By ALEXANDRA FULLER
Harried reader, I’ll save you precious time: skip this review and head directly to the bookstore for Binyavanga Wainaina’s stand-up-and-cheer coming-of-age memoir, “One Day I Will Write About This Place.” Although written by an East African and set in East and Southern Africa, Wainaina’s book is not just for Afrophiles or lovers of postcolonial literature. This is a book for anyone who still finds the nourishment of a well-written tale preferable to the empty-calorie jolt of a celebrity confessional or Swedish mystery.
Binyavanga Wainaina ONE DAY I WILL WRITE ABOUT THIS PLACE A Memoir By Binyavanga Wainaina
256 pp. Graywolf Press. $24.
Not that Wainaina is likely to judge anyone’s taste in books. In fact, at its heart, this is a story about how Wainaina was almost eaten alive by his addiction to reading anything available. “I am starting to read storybooks,” he says of his 11-year-old self, growing up in Nakuru, Kenya. “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.”
As he leaves childhood behind — “My nose sweats a lot these days, and my armpits smell, and I wake up a lot at night all wriggly and hot, like Congo rumba music” — Wainaina retreats further from the confusing realities of politics and adolescence and his big multinational family (his father a Kenyan businessman and farm owner, his mother a Ugandan salon owner) and deeper into a world of words. At school he is told, and believes, that he is supposed to become a doctor or a lawyer, an engineer or a scientist. But Wainaina seems constitutionally incapable of absorbing anything that would further a career in these fields. “I spend all useful time in my advanced-level years making plays and novels,” he writes. “I do not study much. Our most successful play is a courtroom drama called ‘The Verdict.’ I play a prostitute with a heart of gold called Desirée who falls in love with a repressed boy who murders his mother. The stage is beautiful. We have raided the chapel for fine Anglican velvets and old wood tables with gravitas.”
At home during breaks from boarding school, Wainaina lives a dream-life of stories even while making a cheerful effort to act the expected part of a good man-child. “I know nothing about old Peugeots,” he writes of an outing with his father to fix some of the family’s farm equipment. “There are things men are supposed to know, and I do not want to know those things, but I want to belong and the members need to know about crankshafts and points and frogs and holy manly grails and puppy dog tails. Secular things to hang onto.”
By the time Wainaina leaves Kenya to attend university in South Africa, a country smoldering with the last poisonous fumes of apartheid, his addiction to books is complete. He drops out of school to pursue more completely a life of reading. “Over the past year,” he writes, “as I fell away from everything and everybody, I moved out of the campus dorms and into a one-room outhouse. . . . My mattress has sunk in the middle. Books, cigarettes, dirty cups, empty chocolate wrappers and magazines are piled around my horizontal torso, on the floor, all within arm’s reach. If I put my mattress back on the bunk I am too close to the light that streams in from the window, so I use the chipboard bunk as a sort of scribble pad of options: butter, a knife, peanut butter and chutney, empty tins of pilchards, bread, a small television set, many books, matches and a sprawl of candles, all in various stages of undress and disintegration.”
Wainaina’s almost terrifying inability to do anything but read, even as the world around him falls apart (“I returned to my home, Kenya, to find people so far beyond cynicism that they looked back on their cynical days with fondness”), is a thread to follow through the book. The plot spoiler is in our hands — Wainaina obviously figured out that he must write to survive — yet the story of how he achieves this dream is gripping less for its preordained conclusion than for the way it unfolds in Wainaina’s jazzy style: riffing, inside-jokey, un-self-conscious. “I am starting to scribble my thoughts, to write these moments,” he says of his fledgling attempts to make stories from the raw material of his rich world. “It is when this is all done that I do what I do best. I look up, confused and fearful, all accordion with kimay; then soak in the safe patterns of other people, and live my life borrowing from them; then retreat — for reasons I don’t know — to look down, inside the safety of novels; and then I lift my eyes again to people, and make them my own sort of confused pattern. I am no sharp arrow cutting through the career ladder. It’s time to try to make some sort of sense of things on the written page. At least there, they can be shaped. I doubt myself the moment I think this.”
By 2001, Wainaina is 30 years old and tired of his itinerant life in South Africa. “I want to be home,” he writes. “Just to be home.” He returns to Kenya and finds housing near one of Nairobi’s largest slums. “Hostels like these are popular with college students and the newly employed. They are cheap and secure. Water is rationed. That first night I left the dry taps open, and I woke up to see my laptop floating in four inches of water. The screen died. I bought a cheap secondhand P.C. screen in the city, and now it is working.” By day Wainaina writes. By night he makes his way “through the zigzag paths” of the city’s streets “to catch the flickering streams of people.”
Wainaina was catapulted into the literary spotlight when his autobiographical novella “Discovering Home” was awarded the 2002 Caine Prize, sometimes called “the African Booker.” The work arose from a long, late-night e-mail to a friend, and it retains an unedited familiarity. “There is a problem,” it begins. “Somebody has locked themselves in the toilet. The upstairs bathroom is locked and Frank has disappeared with the keys. There is a small riot at the door, as drunk women with smudged lipstick and crooked wigs bang on the door.”
Wainaina followed up that success with “How to Write About Africa,” a provocative essay that appeared in Granta in 2005. “In your text,” he wrote, “treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: 54 countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book.”
“One Day I Will Write About This Place” grew in part from the seeds of those shorter works. But while their superbly vivid moments never quite cohered, this latest work is brimming with insouciant virtuosity, and it is utterly resolved. Wainaina’s Africa is not all glamorous poverty and backlit giraffes. It’s an Africa in which the lost are perpetually leading the blind, and yet somehow still find their way home.
Alexandra Fuller’s new memoir is “Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness.”
A version of this review appeared in print on August 14, 2011, on page BR12 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: The Reader.
See online: A Writer’s Beginnings in Kenya