Typecasting Binyavanga Wainaina

Wainaina’s path to becoming a writer is wrapped up in his quest to realize his identity, to belong to his family yet create a life uniquely his own.

Binyavanga Wainaina at the Brooklyn Book Festival in September 2009. Image Credit: Wiki Commons.

How do you write about a place that occupies a mythic place in the imagination of outsiders? And how do you write about national and personal identity when identity does not obey the neat idea of nation states and borders? American novelist William Faulkner created Yoknapatawpha County, a fictional Southern community, wrapping his stories in a fragmented language, trying to protect the towns and people he described from being recognizable and known. To write about the American South, which in Faulkner’s time and our own comes wrapped up for non-residents in a set of tropes, produced in Faulker an anxiety of representation he could only remedy through producing an imaginary geography.

Binyavanga Wainaina instead delivers a memoir, One Day I Will Write About This Place, rooted firmly in the real landscapes of his home.

Born to a Kenyan father and a Ugandan mother, Wainaina grows up in Nakuru, Kenya and spends time in South Africa for college. He travels near Kisoro, Uganda, for a family reunion, and looks out to the borders of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Later, Wainaina hops around the world as his writing career opens up opportunities in other countries. Constantly, he is faced with the individual and political question, of, who are you? And who, exactly, is Kenyan?

… 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. Sometimes moving. Sometimes not. Some say all we do is turn, like rotisserie chicken, on the whims of our imperial presidents …

Some reviewers have noted the beginning of the book does not play like a typical memoir. It is not a straightforward read. But neither is recounting a life. In utilizing a non-linear plot, Binyavanga mimics how memory constructs our lives from scraps of events and the people we remember. He dares the reader to easily imagine him, or the lives of his family. He knows being called the new African writer! and the numerous other accolades thrown his way since he won the Cain Prize carry enough condescension and projection to sink us all. And so he seeks to try and un-do these labels, these niches and clichés, through stories without neat beginnings or endings. The literary magazine he helps launch is called Kwani!; its title translates as, “So what?”

In One Day I Will Write About This Place, Wainaina deftly blends details about coming of age against a backdrop of ‘development’, a nascent religious movement, the rise of global pop culture, and Kenya’s shifting political landscape. Through it all, we are guided by the witty voice of the narrator: “Bob Geldof. Wherever he is people fall, twist, writhe, lose language skills, accumulate insects around their eyes, and then die on BBC,” writes Binyavanga. He is adept at describing how larger political and international movements affect individuals. “The project to make people like us is ending. Now those who have, grow, and those who don’t stay behind.”

Wainaina’s language is often lyrical and playful. In one of several passages about singer Brenda Fassie, who floats through the South Africa chapters signifying that new nation’s moods, Wainaina writes, “It’s the way the song begins – a church organ, playing on a scratchy old record, a childhood memory of a sound, for the briefest moment, then come her first few words, slurred like she is drunk and far away, lost inside an old shortwave radio.” At other moments, his language is a careful stream of consciousness, where what the narrator omits matters as much as the words on the page, “Mum’s home in Uganda is near the border with Rwanda, near Congo. She can’t go to visit; the border is closed.”

Wainaina’s path to becoming a writer is wrapped up in his quest to realize his identity, to belong to his family yet create a life uniquely his own. I’m not going to tell you Wainaina writes to survive. But I will say that One Day I Will Write About This Place is a hilarious, intelligent, and nuanced portrayal of what it means to be A Kenyan-Ugandan-Gikuyu-Mufumbira-son-brother-foreigner-citizen-artist in our world today. Let’s hope I haven’t typecast him.

Further Reading

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The way we tell stories

Raoul Peck’s ‘Exterminate All the Brutes’ missed the opportunity to engage with the history of colonialism in a way that empowers viewers to imagine a future in which whiteness is not the locus of power and authority.

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Trapped by history

Mexican American director John Gutierrez new film, set in Cape Town, South Africa, touches on colonialism, displacement, and man’s complicated relationship with nature.