One Day I Will Write About This Place is a sweet and revealing memoir that gives us a window not only into the author’s life, but into the Kenya he grew up in.
Wainaina was born in 1970s, and we begin the book with the author as a child in his hometown of Nakuru, which is vividly recalled. In the opening chapters he is worried about some prank, and explains his feeling of fear as “the pineapple rising in my chest,” a lovely image, and a good example of the funny and lyrical nature of this book as a whole. We often forget, when remembering our childhoods, how much of that period is composed of fear and worry, and this is a subject to which Wainaina continually returns.
As we move up through his adolescence, from his first horrible boarding school experience, to university in Kenya, where he is studying for a degree in education, the book becomes much more light-hearted. About his degree he comments: “I am terrified I will end up becoming a school teacher. A fate worse than country music.” Describing waking up after a night of drinking: “It is late afternoon. Sunlight can be very rude. I seem to have developed a set of bumpy new lenses in my eyes. Who put sand in my eyes?” . . . . ‘Everybody say heeeey!’ The chief bursts into my room, looking like he spent the night eating fresh vegetables and massaging his body in vitamins. This is not fair.”
He transfers to a university in South Africa, and there develops some kind of a depression, dropping out of his degree and eventually refusing to leave his room. He restarts his degree, but drops out again, and this time seriously commits himself to writing, and the book documents the growth of the young man as an author, through publishing online, to winning the Caine Prize, to professorships at various American universities.
This summary might suggest that the book is simply a single person’s story; but in fact it is in a certain way the story of Kenya too. Wainana creates very clearly the Kenya of the 1970, under Moi, and the slow collapse of various aspects of the country through to the 1990s. He describes returning to Kenya in this period “to find people so far beyond cynicism that they looked back on their cynical days with fondness,” a condition that people in many struggling African countries will recognise. He ends with an attempt to understand the ethnic violence of 2008.
I found One Day I Will Write About This Place to be an interesting, honest, and immensely readable short memoir. It is not however a perfect book. Occasionally, it is a rather self-conciously literary, as in one long section recounting the televising of a national event, that I found so highly stylized as to be not only dull but also confusing. There are also sections which are clumsily didactic, informing us about the history of Kenya in a rather pointed way, as if the ill-educated international reader is ever in mind.
For a book that is in generally deeply felt, and carefully thought through, there are surprisingly also a great many section of rather lazy and generic West-bashing. While there is much that is interesting to be said about the role of the west in Africa, in this book the same old dead horses are dragged out for a beating. For example, he makes fun of journalists writing about Africa in a way that might have been funny and accurate in the 1980s, but which now seems simply unpleasant.
Near the end, Wainana even expresses the worry that “maybe in my heart I am a little Anglo-Kenyan” because he does not like the traditional Kenyan music benga. This I found rather sad – the suggestion that to be of more than one culture is somehow ‘wrong;’ that there is some kind of ‘real’ Kenya that his upbringing and travels deny him. I’d think that Kenya is a far more diverse place than that, with many possible Kenyans of many backgrounds. The mere fact, though, that as a reader I am ready to worry about Binyavanga, to disagree with him, and to question his premises, is perhaps as clear a sign as possible of the quality of his memoir; that it has made him feel like a friend.
Sarah Norman is a Zimbabwean who splits her time between Harare and Nairobi. She documents her reading life in the blog White Whale (www.booksof2010.blogspot.com)