“… like shards of water and streams of glass”: Binyavanga Wainaina’s “One Day I Will Write About This Place”

I have always enjoyed reading writers’ memoirs, writers’ diaries, and writers’ thinly-autobiographical fiction. Some of my favourites include Octavio Paz’s Labyrinth of Solitude, where I found acute and subtle portraits of the character of a nation; Chinua Achebe’s There Was A Country, where I discovered a haunting political elegy; Dambudzo Marechera’s The House of Hunger, where I met a stinging literary critique of Negritude and Ngugi wa’ Thiong’o’s idea of language and literature; and Jack Kerouac’s Lonesome Traveler, where I traveled second-hand through some of the most brilliant landscapes imaginable.

In Binyavanga Wainaina’s One Day I Will Write About This Place, I found all this and more.

One Day I Will Write About This Place is a story about growing up in newly-independent, post-colonial Kenya. Wainaina tells two stories: the fraught relationship between democracy and the post-colony (not just in Kenya, but in other African countries as well) through the course of the late-20th century, and his own circuitous, round-about and peril-filled journey to becoming a writer of repute and influence. “Uganda, my mum’s country, fell down and broke. Crutch!”, he writes in the opening pages; and that could be an image for the book: falling, breaking, patching up, refusing to fall, falling, breaking again. From Kenya under Daniel arap Moi to South Africa on the cusp of dismantling apartheid to Uganda recovering from the wounds of civil war to Kenya again during the pivotal elections of 2002, Wainaina moves through bits of countries and pieces of the self, always afraid of being hijacked by patterns”, as he and his comrades seek “new ways to contort, rearrange, redesign ourselves to fit in.”

Right from the first scene – a recollection of a backyard football game from childhood – we are put on notice that this will be something out of the ordinary:

She twists past Jimmy, the ball ahead of her feet, heading for me. I am ready. I am sharp, and springy. I am waiting for the ball. Jimmy runs to intercept her; they tangle and pant. A few moments ago the sun was one single white beam. Now it has fallen into the trees. All over the garden there are a thousand tiny suns, poking through gaps, all of them spherical, all of them shooting thousands of beams. The beams fall onto branches and leaves and splinter into thousands of smaller perfect suns.

Wainaina’s memoir bursts at the seams with such rich, exultant, and alive use of language. You rarely feel as if you’re merely reading; rather, it is as though all five senses are activated: you can taste the writing when you read “there is an ache in my chest today, sweet, searching, and painful, like a tongue that is cut and tingles with sweetness and pain after eating a strong pineapple”; you can hear it when you read “his voice carrying Yemeni monsoons and bolts of cloth“; you can smell it when he writes, “life has urgency when it stands around death. There is no grass as beautiful as the blades that stick out after the first rain”; you can see it with all the clarity of a vision when he writes “street upon street of Kenyan shops and textile factories stand disemboweled by the death of faith in a common future“; you can feel your skin in this remarkable passage:

She pours me a drink, she laughs, and I find myself laughing too, like we did when we were young. Twin Salvation Army marching bands on a hot dry Sunday in my hometown, Nakuru, Kenya. They bang their way up the sides of my head and meet at some crossroads in my temple, now out of rhythm with each other. I am thirsty with the effort of them, but my body is an accordion, and can’t find the resolution to stand.”

And sometimes, when the prose has a peculiar quality of motion, you can feel more than one thing: “Russet is an emotion inside me that comes from reading things about horses and manes, and many hairs tossing, and autumn, a set of impressions, movements, lights. These are my concerns.” Wainaina recalls, as a child, contemplating his own thirst after the game of football, and being unable to match the word (“thirst”) to something concrete. “Words, I think, must be concrete things. Surely they cannot be suggestions of things, vague pictures: scattered, shifting sensations?” This brings to mind Italo Calvino’s observation about words as “foretastes of things barely glimpsed, not possessed, presumed.” Just as that is an apt account of Calvino’s writing, so is it of Wainaina’s: his language s never descriptive, but always suggestive, possessing a movement that never allows you to see a thing clearly and see it whole, but rather, as an ensemble of “scattered, shifting sensations.” Or, in his own words, when talking about the landscape from a car window:

I am disappointed that all the distant scenery, blue and misty, becomes more and more real as I come closer: there is no vague place, where clarity blurs, where certainty has no force, and dreams are real.

In Wainaina’s writing, you always remain in that vague place – and delightfully so. The writing is not only suggestive, but atmospheric, almost physical in its suggestiveness:

The song comes to a full stop. A full three seconds of silence as rumba momentum builds. The choral voices are now a sheet of frenzied rubber, Kenya streeeeectches and bleats, held together by the military trumpets and cash crop exports, the future, only the future, laboring bodies, a railway, a mpresident.

The result is that even the darkest of themes (and darkness is inevitably, given the subject matter) are handled with the lightness of what Colm Toibin would call “breath on glass.” The style is a complete contrast from, for example, Chinua Achebe’s elegy to Biafra in There Was A Country, even though both writers are talking about similar issues, at times: betrayed democracy, political violence, widespread dehumanisation in the post-colony. If sadness is the defining quality of Achebe’s work, it is wryness that characterises Wainaina’s. There is a refusal to take anything too seriously – neither the self, not politics, nor the nation. What we get, then, is a treatment that is almost savage in its mockery:

Moi and his cronies are on the radio daily. It is in the papers every day. These are dark days, we are told. There are dissidents everywhere. We have to all unite and silence the dissidents. From the radio, we know that foreign influenzes are invecting us, secret foreign influenzes are infringing us, invincing us, perferting our gildren, preaking our gultural moralities, our ancient filosofies, the dissidents are bushing and bulling, pringing segret Kurly Marxes and Michael Jagsons, making us backsliding robots, and our land is becoming moonar handscapes. They took the rain away, the Maxists, the Ugandans, wearing Western mini sguirts and makeup, they are importing them, inserting invected people, these dissidents, like Ngugi wa Thiong’o, and that man called Raila Oginga Odinga.

There is a similarity here with Emile Habiby’s The Adventures of Saeed the Pessoptimist. Habiby’s chosen mode of dealing with the dispossession of the Palestinian people is not grim realism, an elegiac lament, or even satire; but it is a wry, mild, almost gentle self-effacement that, in its deconstruction of the senselessness of violence and cruelty, is no less sharp:

The big man sent his own men to surprise me at my stall one noon. They led me off to prison after charging me publicly with having disobeyed the compulsory stay order. My going to Shafa Amr to buy melons, they said, had threatened the integrity of the state. Whoever, as they put it, transported red melons in secret could also carry radishes secretly and there was, after all, only a difference in colour between red radishes and hand grenades! And red was not, under any circumstances, the same as blue and white. With a watermelon, moreover, one could blow up a whole regiment if grenades were hidden inside it. “Don’t you see that, you mule?”

“But I cut the melons open with a knife so the buyer can see,” the “mule” responded.

“Oh! Knives too, eh?” they exclaimed.

But just like Habiby, there are moments when Wainaina abandons the self-effacing, almost playful tone, and essays a sudden foray into seriousness. These moments occur when he talks about the IMF-mandated dismantling of Kenya’s public education system, about the tribalism that dominates politics, and about how Kenyans – especially Kenyan artists – are forced to represent themselves to the Western world (a subject that he has also dealt with in this wildly famous essay). Their rarity invests them with a moral force, a gravity that compels the reader to pause, think, and then read again. And then Wainaina goes back to image, metaphor, and suggestion, reminding us that even the deepest of wounds can be written about without anger, without mourning, without even irony, but something else altogether:

Wood rots. Wood will not bend in heat. Wood burns and crumbles. Early this century. The searing heat of Belgium’s lust in the Congo insists on new metallic people. We, in Kenya, don’t understand the lyrics – we don’t speak Lingala – but this music, this style, this metallic sound has become the sound of our times.

Or:

Our schooling machine – nationwide, merit-based, proud, and competitive – Kenya’s single biggest investment – is falling apart, and the new season sounds like Band Aid. It’s all over CNN. Open mouths and music, thousands and thousands of white people throwing food and tears and happiness to naked, writhing Africans who can’t speak, don’t have dreams, and share leftovers with vultures.

This should not give the impression, however, that One Day I Will Write About This Place is limited to the troubles of the post-colonial era. Many of the books best moments are celebratory – whether it is celebrating a South African singer, the instant of hope in South Africa ’94, Wainaina’s winning the Caine Prize, or the optimism that seeps through even during factionalised Kenyan elections. Indeed, as Wainaina writes, “if there is a miracle in the idea of life, it is this: that we are able to exist for a time, in defiance of chaos.”

But above all else, what makes this book is its use of language, the wizardry that Wainaina has in putting words together in an assemblage that make them feel more real than life itself. “None of us has her voice,” he writes about his mother. “It tingles.  If crystal were water made solid, her voice would be the last splash of water before it set.” He might well have been describing his own writing.

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