Book by BINYAVANGA WAINAINA
In May of 1945, legendary Scribner editor Maxwell Perkins wrote to a young soldier serving overseas. The enlisted man had sent Perkins a short story and asked for advice about pursuing a writing career. Perkins was gently encouraging, urging the young man to take his time distilling his war experiences into fiction. By way of instruction and inspiration, he tells of visiting his author and friend Ernest Hemingway in Key West. “We went fishing every day in those many-colored waters, and then also in the deep-blue Gulf Stream. It was all completely new to me, and wonderfully interesting—there was so much to know that nobody would ever have suspected, about even fishing. I said to Hemingway, ‘Why don’t you write about all this?’”
Hemingway replied, “I will in time, but I couldn’t do it yet.” Pointing to a pelican Perkins recalls as “clumsily flapping along,” the author added, “See that pelican? I don’t know yet what his part is in the scheme of things.”
Transforming his environment into evocative narrative is the inspiration behind the wildly original and maddeningly diffuse debut memoir by Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina. The accumulation of potent sensory detail is the book’s feverish, driving pulse.
Take the following two memories. One night when Wainaina is twelve years old, he watches televised Independence Day ceremonies with his siblings and their babysitter. The girls have applied his mother’s lipstick and are making mp-ah kisses into the mirror. Trumpets blare the sound mpr. The girls laugh and squeal, and through the young writer’s head race words like implant, impede, improve, impress. The babysitter turns the sound off the television and turns up the radio, which pumps Boney M.’s “Rivers of Babylon.” Sound and light morph and glitter, each impression bleeding into the next. Wainaina closes his eyes to take hold of the moment, “to never forget that one day, one day I will arrange the words right for this strange night.”
On Christmas Eve twelve years later, in 1995, Wainaina is with his family in his maternal grandparents’ living room. They are in the middle of a banana plantation in the lushly green Bufumbira range in Uganda. The family is sitting through a church service, waiting for the arrival of Aunt Christine from America. It has been just sixteen years since the ruthless rule of Idi Amin. No one knows if Aunt Christine will make it home. Wainaina describes how, when she enters the room, everyone but the priest begins to cry. He writes: “One day, I will write about this place.”
Binyavanga Wainaina was born in Nakuru, Kenya, a town with prehistoric human origins known for the millions of pearly flamingos that flock the shores of its famous lake. Wainaina’s father was the managing director of an agricultural cooperative that processed pyrethrins, a key ingredient in insecticides. Wainaina’s Ugandan late mother ran a hair salon and gallery called Green Art. Theirs was a comfortably middle class family that lived in a part of town that used to be whites only. The four Wainaina children attended decent, free public schools, a system that began to crumble from underfunding and corruption around the time Wainaina started high school, years the author passed with his nose buried in novels and bombing his tests in math. The 1990s he endured in self-exile in South Africa, ostensibly trying for a degree in computer programming but mainly wrestling a paralyzing depression unaided by copious quantities of booze. He scraped by with the occasional intervention of family and friends.
Also, during these years, Wainaina was writing. He connected with burgeoning authors from all over the world in Internet chat rooms and over e-mail. Online he met a young Nigerian writer named Chimamanda Adichie, author of Half a Yellow Sun, and a supportive American named Charlie who called him up one day in 1998 to urge him to send a piece about his Ugandan family reunion to the travel section of South Africa’s Sunday Times. It was accepted; Wainaina kept writing. He sent most of his work to the late Rod Amis, founding editor of Generator 21. Wainaina was writing about this place. In 2002 a version of the Uganda story called “Discovering Home” won the Caine Prize for African Writing.
This is the simple, personal story that the author tells. The complications and sparks arise from his prismatic method of telling. Wainaina strives hard to convey his complete sensory experience, every recalled sound and scent. Looking down Nairobi’s Moi Avenue, after being out of the country for several years, Wainaina writes that the city has “burst out of itself, like rotting fruit.”
“To look down this tunnel one sees swarms—people and small stubborn constructions climbing up the skyscrapers like termite mounds on a tree. Secondhand clothes shacks, vegetables, wooden cabinets, behind which whispered watch repairs take place in Dholuo; soft cracking KTN news on a muffled radio; Dubai product exhibitions thrust out of storefronts and into the street. Shoe shiners and shoe fixers telling improbable political tales that later turn out to be true; both solicit work by keeping eyes on feet, and you start guiltily when you are summoned for repair or shine. Gospel books and tapes spread on plastic sheets on the pavement, next to secondhand international magazines—NBA! GQ! FHM! Bright bold Buru Burumatatus, trilling like warring species of tropical birds, jerking forward and back, revving forward, purple lights flashing urgently, to try to catch passengers in a hurry to go home, who discover too late that this urgency is fake: the matatu will wait until it is full, then overfull, then move only when bodies are hanging outside the door, toes barely in the vehicle, songasonga mathe, songasonga. Lunchtime Pentecostal God, unregulated, tax free, as attractive a business as selling on the street, Lunchtime God bludgeons the air around us, from small upstairs rooms, screeching preachers, moaning Christians, lunchtime prayers, shine or repair.”
This is full-throttle sensory writing, and Wainaina excels at it. Earlier in the book he describes cake frosting this way: “The squeaky painful taste of perfect white sweetness. I think icing tastes in your mouth like Styrofoam sounds when it is rubbed against itself.”
This sensual, phantasmagoric immersion, which also reflects the fragmentation of memory, is created in large part by Wainaina’s decision to write the whole book in the present tense. He further disjoints the world he draws us into through paragraphs that tack back and forth between observation, provocative personal thoughts, and local history and economy. One Day I Will Write About This Place is a stream-of-consciousness coming of age story in which keeping up with the moment is all engulfing.
But if there is no more perfect way to ice a childhood cake, a present-tense narrative is a less than satisfying delivery method for history. The above relatively straightforward descriptions of Nairobi street life belie another of this hugely ambitious book’s goals: compressing hundreds of years of Kenyan (and sometimes Ugandan and South African) history into a few bursting paragraphs. Reading this memoir is like swallowing a crab. Delectable sweet meat arrives packaged in hard, indigestible, multiply-branching sections.
One such section begins with Wainaina’s brother Jimmy introducing his future wife and ends with the narrator remembering a stay with his father in a shabby colonial hotel. In between are four paragraphs sketching Kenya’s past.
It goes like this:
“Don’t tell them yet,” Jimmy says about sharing his engagement with their family.
The next paragraph begins, “In the first past we know, there are small gaseous memories of old, old people, the Sirikwa, some who lived at Hyrax Hill a mile or so away.” Then three sentences about a nearby crater before the next paragraph starts, “Over one hundred and twenty years ago, one of the decisive battles of a great war is said to have taken place here.” But Wainaina does not tell us who fought in this war. The paragraph is hijacked by attention to the role of cattle as currency in many Kenyan tribes. Cattle-wise, the Masai were kings.
The next paragraph: “The British built their railways, roads, and satellites; then came the people and the roads we built after Independence, on the same model, somewhat skewed and uncertain. Then as our parents served warm beer and oat porridge, the Jetsons arrived on television: slouching, gum chewing, marketing America.”
The fourth paragraph: “And brewing inside this space, from fifty or so ethnic histories and angles, is Kenya—a thing still unclear, picking here, marrying across, choosing there; stealing here, and there—disemboweling that which came before, remaking it…Some say all we do is turn, like rotisserie chicken, on the whims of our imperial presidents, Kenyatta and Moi. They run around the country all day, every day, to see whether we are browning well enough for supper.”
It was good advice that Maxwell Perkins gave to the inquiring soldier: to allow the action and details of an impactful place several years to settle. Most often this distillation results in a narrative in which the past is ordered, complete. The pelican’s place is known. Wainaina upends this narrative convention, and his sideways explanations of tribal relationships and colonialism will surely leave most readers in the dark. This is unfortunate because Kenya’s dramatic swings of idealism and corruption (beginning before and continuing after Independence (uhuru) in 1963), scrappy economic development, and rich natural and cultural history are of tremendous potential interest.
But the goal here is immersion, not overview. The effect of delivering history lessons at car-crash speed is to show that the past is still being processed. The narrator finds no still vantage point from which to reflect. This author is less concerned with relating gained understanding than with the holistic conveyance of individual moments in a constantly changing country and continent.
Accompanying the pelican dives into regional history are fascinating dissections of Kenyan languages, from tribal mother tongues to a hip urban slang called Sheng. Then there are the dual national languages Kiswahili and English. Being part Ugandan, Wainaina is beset from an early age with competing identities, tied to separate languages. Kiswahili and English he executes handily, exalting in the rightness of each language’s tones and syntax for particular interactions, leveraging the power dynamics of shared or divergent backgrounds and affiliations—tribal, national, pan-African. The language Wainaina struggles with is Gikuyu (generally written Kikuyu in America and England), the tribal language of his father, as well as Kenya’s first and current presidents, Jomo Kenyatta and Mwai Kibaki. It pains the author not to be fully fluent in his father’s native tongue, to lack evidence of this half of his heritage.
Early in the book the author makes up a name for powerful inchoate sentiments. He calls it kimay. It is a feeling of neither here nor there, of fear and excitement, of desirable foreignness. It’s an emotion-laden idea referring to something nagging, a feeling both reminiscent of childhood and suggestive of the future. It is, perhaps, the unsettled feeling that urges artists to create. To write books.
For Wainaina, Kimay is most potently sound: “the talking jazz trumpet: sneering skewing sounds, squeaks and strains…bursting to say something, and then not saying anything at all; the hemming and hawing clarinet.”
At the end of the memoir, Wainaina returns to kimay, and tries again to define it. By now Wainaina is in New York’s Hudson Valley. Professionally, he has been published in Granta and Vanity Fair, and he is on his way to becoming director of Bard College’s Chinua Achebe Center for African Writers and Artists. He is watching a documentary on benga, a Kenyan musical genre featuring the nyatiti, an eight-stringed lyre played in Luo communities. He writes: “Kimay is people talking without words, exact languages, the guitar sounds of all of Kenya speaking Kenya’s languages. If kimay brought me uncertainty, it was because I simply lack the imagination to think that such a feat was possible. For kimay was part of a project to make people like us certain of our place in the world, to make us unable to see the past and our place in it.”
I am on the hook by now. I want to know what feat Wainaina is talking about. The ability of the Luo lyre to sound like all languages at the same time? By people like usdoes he mean all Kenyans? All musicians or writers?
Kimay. Two delightful syllables evoking multiple sounds and feelings. It’s a beautiful, original word with no precise meaning.
Jennifer Acker is the Editor in Chief of The Common. She has an MFA in fiction and literature from the Bennington Writing Seminars. She is a visiting lecturer at Amherst College, and in 2012-13 she was a Faculty Fellow at New York University Abu Dhabi.