Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press (July 19, 2011)
Reviewed by Lanie Tankard
Binyavanga Wainaina busts clichés about Africa in his memoir, One Day I Will Write About This Place, due out July 19. He paints vivid word portraits of individual countries, rendering a pointillist map of much of the continent in the process.
Employing psychogeography to bring the reader into his childhood in Kenya, studies in South Africa, and family reunion in Uganda, he offers international comparisons wherever he travels south of the Sahara. Always he is keenly observing the surrounding African culture with wry wit, spot-on turns of phrase, and subtle descriptions.
Wainaina, who won the 2002 Caine Prize, is founding editor of the African literary magazine Kwani? (which means “So what?” in Swahili) and director of the Chinua Achebe Center for African Writers and Artists at Bard College in New York.
The memoir skillfully blends themes of family, writing, ethnic differences, nationalism, internationalism, politics, individualism and collectivism (and how they differ both horizontally and vertically), masculinity/femininity, and traditions. Wainaina gives the reader a vivid idea of what change looks like when it comes.
One Day I Will Write About This Place is a good read not only for its literary pleasure but also for its finely tuned perceptions that can aid in global understanding.
The memoir begins with soccer in 1978, a family game in Kenya when Wainaina is seven years old. And it ends with soccer in 2010, a World Cup summer. In between, we watch Wainaina grow up, bolstered by his family’s solid world amidst a background of turbulence.
He develops a visceral love of reading along the way. Books become his constant companions. He can’t get enough of them. Immersing himself in their pages, he strengthens his writing abilities and love of the printed word. Wainaina takes the reader on a tour of Africa with all five senses in this memoir: the sound of frying sausages, the sight of a lake covered in flamingos, the scent of mountain vegetation, the taste of Chicken Licken fast food, the feel of bare feet on hot gravel.
He devotes an entire chapter to ten thousand corrugated iron roofs in Nairobi, astutely presenting them creaking in the noonday sun, pummeled by rain, juxtaposed with ten thousand languages, and adjacent to a skyscraper skyline.
A different lens for considering the world appears within these pages, as Wainaina illustrates how America appears from across an ocean.
Violence is also present in Wainaina’s reminiscences. Machetes fly after the 2007 election in Kenya. And there is a most eloquent chapter about the various turns his mother’s life will take as eighty thousand people flee Congo in a 1960 rebellion.
What is prejudice? Can it be seen? Wainaina nimbly weaves specific examples into the warp and weft of his story. The resulting kitenge exhibits a colorful pattern of stereotyping hard to dismiss.
He knits in various musical artists such as the late great Brenda Fassie,demonstrating the power and influence of her moving song “Vuli Ndlela.” He also notes the effect of languages on interpersonal relations. To talk in Gikuyu or Kiswahili? The choice speaks volumes about a person’s mindset, a topic Wainaina has addressed before.
Wainaina articulates the sound of a continent, and of Kenya in particular. He has composed a powerful song in literary form. Perhaps the Grammys should consider a new category: Memoirs That Sing.
Lanie Tankard is a freelance editor and writer in Austin, TX. She is a former production editor of Contemporary Psychology: A Journal of Reviews and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.
This review reminds me of one of my most prized pieces of art–a three dimensional painting from Guguletu, Cape Town, South Africa that is made of metal from the townships.
How many memoirs have you read about places other than the country of your origins? Is it true that you learn more about your own place when you read about another–just as it is true of travel to other lands?
And what makes a memoir sing, in your opinion?