In 2005 the Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina, then living in Norwich, wrote a blisteringly satirical essay on ‘How to Write about Africa’. He was responding to Granta’s Africa issue, which he hated, as he later explained, for being ‘populated by every literary bogeyman that any African has ever known’. The issue offered ‘nothing new, no insight, but lots of “reportage” … as if Africa and Africans were not part of the conversation, were not indeed living in England across the road from the Granta office. No, we were “over there”, where brave people in khaki could come and bear witness.’
As the child of enterprising middle-class parents (his mother owned a hair salon in Nakuru, his golf-playing father was the managing director of Pyrethrum Board of Kenya, a farmers’ marketing co-operative), Wainaina was dismayed not to find his own day-to-day experience reflected in most literature about the continent. ‘Among your characters,’ he suggested in ‘How to Write about Africa’,
you must always include The Starving African, who wanders the refugee camp nearly naked, and waits for the benevolence of the West. Her children have flies on their eyelids and pot bellies, and her breasts are flat and empty. She must look utterly helpless. She can have no past, no history; such diversions ruin the dramatic moment. Moans are good. She must never say anything about herself in the dialogue except to speak of her (unspeakable) suffering. Also be sure to include a warm and motherly woman who has a rolling laugh and who is concerned for your wellbeing. Just call her Mama. Her children are all delinquent. These characters should buzz around your main hero, making him look good. Your hero can teach them, bathe them, feed them; he carries lots of babies and has seen Death. Your hero is you (if reportage), or a beautiful, tragic international celebrity/aristocrat who now cares for animals (if fiction).
Taboo subjects when writing about Africa, Wainaina wrote, included ‘ordinary domestic scenes, love between Africans (unless a death is involved), references to African writers or intellectuals’, and ‘mention of school-going children who are not suffering from yaws or Ebola fever or female genital mutilation’.
When his article appeared in Granta, Wainaina had already won the 2002 Caine Prize for African Writing for an autobiographical piece called ‘Discovering Home’, but had yet to publish a book. Sounding off about how not to do it was one thing. When the time came, would he deliver? In One Day I Will Write about This Place, a memoir, Wainaina concentrates on the ordinary subjects he identified so scathingly by their omission from most writing about the continent: the tensions of family life, the ups and downs of school, the difficulty, for an ambitious would-be writer, of finding a voice – all the usual themes of coming-of-age literature, contentious, if at all, only because they sit awkwardly with our stock notions of what African writing should be like. With African notions too, perhaps. If the Western take on Africa often focuses reductively on the continent’s humanitarian problems, the view from the inside all too frequently seems to be that writing about Africa that is not politically motivated is not worth reading.
Wainaina is not alone in wanting to reclaim an ordinary private perspective for his writing; in this he is part of a new generation of African writers, born from the late 1960s onwards, that includes Olufemi Terry from Sierra Leone, the Zimbabwean NoViolet Bulawayo and the Nigerians Chika Unigwe, E.C. Osondu, Helon Habila and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. To these writers politics and the vicissitudes of nation-building are less compelling subjects than the everyday task of self-individuation. Their cultural reference points are eclectic and varied, their relationship with the tribal pieties of their parents’ and grandparents’ generation often tongue-in-cheek. To be pigeonholed by well-meaning readers, in spite of this, as a homogeneous group of primitives fills them with dismay. When Adichie left Nigeria at 19 to go to university in the United States her roommate asked to listen to her ‘tribal music’, and was disappointed when Adichie produced a tape of Mariah Carey. ‘Her default position towards me, as an African, was a kind of patronising, well-meaning pity,’ Adichie remembers. ‘My roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe. In this single story there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way.’ When Adichie wrote a novel set in Nigeria, one of her American professors told her that her book was not ‘authentically African’ because her characters ‘were too much like him, an educated and middle-class man. My characters drove cars. They were not starving.’ Adichie, who had been writing about what she knew, notes that she’d had no idea that there was such a thing as ‘African authenticity’.
What makes Binyavanga Wainaina so successful as an African writer is that he doesn’t try to write about Africa: in One Day I Will Write about This Place, that key word, ‘place’, is always a starting point for more personal questions. The first thing he succeeds in demolishing is the idea that ‘Africa’ can be a useful referent at all. Although Wainaina’s Kenyan father was a Gikuyu, his mother’s family originated in Rwanda and later emigrated to Uganda. The name Binyavanga was given to Wainaina in honour of his maternal grandfather. In Kenya its obvious foreignness sets him apart as being exotic; he confesses that ‘an imaginary Ugandan of some kind resides in me, one who lets me withhold myself from claiming, or being admitted into, without hesitation, an unquestioning Gikuyu belonging.’ Despite having lived most of her adult life in Kenya, Wainaina’s mother, too, is depicted in his memoir as remaining somehow outside her adopted country, able to slip fluidly from one identity to another. The Wainaina family gets by in a mixture of languages: Luganda, Kinyarwanda, Gikuyu, English and Kiswahili, and the children all have English as well as African first names (Binyavanga’s is Kenneth, and to his embarrassment his mother insists on calling him KenKen).
One Day I Will Write about This Place is not so much about any single country or even about a continent as it is about language and the possibilities it allows for shape-shifting, the way it can anchor you to or cut you adrift from your surroundings. The real story is Wainaina’s search for his identity as a writer and for an idiom to help him interpret himself. He arrives at a diction to mimic the dislocations of his childhood, or the dislocations of any precocious child who is not yet completely at home in the world. Here, the seven-year-old Binyavanga tries desperately to imitate the ontological certainty of his older brother Jimmy, who has just announced that he is thirsty:
Thirst is … is … a sucking absence, a little mouthing fish out of the water. It moves you from the everywhere nowhereness of air … Other people have a word world, and in their word world, words like thirsty have length, breadth and height, a firm texture, an unthinking belonging … I can only follow them.
This child’s-eye view can be an economical way of commenting on adult crises. When Wainaina’s younger self ponders the puzzling affinities between words while munching on some biscuits, for instance, dark comedy points at something more serious:
Crunch is breaking to release crackly sweetness. Crunch! Eclairs. Crutches are falling down and breaking. Crutch!
Uganda, my mum’s country, fell down and broke. Crutch!
There are other languages and places, other possible selves, circulating in Wainaina’s childhood. The national catchphrase, exhorting Kenyans to overlook their tribal differences, is harambee or ‘pulling together’, but ‘Ki-may’ is the cheeky name Wainaina invents as a boy for those indigenous languages which are incomprehensible to him: ‘Ki-may is any language that I cannot speak, but I hear every day in Nakuru: Ki-kuyu, Ki-Kamba, Ki-Ganda, Ki-sii, Gujarati, Ki-Nyarwanda, (Ki) Ru-fumbira. Ki-May. There are so many, I get dizzy.’ The young Binyavanga is a fan of Billy Ocean, the Jackson Five and The Six Million Dollar Man, and the early chapters are full of ebullient Americanisms. He even invents a verb, ‘wreng wreng’, to describe the nasal way he speaks when he is in Six Million Dollar Man mode: ‘“Steve. Austin. A me-aan brrely alive,” I wreng wreng Americanly. “Gennlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the tek-nalagee. We can build the world’s frrrrst bi-anic man.”’
This tissue of influences is the filter for Wainaina’s account of a charged event in Kenya’s national life, the funeral of Jomo Kenyatta in 1978. Watching the lavishly staged ceremony on television while tooting on his mouth organ, Wainaina is, even at seven years old, sceptical of all synthetic ethnicities, whether American or Kenyan:
In my mouth is the plastic yellow grin world of the toy maize cob harmonica: fixed, English-speaking, Taiwan-made, safe, imported unblemished plastic, an Americangrinning mouth organ, each hole a clear separate sound. In school we were taught that all music comes from eight sounds: do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do – but what those people are singing and playing cannot fit those sounds. Gibberish … all those gathered harambee sounds of people in the many costumes of Kenya, singing and dancing in no choir, many unrelated sounds and languages and styles and costumes, and facial expressions.
They have nothing to do with each other.
So much for African authenticity.
The exuberance and irreverence of Wainaina’s voice, its openness to what he slyly calls ‘diversiddy’, is one of the book’s great pleasures. While he is growing up, however, it takes him a while to learn to trust his own idiosyncratic, mixed-up way of responding to things. At 11 he begins what later turns out to be an almost compulsive retreat from his family’s conventional expectations for him. He is supposed to work hard and to aspire to be a businessman, perhaps in advertising, but he can’t stop reading novels. ‘If words, in English, arranged on the page have the power to control my body in the world, this sound and language can close its folds, like a fan, and I will slide into its world, where things are arranged differently.’ At school he spends all his time writing plays and prose. His account of this period is lightly self-mocking.
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.
He tries to conform, enrolling after he leaves school for a degree in commerce at a university in the Transkei, one of South Africa’s black homelands. Once there he begins to unravel. He spends his days in bed with the door locked and the curtains drawn, eating pilchards from the tin while reading Saul Bellow and Nadine Gordimer, restocking addictively on books at a second-hand bookshop. Although his degree is a dead end, he finds his stay in South Africa, in the aftermath of apartheid, liberating.
Throughout the book the political context is handled impressionistically, as an eerie backdrop to Wainaina’s unfolding sense of disintegration. While he is still in his teens Kenya abandons its policy of ‘pulling together’ under Kenyatta’s successor, Daniel arap Moi, a Kalenjin. Wainaina is forced to rediscover his Gikuyu identity when, thanks to tribal politicking, he is left off the entry lists for the country’s top state schools. He feels the irony of this keenly since his Gikuyu, which he learned as a third language, is nearly non-existent: ‘I can’t speak it. It is a phantom limb, kimay.’ In spite of these provocations, post-independence Kenya prides itself on the orderliness of its society, defining its ethos against that of its neighbour, war-shattered Uganda. Compared to the weary passivity of his countrymen, Wainaina experiences South Africa’s upheavals in the 1990s as cathartic, remarking that there, at least, ‘there is a political battle to resolve embattled selves.’
Wainaina’s personal collapse coincides with Kenya’s slide into economic freefall towards the end of the Moi years: aware that their son is failing to make the grade as a future business executive, his worried parents bring him back to Nakuru. ‘I returned to my home, Kenya,’ he recalls, ‘to find people so far beyond cynicism that they looked back on their cynical days with fondness.’ Rattling around the rural Central and Eastern provinces while helping his father out at the farmers’ co-operative, however, buys him time to decide what he wants to do with himself.
I am starting to scribble my thoughts, to write these moments. 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.
He may admire the spare aesthetic of postcolonial writers such as J.M. Coetzee and V.S. Naipaul, or of the grand old man of Kenyan letters, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, but what he refers to as their ‘stingy prose’ is also an index of what he is writing against. Their pained grappling with questions of conscience is not his natural mode. Though far from superficial in its engagement with the world, One Day I Will Write about This Place is textured with wordplay and aperçus that constantly call attention to the surface of the prose itself, as when Wainaina expresses his hope ‘that this continent is not, finally incontinent’ or comments, when delayed by obstructive questions at passport control, that ‘tourists with better geopolitics sail past you.’ He seems incapable of taking himself too seriously. The literary magazine he founded after winning the Caine Prize is called, with typical insouciance, Kwani? – which translates as ‘so what?’
Wainaina steers well clear, when telling his tale, of being either too generic or too parochial. At one point during his confused student years, drunk in a Nairobi bar, he is tempted to jettison his mongrel urban affiliations and become a rustic Gikuyu writer:
I read Decolonising the Mind by Ngugi wa Thiong’o a few weeks ago. It is illegal and it was thrilling, and I had vowed to go back to my own language. English is the language of the coloniser.
I will take Gikuyu classes, when I am done with diversiddy and advertising, when I am driving a good car. I will go to the village and make plays in Gikuyu, in my good new car. I will make very good decolonised advertisements for Coca-Cola.
What about the anger that fuelled the Granta essay? It is still there, not entirely hidden by self-deprecating bonhomie, transmitted in biting asides about the West’s aid programmes for Africa. Wainaina is particularly offended by the clichés.
On television, a dirty pale man who has wild eyes and sings for a band called Boomtown Rats is crowned the king of Ethiopia. He is everywhere. Every news broadcast, every song in the whole world. Bob Geldof. Wherever he is people fall, twist, writhe, lose language skills, accumulate insects around their eyes, and then die on BBC.
The anger here is counterbalanced by Wainaina’s mature realisation that his response is also occasionally conditioned by the fallacy of the single story. This is nicely illustrated by a trip he makes as an adult to visit family in Uganda. Having formed a childhood image of the country from his mother, he is dismayed when he finally gets there: ‘I had expected to see elegant people dressed in flowing robes, carrying baskets on their heads and walking arrogantly down streets filled with the smell of roasting bananas, and intellectuals from a 1960s dream, shaking the streets with their Afrocentric rhetoric.’ Instead he finds potholes and chaos. Oh well. ‘Reality,’ Wainaina concludes, deadpan as ever, ‘is a better aesthetic.’