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Book Review: One Day I Will Write About This Place


Last Updated: 08/07/2013 4:27 pm

One Day I Will Write About This Place

Binyavanga Wainaina
Graywolf Press, 2011, $24

Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina’s memoir One Day I Will Write About This Place is a kaleidoscopic keyhole that offers fresh insights on globalism, tribalism and the decolonizing process. Director of the Chinua Achebe Center for African Writers and Artists at Bard College, Wainaina received the Caine Prize for Discovering Home. Spanning Kenya, Uganda, South Africa and Togo, his memoir conveys the drifts in mood and consciousness that accompany political change with the assuredness of a Rift Valley cattleman reading cloud patterns: “Now that the state is failing, we are held together by small grace, by interpersonal relationships, by trusting body language.”

A lackluster student while pursuing a degree in finance at South Africa’s University of Transkei during the final days of apartheid, the author portrays himself in a solitary slum of literary bohemia—rent unpaid, days spent in bed reading Nadine Gordimer and Saul Bellow amidst “crumbs of cigarette coal” and dirty cups. It is a familiar picture, a cliché that many have lived, but the voice is rangier than most: “The candle roars to light, spluttering like late-night cats fucking near the garage outside.”

A devourer of mass market romance novels as a boy, he imagines early on that he probably has what it takes to publish bestsellers and enjoy a life of sports cars and pizza: “The Argentinean polo player has melting eyes and thick eyelashes ... they heat up blacker and shinier, blacker and velvetier.” Like Joyce or Kerouac, Wainaina has a knack for bending language to display the contours of a child’s perceptions: “Icing tastes in your mouth like Styrofoam sounds when it is rubbed against itself.”

As he comes of age, the idea of the artist’s life begins to seem problematic. After reading Kenya’s most famous writer, the banned and exiled Ngúgí wa Thiong’o, he reflects, “I fear writers; they want to go too deep and mess up the clear stepladders to success. I cannot see myself being this sort of person. I dream of studying advertising.”

His memoir, nonetheless, traces the education of a rough and tumble aesthete with decidedly antibourgeois instincts: a gourmand of barbeque goat and warm beer who parties lavishly with a rural chief; a prober of authenticity who expands vividly on the connection between corrugated metal roofing and the “rang-tang-tang” of Congolese music; an appreciator of advertorial murals and a deconstructionist of sentimentalized negritude. Recalling a painting that hung in his family’s kitchen, he observes, “That look, that slight toying smile, could not have happened with an actual Nandi woman. The lips too. The mouth strives too hard for symmetry, to apologize for its thickness.”

A credible reporter on the complexities of transculturation, Wainaina recounts being on a plane seated next to a white man who chats with him in Kiswahili—”His accent is perfect; his tone, rhythm, everything. His timing is all wrong…And his exquisite politeness is rude….I must nod, and say, ‘Ndio, ahaa, eh? Yes. Ohh!’ Eyebrows up, and eyes wide in mock interest.”

Reading and booksigning 9/16 at 7:30pm, at Oblong Books &  Music, Rhinebeck.

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