A riveting read, rescued in parts by Brenda Fassie

Saturday September 3 2011

A copy of the bok. Picture: Phoebe Okall

A copy of the bok. Picture: Phoebe Okall 

I’ll admit it: This is the most difficult book review I’ve ever done. Not because the book has been sanctioned by Oprah, almost guaranteeing it “bestseller” success, or because the themes are difficult to pin down. It’s not even because the stream-of-consciousness style of writing drags you into the writer’s mind and makes you accept everything that comes out of it because, after all, it’s his mind, so you should not judge another man’s thoughts. It’s none of these things.

It’s been difficult because it’s Binyavanga Wainaina.

The man who is practically synonymous with Kwani? as its founding editor, the journal that sparked a literary revival in the region, a Caine Prize winner no less. The space that he occupies in contemporary Kenyan, and indeed African, literature is indisputable — Binyavanga is the soul of the new Kenyan writing, and every aspiring writer I know mentions him as one of their influences. To be published, to win international awards, to become a literary cultural ambassador, you have to nuance and adjust your writing like he does. You have to do things Kwani-style, which in some ways still means Binyavanga-style. That’s the ambition.

So it’s under this pressure that I was handed a copy of his memoir to review, One Day I Will Write About This Place, which captures Binyavanga’s journey from a middle-class childhood in Nakuru, Kenya to boarding school in his teenage years and his stumbling through university in South Africa, until he finally comes back to Kenya and wins the Caine Prize, all through with a novel firmly in hand. Writers are readers.

The story feels like something I’ve read before; parts of this memoir feature in his Caine Prize-winning short story “Discovering Home.” But I suppose that’s beside the point, because in both works, Binyavanga is tracing the same narrative — his life story.

The book’s first part — his childhood — is rich and dreamy, the emphasis being that Binyavanga was the odd one out, always lost in fantasy, an imaginative dreamer. One unforgettable character in this period of his life is Wambui, the family’s househelp. She provides that rural intrusion into Binyavanga’s sheltered, middle-class life: she mixes up her r’s and l’s, she “rubs soap on her legs every day” after washing the children, and she is full of stories — about “lost women, … about women who give birth to beasts because their neighbours cursed them.”

Uganda features a lot in the imagination of his childhood. Binyavanga’s mother was from Kisoro in Uganda, near the borders with Rwanda and with Congo. So when stories of Idi Amin’s atrocities filter through to Nakuru, Uganda becomes the embodiment of evil, a bogeyman in the mind of the young Binyavanga — so much so that when a group of rebel air force officers try to overthrow Moi’s government in 1982, he consoles himself, saying that “Kenya is not Uganda. Kenya has big roads and railways and tall buildings…”

But after a rich account of his childhood, the details of his teenage years seem thin and hurried, rushing towards South Africa. Failing in university and loitering on the fringes of society were surely life-changing events, but the book is lacking an interrogation into why this happened. Perhaps it is too close to home, but it seems that Binyavanga presents his failure in his studies as something that simply happened — an inexorable part of not fitting into the world.

I suppose when you are writing a memoir, you choose what parts to leave in and what parts to skip — it’s your story, after all. But I am disappointed. I was looking forward to seeing the dominoes tumble: the circumstances that lined up, and the pressures that intensified, until the only thing that Binyavanga felt he could do was abandon his classes and lock himself in his room for weeks at a time. Without the “why,” this part of the story seems hollow, saved only by Brenda Fassie — you’d have to read the book to understand.

After Binyavanga wins the Caine Prize, the rest of the book reads like a travel magazine, interesting bits here and there on Lagos, Accra and Lomé, places that his writing takes him, and the 2007 election in Kenya that redefined everybody. It’s light and entertaining — very different from the earlier parts of the book, which are much more grave and solemn.

Overall, my verdict on Binyavanga’s memoir is mixed: It is a riveting read in some places, and a skip-through in others, perhaps a reflection of his own ambivalence, that “one day” he would write about this place — Kenya, Uganda, Africa. The book’s major weakness is its repetition — not only have some of the passages in the book been previously published, but tighter editing would have made it less rambling.