I 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:
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.