Posted by: biblioglobal | May 7, 2014

Kenya: One Day I Will Write About This Place (Book-from-every-country #52)

One Day I Will Write About This Place CoverI knew that One Day I will Write About This Place by Binyavanga Wainaina was a memoir, so I had certain expectations for it. I associate experimental language and wordplay with novels rather than memoirs. Maybe that’s ignorance on my part. But One Day I will Write About This Place certainly made me reconsider my assumptions.

I had intended The Wizard of the Crow by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o to be my book for Kenya. (And I still plan to read that one eventually.) However, I happened to come across One Day I will Write About This Place at a booksale last fall and I’d been saving it on my shelf to wait until after I read The Wizard of the Crow. That way it wouldn’t disrupt my carefully laid plans! But then in January, Binyavanga Wainaina was in the news for coming out as homosexual by releasing an additional chapter to his memoir. He did this in response to increasing anti-gay laws in Uganda and Kenya. I decided it was time to change my plans and read this book and then follow it up by reading the new chapter.

I particularly enjoyed the first portion of the book where Binyavanga Wainaina‘s language is at its most creative. His writing is extremely effective at conveying the thought processes of a child who sees the world in unusual ways. (To the point that sometimes I started to wonder if maybe there was something a little bit wrong with him!) He is tuned in to the sounds of words in various languages and troubled by the sounds of some African music because it doesn’t follow the evenly spaced tones of the European music he is taught in school.

The book spans from Wainana’s early childhood in Kenya through young adult years in South Africa to what must have been nearly the present at the time of writing the book (published in 2011). Some later chapters talk about the process of writing and publishing earlier chapters. The chapter from which the book is titled won the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2002. Later on we learn that the story was initially rejected for consideration for the prize because it was published online and not in print. Wainana wrote back with an indignant letter about the lack of opportunities for print publication in Africa and clearly he must have convinced the judges because he won the prize. He doesn’t really talk much about it in the book, but I really like the fact that he also went on to do something about the problem and helped to found Kwani?, a literary journal based in Kenya. (The name means “So?” in Sheng, a language mixture of English, Swahili and other languages spoken in Nairobi)

The main shortcoming for me was that the middle of the book fell into one of my personal distastes in reading- extensive descriptions of getting drunk/taking drugs. I’m not criticizing their inclusion, but for me personally as a reader I find they make for unpleasant and boring reading.

Much more interesting was seeing the mixture of cultures that influenced Wainana and how that changed over time. There was Kenyan culture and colonial influences of course, but also Congolese music and African-American fashion. One line that really stuck with me was a complaint about the African-American fashion for afros, which apparently not so easy for East Africans to grow, although they tried anyway.

As a final comment, I have to point out that the cover art fascinated me. It’s not enough to see the front of the book, you have to see the whole thing front and back:

One Day I Will Write About This Place front and back cover

It’s a piece of artwork by Kenyan artist Wangechi Mutu (her website is a work of art too!). The cover didn’t initially seem appealing, but I found myself paying attention to it every time I picked up the book. Every time, I noticed more of the disturbing and elaborate details.  It seems like a courageous choice for a book cover and it probably isn’t a coincidence that One Day I will Write About This Place was published by a small press, Greywolf Press in Minneapolis.

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Responses

  1. I’ve come quite close to grabbing this book when visiting the library and I’ve yet to do so. Maybe now after reading your review I will. I agree – GREAT COVER!!

    • I have books like that too- ones that frequently catch my eye, but that I never go so far as actually checking out! It’s an interesting, unusual read.

  2. I haven’t made an effort to purchase this book yet, I read an excerpt in a collection of short stories and found the writing style hard to comprehend. Anyway, it seem that you enjoyed it.
    By the way, I am now reading “The consequences of Love” 🙂

    • I think the style worked for me because it started with his childhood and seemed like it conveyed a child’s view of the world effectively. As he wrote about older ages, he toned it down a little bit and that gave me a sense of him growing up. I can see how it could be off-putting though. I did find that the use of present tense throughout the book made things confusing sometimes.

      I look forward to hearing what you think of The Consequences of Love!

  3. I just finished The Expedition to the Baobab Tree by Wilma Stockenström and translated from Afrikaan’s by J.M. Coetzee and although it was on kindle , it also have great artwork on the cover, which I often looked at, as I uploaded the image onto my blog. I wish I had the print version. This book sounds fascinating and looks like it might be updated given that additional chapter and the surrounding publicity.

    • The Expedition to the Baobab Tree cover reminds me a good bit of this cover. That looks like a really intense book.

      I certainly think it would make a lot of sense to re-release One Day I Will Write About This Place to include the new chapter. I don’t think it would make sense to go back and modify the original essays though, so I hope he wouldn’t do that.

  4. That is a stunning, yet really creepy, cover!

    • Exactly! I’m hoping I’ll come across more work by Wangechi Mutu on exhibit somewhere.

  5. […] praising the remarkable cover of One Day I Will Write About This Place last week, I came across a post at the blog Africa is a Country which called out some less creative […]


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