Loads of Learned Lumber

Monday, June 27, 2016

Binyavanga Wainaina, _One Day I Will Write about This Place_

WAINAINA IS FAMOUS for his short, ferocious satire "How To Write About Africa." At times this book gets off comparable flamethrower bursts ("In 1983, while I read novels, [Kenyan president Daniel] Moi is building his Big Dick Building in secret. Every dictator has to have one'), but it is in the main funny, tender, lyrical, observant, candid.

One Day I Will Write about This Place is a memoir, running from Wainaina's childhood to 2010, when he is just shy of forty, but is not a continuous narrative; it skips around quite a bit in time as well as place. Wainaina is Kenyan, but his mother is from Uganda (a Tutsi, she has relatives in Rwanda who had to hide during the killings), he attends university in South Africa, and his life as a working writer takes him to Nigeria, Ghana, Togo, and other countries. The book is pan-Africanist, as is Wainaina himself, appreciative of differences but unwilling to fetishize them. Similarly, he is often sarcastic about trhe tribaliosm that emerged in Kenya after Moi's fall.

Since almost all of the African literature I have read is from the early post-imperial period--the classic novels of Achebe, Ngugi, Emecheta, Laye--I tend to think of African literature as set in villages, or, when set in cities, as focused on characters just recently arrived from villages. Wainaina's book gives us the Africa of a wholly different generation .The 1980s he grew up include Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, Dallas, and stacks of pulpy sci fi. The excesses and anxieties of his undegraduate years have a very recognizable shape. The Internet, the World Cup, neo-liberalism...it's an African text for the globalization era.

As a portrait of a time, a continent, and a sensibility, One Day I Will Write about This Place is more a mosaic or collage than a unified line drawing, the pieces tending to make a stronger impression than the movement of the whole does. Many of the pieces are brilliant, though, and the prose a continual delight, fresh, effervescent, intelligent.

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