By Kidogo Dermott
Binyavanga Wainaina author of the vaunted essay "How To Write About Africa" (Granta 92) has provided us a sterling example of how to do just that.
Although the essay delivers its lessons with tongue firmly planted in cheek. However, Wainaina's memoir "One Day I Will Write About This Place" teaches us more directly and is a shining example. It is a book that should be studied by both those who wish to write about Africa well, or want to write an effective memoir.
Binyavanga begins with something he will do over and over through out the book - he captures perfectly a single moment. He is seven and playing soccer with his brother and sister in the garden. With the next few hundred words Binyavanga guides us into his world. He does this with the grace and skill of a good host bringing you into a party full of strangers - walking you through, introducing you and making feel comfortable by the time you arrive at the drinks table. You know people's names and just enough about them to begin a conversation...to feel attached...to become part of things.
This is one of Binyavanga greatest skills - by the end of that first moment you know just enough to feel comfortable with characters. He gives you a complete picture and more importantly the feel, without over writing by a single phrase.
Some reviewers have remarked on the prose “jazzy style”. It is a deft comparison. The book has the movement of a great jazz session. At times swing along - beautifully covering swaths of time as Binyavanga tell us about his childhood in 1980's Kenya, his education at an all boys boarding school, his wandering university years in a troubled South Africa and his life as a young writer. But like a great jazz piece time and space is allowed for solos - for ruminating on singular powerful moments. Like the scene of party when Binyavanga finally decided his path as a writer. And then the band strikes up again - swinging us forward through history. Giving us just enough to see the picture, to feel the atmosphere without bogging down - like jazz it is a fine line, a tight rope...but Binyavanga never misses - not a step, not a note.Binyavanga builds all of this - using sentences like musicians use cords.
"I am disappointed that all the distant scenery, blue and misty, becomes more and more real.”
Then building those sentences into more complex collections of cords - like where he describes Kenya's then new president.
“Daniel Toroitich arap Moi is our new president. He is young, awkward, and fumbling, but clean, tall, and sharp in a suit. He is on television, moving like and accordion, apologizing in his uncertain voice for just being here. He has found himself at the center of things and does not know what to do now that he is no longer Kenyatta's Vice President.”
Not one note too many.
Binyavanga captures so well the under lying feeling off what it was like to be in Kenya during those years. Indeed how much of Africa felt - nations still in their toddler stages - sometimes sure of foot, sometimes tripping and falling during the joyful moment of running. He brings us through those years and into the present - where we find Kenya and the continent stronger and surer - possibly now more in growing pains of a teenage life. Yet well on its way.
There are many reasons to spend some quality time with "One Day I Will Write About This Place" - there is the joy of the text, the nostalgia it may bring, but not the least of which is how much we can learn from it.
To comment and talk about this story with the rest of the KR Community visit our Facebook Page.
Kidogo Dermott is a staff writer for The Kalahari Review.