002 and founding editor of the literary journal Kwani? – and his work to a wider audience. The piece implied a not-entirely-unreasonable question: If this is how not to write about Africa, then how does one go about it? Despite these antecedents, it would be unfair to frame Wainaina’s first book, One Day I Will Write About This Place, as a simple manifesto. It is a memoir, and memoirs, admittedly, often have the habit of slipping into maudlin sentimentality as unsatisfactory as the exoticism that Wainaina satirized. But to its credit, the book escapes this trap. Rather, it is a considered reflection on his childhood and maturity, set against the political evolution of his native Kenya.
Once something of an oasis of political stability – at least on the surface – Kenya has had its own share of political instability in recent years. A self-interested political class has gradually drawn its population into ethnic strife, with the consequent unraveling of a social harmony that had held the country together for many years.
But none of this is evident in the late 1970s Kenya that we experience through the narrator’s young eyes.
Wainaina is seven; he is filled with a sense of wonder at the world around him. His impressions are channeled through the authentic narrational tone and voice of a child: unfocused, naive, always questioning and probing, yet constantly seeking out the good in everything. The Kenya of this childhood is a benign place. Daniel arap Moi has just succeeded Jomo Kenyatta – the father of Kenyan independence, but also something of an autocrat – as president.
“He is young, awkward and fumbling,” Wainaina writes, “apologizing in his uncertain voice for just being there.”
Recently selected as a New York Times notable book of the year, One Day is at its most engaging at moments like this, when Wainaina’s narrative is so in touch with what he sees. The unpleasantness of real life does slip in from time to time: an argument between his mother – Ugandan, incidentally – and a neighbor reveals uncomfortable xenophobic undertones. Later, he and his younger sister are denied places in the top high schools, despite their exemplary scores in their matriculation examinations. It’s a matter of the wrong ethnicity, one can infer. But he resists the temptation of placing an after-the-fact pathology on his experiences of the moment. By doing so, he encourages the reader to do the same; to think about the challenges of Kenyan society within a more meaningful context.
As he moves through adolescence into adulthood, Wainaina enters a period of perhaps surprising diffidence, a disconnection from the world. He goes to study in South Africa but finds himself adrift, quickly disconnected from the purpose-driven mind-set of his contemporaries and searching for something with which to fill the inexplicable void inside him. As a reader, one knows that he will see this period through – the fact that he has written a memoir brings us to that obvious conclusion – but this doesn’t stop his account from being deeply affecting.
One could be melodramatic and propose that his salvation lay in the power of words. This is correct, up to a point.
Wainaina – who currently heads the Center for African Literature and Languages at Bard College, New York – discovers that writing is one way of making sense of the world around him. But it doesn’t heal the world; he could only watch with impotent fury as Kenyan society collapsed under the weight of the ethnic tensions it had unsuccessfully sought to negotiate, following the disputed presidential elections of 2007.
The searching honesty with which Wainaina writes – about himself, about his surroundings – gives One Day a potency that is often lacking in works about and from the continent. He is not seeking to create a unifying narrative that explains and defines the diversity of 56 countries. He is just writing honestly about his own world, in a meaningful way. One can’t ask for more from him – or from any other writer, be they focused on Africa, the Middle East or anywhere else in the world.