The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2012

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FEB 2012 Issue

Extravagant Blooms

Binyavanga Wainaina
One Day I Will Write About This Place
(Graywolf Press, 2011)

Unlike most memoirs, Binyavanga Wainaina’s One Day I Will Write About This Place reads like a poignant fable. Wainaina deeply cares about his odyssey, the journey of a Kenyan boy who, ultimately, becomes an internationally lauded writer. He also wants readers to care about a region of the world most Westerners believe they are familiar with but, sadly, are not.

Wainaina, the founding editor of Kwani?, a premier Kenyan literary magazine, and winner of the 2002 Caine Prize for African Writing, has published work in the Guardian, the New York Times, and National Geographic, and is currently the director of the Chinua Achebe Center for African Writers and Artists at Bard College. In October 2011, Forbes Magazine named him among the 40 most influential African celebrities in the world.

In this insightful, emotionally rich memoir, Wainaina, born to a Ugandan mother and Kenyan father, interweaves his late-20th-century childhood with the dynamic, socio-political African scene. Cultural notes are supplied by artists from Michael Jackson to Brenda Fassie, the South African songstress.

As a child, the author, like children everywhere, has a limited view of his surroundings beyond playtime with his siblings, school, and his love of storybooks. “If words, in English, arranged on the page have the power to control my body in this world, this sound and language can close its folds, like a fan, and I will slide into its world, where things are arranged differently.” And, like all children, Wainaina’s view of the world shifts when the politics of the day directly affect his life.

After Wainaina and his sister earn top scores on a national test to determine where the best students will attend high school, the Wainaina children are mysteriously deleted from the list. The cause, later discovered, is that the family is not a member of the ruling tribe, the new political leaders of Kenya. Through persistence the Wainaina children gain entry to top-tier schools, but Wainaina would never forget: No matter how hard you work, outside forces can alter your fate.

Wainaina writes poignantly of the highlights of modern African history, from Nelson Mandela’s 1990 release from Pollsmoor Prison, to viciously low moments such as the carnage Idi Amin wrought against thousands of innocents and enemies. However, the outbreak of what would become the 1994 Rwandan genocide receives only a brief mention in the narrative. Instead, Wainaina unblinkingly recounts how, as a college student, he focused on drinking beer and hitting the local dance floors to the beat of Michael Jackson’s “Earth Song. He doesn’t know what to say to his mother about the troubles in Uganda, her birth land, so he says nothing, and Wainaina doesn’t return to the subject for another 46 pages. After one period of disillusionment ends, another begins with fresh conflict in his Kenyan homeland. “Uganda was my childhood bogeyman, and now Kenya teeters, and Ugandans everywhere are asking me what is wrong with us.”

Wainaina also authored the widely acclaimed satirical essay “How to Write About Africa” (viewable on YouTube, read by the actor Djimon Hounsou). He prescribes in his essay, “never, ever say anything negative about an elephant or a gorilla,” and “always end your book with Nelson Mandela saying something about rainbows or renaissances.” The author set out to craft a unique narrative of Africa in One Day, and the result is far removed from the mysterious or tragic television versions of Africa.

Instead, this memoir gives beautiful, lyrical descriptions of the landscape, “the edges of the sky start to fray, a glowing mauve invasion,” and of its people, who are “like an old lush jungle that continues to flourish its leaves and unfurl extravagant blooms, refusing to realize that somebody cut off the water.” Wainaina provides the means for readers to experience Africa, in all its dimensions, with newly invigorated senses.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2012

All Issues