Book review: ‘One Day I Will Write About This Place,’ by Binyavanga Wainaina
Special to the Daily
Reading Binyavanga Wainaina’s memoir “One Day I Will Write About This Place” is an enlightening and dazzling look into East African culture from the eyes of a Kenyan man born with a wondrous spirit and an imaginative eye.
From the opening pages, Wainaina projects his vivid childhood memories into this gamboling narrative, pulling the reader into his cinematic dreamscape.
The opening scene with the author as a young boy is striking because it is so commonplace — a lively soccer game in a dusty yard with his siblings. It becomes quickly evident that Wainaina was a curious boy, a child fascinated by everyday things, spending hours mesmerized by the simplicity of water flowing or sun shining, until it overwhelmed him with emotions. Sounds, odors, shapes were all woven together in a tumult through the hourglass of his life.
His life flows in a linear line, as it does for everyone, but his memoir reads like a feverish slam poem, frenetic and beautiful as it flits between little snippets of memories from his past, all woven together in a silken web of words dancing in a lively breeze.
Alongside the daily trials and tribulations of his own life, Wainaina paints the turbulent tale of an Africa coming into its own, a postcolonial amalgam of tribal entities and young countries eager to fight through the rampant political corruption and find their ways. Coups, apartheid and war are all part of the backdrop of his rambles through his youth.
At times, he writes as though he can’t bring all his thoughts and emotions into a cohesive order, and his streams of consciousness can be difficult to follow. But, even as plot lines are dropped and recovered, he maintains an intense passion for the place from which he came. There are moments of breathtaking beauty and insight.
A massive flock of peachy-pink flamingos dominates his memory of one particular day, and the reader is treated to a vivid depiction of the birds taking flight. “The wind swoops down, God breathes, and across the lake a million flamingos rise, the edges of Lake Nakuru lift, like pink skirts swollen by petticoats, now showing bits of blue panties, and God gasps, the skirts blow higher, the whole lake is blue and the sky is full of circling flamingos.” Touching the reader’s sentiments even further, he tells of this same flock of birds being brought down by a storm, leaving a rain of bloody feathers in the fields and an ache in his heart that he never forgot.
Coming of age, he heads to South Africa to study finance and marketing, more to please his father than because of any desire or interest on his own part. Though displeased with his studies, he discovers a new Africa from that of his childhood. There is vibrancy and an electricity, further awakening his spirit. This new awareness of the world beyond the Kenyan borders plays twofold on his psyche, on one hand reaffirming his interest in observing the world and on the other turning him inward with the realization that his parents desire a different path for him than that which his heart embraces. He struggles through depression, drugs and finding the path of escape from the expectations that hold him back.
What is clear from Wainaina’s writing is that he embraced all his experiences growing up in Africa, absorbing both the good and the bad, the beauty and diversity, the ugliness and the corruption. Writing became the outlet for his hyper-awareness, and the result is his beautiful memoir, a wonderful tribute to the land of his ancestors.
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