Enter the Literary Aristocrat.
Review of Binyavanga Wainaina’s One Day I Will Write about this Place.
When we board our final, one-way flight out of this earth, we leave a cute, epitaph-adorned gravestone; if when we are born, we come with a futurologist’s ‘birthstones’, Binyavanga Wainaina’s might read: “Enter, riding on the redolence of the Rift Valley, Binyavanga, the literary aristocrat.”
Maybe he has such a birthstone in his name ‘Binyavanga’ which, in the Kinyarwanda language of his Ugandan mother, approximates to, ‘mixing things up.’
He flaunts all the free radicals, traits from which a restless writer is stitched together: hedonism, restlessness, irreverence, a voracious reading appetite that has made his RAM [read-all-memory] the size of a huge library; brilliance, and, according to some blurb writers, a tinge of lunacy.
But it’s the brilliance that shines through, the most part, in One day I will write About This Place, his memoir debut. The title itself is a red herring; the actual fulfillment of its own promise.
Generally, reading a memoir is like watching a soccer match you already knew the result: your adrenaline is immune to the twists and turns. Otherwise, at a point in the book, after the author has returned to South Africa to try and complete his abandoned schooling only to, after just one week, finally walk away from schooling and into bar life, one is tempted to see the author as the archetypal prodigal. But you know, from hindsight, that this would be a hasty verdict.
Wainaina’s language is bold, it catches you napping with its spontaneity; you do not get a sense of someone searching for words; he just flows like the Limpopo, or the Hudson, rivers whose banks have nurtured his creative élan. The imagery is cute, quaint: “The wind swoops down, God breathes, and across the lake a million flamingoes rise, the edges of Lake Nakuru lift, like pink skirts swollen by petticoats, now showing bits of blue panties, and God gasps,…”. There are a few grim paragraphs too: the tribal warlord wipes the blood off the blade of the machete he has just wielded on his own wife [because she’s from another tribe], and moves to the next room in search of her daughter…
You will have gone very far before you realize that what you’re reading is, stripped of its appurtenances, a travelogue. You reconstruct the journey: Nakuru – Nairobi – Umtata – Jo’bourg – Kampala – Entebbe – Bufumbira – Lagos – Accra – Lome – New York. Of course it’s a more convoluted itinerary, with detours and repeat journeys. It’s a peculiar middle class Kenyan flight path, part of the broader boy-to-man journey. But what is he searching for? If he knew, the book would cease to be an adventure. But he found things: the soul of Kenya, in close-up, larger than the sum total of the country’s high tribal egos: Gikuyu’s, Luo’s, Maasai’s, Kalejins, etc. Having branded the tribes, the author is hard-pressed trying to live his life outside the [tribal] box. West Africa is sized up in a tourist’s lens before he returns to Mandelaland, and to how the songs of the unhealable and irrepressible – the one you scoff at, sometimes, but always love her music: Brenda Fassie – how her rhythms heal a transiting but still socially gun-powdered nation. You learn, too, that Okot p’Bitek bought a Rolls-Royce for ‘next to nothing’ from refugees fleeing the Congo crisis in the 1960’s. Graceless, rather unpoetic act from my revered Ife teacher
But Wainaina also found something treasureable: in his own words ‘a touching story about the reunion of a family torn apart by civil war and the genocide in Rwanda.’ It’s a tale that will move any heart. And it did. South Africa’s Sunday Times snapped it up, the very next Sunday, with a handsome pay. That was the beginning of a publishing spiral, that has taken the story, sometimes in various outer garments but always with the same soul, through the Caine Prize holy grail and made it, arguably, the showpiece of the current accomplishment One Day I Will Write... In a nutshell, it is the prodigal’s rehabilitation, the turning point in his becoming a literary aristocrat: the one who is given a blank cheque [you can take it literal] to write a story on Sudan or elsewhere and gets to keep the cash even when the story is dropped for breaching the code of he-who-pays-the-piper ….
For the sub-genre of creative nonfiction, we just don’t know the limits of the author’s creative latitude. The alleged discussion in a Frankfurt hotel between Wainaina and ‘the bodyguard of the Nigerian President’ seems to be nothing but the author exercising his ‘creative’ options.
But the fact that the novel rises to sublime heights of language and imagery shouldn’t mean it should get away with beer-drenched ramblings: we see correspondents looking for the story with “The Most Macheteing Deathest, Most Treasury Corruptest, Most Entrail-eating Civil Warest, Most Crocodile-Grinning Dictatorest…” The context is compelled to admit them, and the editors are helpless, applauding, star-struck. Being a literary aristocrat does have its rewards. There are also a few over-kills: the word ‘fluent’ is rather flaunted. “If we fail to be fluent in the language of MTV and London…”. Fine and de rigueur when it first drops on us, but when you see it for the fourth or fifth time, it begins to feel like licking the finger that once held the sweet. Also, we see a segment where a planes “ altitude changes rapidly from three thousand meters above sea level to eight thousand feet.” Hey, Bwana, did you try the maths conversion yourself?
But you only found these questionable entries with an examiner’s hard determination; the book is actually a magnificent cruise in a language love boat.
Wainaina’s voracious reading had made him build up a vast repertory of unwritten stories in his subconscious, awaiting a trigger to be pulled by a benevolent Muse. With the beaut of a story of the family reunion in Uganda, he has fulfilled the promise of One Day... Perhaps there’s still the promise of another day.
I make this two-page exception to my usual one-page review series, subject, however, to a 1,000-word limit.