Our World According to Binyavanga Wainaina

Book Review: One Day I Will Write About This Place. By Binyavanga Wainaina. Graywolf Press; 272 pages

Every African thinker should find a copy of Binyavanga Wainaina’s new book, One Day I Will Write about This Place and read it carefully from front to back. Scratch “African,” every thinker should read this enigmatic book by one of the most enigmatic thinkers I have never met. Wainaina entertains and educates with his brilliance and lunacy as displayed in the many exhilarating chapters of this unusual memoir. One is reminded repeatedly that there’s no fine line between brilliance and lunacy; Wainaina is a brilliant lunatic. Let me just say that he has written the memoir that many writers are too chicken to write. This memoir is a delightful and important coming of age book that describes Wainaina’s world (and our world) with riotous clarity and shimmering brilliance. Wainaina pulls no punches, he lays it all out there, self-absorbed warts and all. Indeed there are several issues in this book that would make for robust all-night drunken debates. It is a good thing. Who is Binyavanga Wainaina, you ask? It is now a cliché to say that in 2005 Wainaina wrote the half tongue-in-cheek, angry essay How to Write about Africa  – a seminal piece that confronted the complicated relationship between the West and what is or what should be African literature. In that essay he famously wrote this about the West’s expectations of an African story, “Among your characters you must always include The Starving African, who wanders the refugee camp nearly naked, and waits for the benevolence of the West. Her children have flies on their eyelids and pot bellies, and her breasts are flat and empty. She must look utterly helpless. She can have no past, no history; such diversions ruin the dramatic moment.”

The West and the African Writer: Wainaina’s new book robustly continues the conversation that he started with his essay in 2005. It is a long convoluted story though, the West and African literature. The relationship between African writers and the West has been complicated and immensely frustrating. The Western hand that gives to African writers is the same hand that holds its nose to Africa’s real and, some would say, imagined filth. It is well documented that the West has always been fascinated by the real and alleged mystery of Africa, that other planet. This fascination and the stories it has bred are documented in the travelogues, essays and novels of Western travelers and others like VS Naipaul and Dinesh D’Souza. Wainaina is following in the footsteps of Chinua Achebe who looked Joseph Conrad’s spirit in the eye and called him a thorough-going racist in the essay An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.”  The writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie also lamented this phenomenon by deriding it in a 2009 TED speech, The Danger of the Single Story. And so there is a gathering body of work massed like furious clouds that question the intentions of Western writers and readers who appear to be stirred only by stereotypical stories of Africa, their war torn needy angry place of issues-laden starving peasants who do cute things.

Well, it is complicated. When one studies the works of contemporary African writers as measured against the works of those before them, there appears to be a wide gulf in terms of attitude and focus. Today, crumbling walls and globalization have ironically fueled a self-serving market of literature that mostly serves the West and the African writer, Africa and Africans be damned. The question that comes to mind is this: When did we stop telling our stories; and when did we start selling our stories to the other? Many contemporary writers including those who are crying foul at unflattering depictions of Africa and Africans by the West are just as complicit in the ongoing distortion of our history as I suggested in 2007 in the essay The Balance of our Stories.  That essay was largely influenced by my reading of contemporary writers and Chinua Achebe’s epic essay, Today, the Balance of Stories in his book Home and Exile. The new globalization seems to have brought the worst out of many of our contemporary traditional writers. I say “traditional” because the world still relies on their books as the sole yardstick for how our stories are told. It is true that the book is really the only benchmark we and the West use. But let me propose that there are great stories on the Internet written by new African writers that are being ignored because they do not breathe between book covers. These are awesome stories written by exciting thinkers who are not that needy, or under a certain pressure to produce tales rich with a single story. My point is that there is enough blame to go around. Our writers and thinkers must emulate the behavior that they seek in others. In an essay, In Search of the African Writer, I made the case that the search for the authentic African writer is on in full force – unfortunately by the wrong hunters.

He Who Pays the Piper The West does deserve credit for rescuing most of Africa’s gifted writers and artists from the despair, devastation and abuse that was previously their lot in Africa. We would not have a Nobel Laureate in Wole Soyinka today if he had been allowed to be broken by military goons. Achebe would be dead in record time if he stepped into Africa without the generous medical and material resources at his disposal in the West. There is a long list of African writers rescued like abused puppies by the West, and Wainaina is just one of them.  The plain truth is that Africa is witnessing a renaissance in literature and the arts thanks to the robust patronage of the West. All the prizes of stature are Western or funded by the West. They are prestigious prizes and highly sought after as they should be. However, there is the unfortunate perception, perhaps reality, that any African writer who wishes to have stature and prestige must be published in the West or win Western prizes and grants. It helps that the awards are meticulously organized and the publishing houses produce books of incredibly high quality no matter how mediocre the writer’s thoughts are. The patronage appears to come with a heavy price that Africa can ill afford to pay: Many writers appear to be writing to the test of the expectations of these prizes. I expressed my concerns in 2011 in two essays, The 2011 Caine Prize: How Not to Write about Africa and The Caine Prize and Unintended Consequences. There is a disturbing trend in African literature: Africa’s history and literature are being grossly distorted and unduly influenced by the self-serving narrative-for-rent hawked by a minority contingent of African writers. Using their access to good publishers, their mediocre thoughts hide behind pretty covers to assault Africa’s sensibilities. It sells. Wainaina’s book brings to full convergence the anxieties and tensions around the tortured relationship between the West and African writers. On the one hand, Wainaina acknowledges openly and graciously in that book that it was published thanks to generous funding from a long list of Western donors and corporations like the Minnesota State Arts Board, the National Endowment for the Arts, Target stores, Wells Fargo, the College of St Benedict’s. On the other hand, Wainaina is almost contemptuous of the interventions of the West in his fortunes; sometimes he gives the impression that he suffers from a culture of entitlement. Indeed if I was to offer any criticism of this lush narrative it is that Wainaina’s analysis conveniently excludes the role of the African writer in fomenting (for profit) the stereotyping of Africa in the enthusiastic hawking of the single story.

Here is Wainaina describing how he got invited to the Caine Prize ceremony in which he was the winner: “Dear Caine Prize Shortlisted Guy, called Binya… vanga. Do you want to come to England, and have dinner in the House of Lords, and do readings, and go to the Bodleian Library for a dinner of many courses, with wine, and all of London’s literati? At this dinner, you will find out if Baroness Somebody Important will give you fifteen thousand dollars in cash, and even if she doesn’t, you should come because being shortlisted and having dinner at the House of Lords and such is like a big deal, a really big deal. Will you come? Oh yes. I go. I win the Caine Prize, and cry, bad snotty tears, and come back with some money. A group of writers and I start a magazine, called Kwani?—which means so what?” (p. 189). Wainaina’s engagement with his patrons in this book comes across as rude, there is a cloying sense of entitlement; the smirk for once comes across as contrived, just like a few of the stories that have won the Caine prize. There have been seething ripples of discontent from the West. The book has justifiably received favorable reviews; however the Economist has led the pack in skewering Wainaina here with mean bear claws: “Too many African writers are co-opted by the American creative-writing scene only to be reduced by prevailing navel-gazing. Separately, much of the African writing culture that remains on the continent, including Kwani?, is propped up with cash from the Western donors that African writers purport to excoriate.”  The Economist is irritated by this uppity Kenyan who dares to bite the dainty fingers that he routinely feeds from whenever he is hungry. The piper seeks to dictate the tune. I expressed my sentiments regarding the Economist’s review of Wainaina’s memoir in a July 2011 essay, The Empire Talks Back.

The World According to Wainaina So what does Wainaina have to say in his memoir? It is typically Wainainaesque – an in-your-face take me as I wish to present me attitude. He is very open about his tortured relationship with the West. He takes their money – and he tortures them. There is a sense of entitlement here that on the surface is galling but then we must have a conversation about how and why things are the way they are. The Economist does not; the magazine shows neither empathy nor compassion.  We really need indigenous arts critics to give substance to our stories. The bottom line is that Wainaina has written an incredibly important book that is in danger of being consigned to the dung heap of books to be mulched simply because Western patrons do not like what he has to say. That is not right. We should also have a conversation about the evolving role of the book as a medium of expression in an increasingly digital world.  Wainaina makes it very clear at the beginning of the book that several portions of the book have been previously published including a travel story, the genesis of this book, published as far back as 1997. Several of the chapters are reformulated versions of pieces that have appeared in various analog and digital publications, some freely available on the Internet; a point which a number of critics have made about the book. Technology fans the sense of urgency for the thinker to share. Whereas a few decades ago the book was the sole medium for sharing and archival, today it is becoming more and more one for archival and not a very good one at that. The issues that Wainaina addresses in the book had a sense of immediacy and he was astute enough to use the Internet to disseminate his ideas. I have no problem with that. It helps that he was able to collate them together in a coherent (well, not always) and thrilling memoir. Saying that it is a collection of old stories misses the point of the struggle between the old and the new. This is not the same as repackaging and recycling material from previous books.

What is there to love about the book? There is brilliance and hyper-energy in abundance. There is darkness told with startling clarity and casualness. All of this is delivered with vivid, scintillating prose poetry. With an imagination on steroids, sometimes with a bit of magic realism thrown in, Wainaina weaves an affecting loving tale of a warm childhood in a middle class home in Africa. It is not contrived. It is very true. And it happened in Africa. What a concept. Wainaina’s world is always exploding into a thousand pieces and rearranging themselves again into new masquerade-forms. The book is filled with deep insights. Steeped in the oral tradition of his ancestors the book as a medium of expression struggled to contain his genius and his demons. This memoir showcases a mighty dream smashed in the sun into a thousand nightmare-pieces; your mama’s favorite china broken by your fumbling hands. Except that there is a higher clown in charge of the drunken tremor of your hands. For young Wainaina the world is a dazzling dizzy delightful frustrating puzzle. He pulls few punches. If he wants to masturbate, he says so, if he wants to shit, he says so. He doesn’t sugar coat it with over editing. This is a story told with a fierce muscular, feverish, almost malarial urgency. You must read this book, it is hard to explain.

Anxieties, Rage and the Mimicry The book holds loosely connected stories, but it works; it is like flipping furiously through a dark mind of many issues. Wainaina has class issues and he is haunted by his academic performance. Wainaina is an outlier; Africa does not support outliers. He exposes the mimicry from hell that Africa has become; everything is measured against a white Western standard. He lets it all hang out – all his issues.  He hints at significant health issues that were perhaps compounded by a hard drinking hard charging life. It is also a conversation about the notion of exile in the age of Facebook. There is delightful nonsense about marbles, almost childlike in its brilliance: “The world you see undulates with many parallel troughs—a million mental alleys. Every new day, you throw your marbles out of your mind and let your feet and arms and shoulders follow, and soon some marbles nestle loudly into the grooves and run along with authority and precision, directed by you, with increasing boldness. Each marble is a whole little round version of you. Like the suns.”(p 10) In turns hilarious and tragic, Wainaina charts the confusion-babel of a million clashing cultures, “You will all sit stunned and watch as your nation—which has broadband and a well-ironed army and a brand-new private school that looks exactly like Hogwarts castle in Harry Potter—is taken over by young men with sharpened machetes and poisoned bows and arrows. As you sit in your living rooms, they will take over your main highway, pull people out of cars and cut their heads off. In Nairobi, they will lift up your railway, the original spine, and start to dismantle it.” (p 245)

Wainaina’s book reminds me of a youth and childhood spent reading voraciously. You applaud when you read stuff like this: “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.” (p 30) Wainaina is most adorable as a twelve-year old approaching teenage hood looking for other boys all over the world in books. It is perhaps a good thing that the military still kept the Internet a dark spirit from Wainaina; we would have lost him. He is all over the place physically and many times he forgets where he is as he is texting the world manically. This globalization will bring out the beast in us, apologies Fela. Sometimes he comes across as a black expatriate among the African countries he visits (thanks to Western grants!). He is fascinated by the contents of an open-air bra stall and he goes haywire ruminating on the various types – and uses of bras. It is amusing, the amount of energy he expends on this. Wainaina shows us how the savagery of destitution diminishes all of humanity – one poor person at a time. “But the money ran out, and only the first phase of the school was completed. When it rains we are overwhelmed with mud. Our toilets block and spill over every week. The showers have collapsed. There are strange animals breeding in unfinished dorms. Many classrooms have no windows.”  (p. 80).  In narrating the near nightmare that was his youth, Wainaina stubbornly tells his story. This is an angry book, delicious angry, a most unusual book, one that gives the middle finger to the tyranny of convention. No wonder the owners of orthodoxy are royally teed. It is touching, how he documents his otherness, the uniqueness that others judge as frailties. He has a gift for seeing profundity in the banal. He has been to magical strange places where the skies rain baby pink flamingos. This is who we are. Live with it, world. His descriptions of how systems, structures, cultures decay in Kenya are exquisite. It is a world where children of the dispossessed become nannies to the children of the haves. It is a war out there- for children. Servants make love and live in rooms that were once stables for horses. This is not who we once were. Listening to him, colonialism destroyed Kenya pretty much – and all of Black Africa. We should be angry, the book howls. You read Wainaina’s book and you want to wrap your arm around him and go WTF happened to you, man?

Cynicism and exile and loss In Wainaina’s world, caricatures are in abundance, they go well with the vat of cynicism about the human condition. Racism is just one of many strands of prejudice, bigotry and plain hate that the book unravels; there is also the locust invasion of the new church and the new music. He leads us by the hand to be living witnesses to the yearning for an imagined desired humanity. It is comical and tragic in its “we eat ice cream” mimicry: “You would not believe that not five hundred meters from here are roads and shops, and skyscrapers and cool restaurants that are playing the music of noiseless elevators, and serving the food of quiet electric mixers and plastic fridge containers. Burgers and Coke. Pizza.” (p 77) Wainaina’s memoir is for me the most contemporary analysis of the notion – and reality of exile. Wainaina pulls this off brilliantly even though he mentions the word exile only three times in the book, and not in reference to his own condition. Kenya and America are two main characters in the book, with Africa in the background, breathing colorful societies, people and issues. In the process Wainaina offers one of the best descriptions of Lagos I have ever read: “We drive into Lagos Island. And the city changes: thirty-story warrens, and caves, and leaning, cramped buildings clawing for space, and everywhere people: crisp and ironed in tailored clothes in all colors all speeding toward the stationary bicycle future… you can see them, like weaver birds, goods laid up below the bridge, climbing up. I am waiting to see somebody claw up the side of the expressway, shouting a sales pitch jubilantly, arm raised high and laughing as blood drips down his nails.” (p. 203) Wainaina’s book makes the poignant point that exile is a spiritual thing; the absence of walls does not make it go away. Brilliant.

Wainaina’s cynical eyes sometimes train on Africa with devastating accuracy. Fascinating is the cynicism, the superciliousness, and sometimes the sense of entitlement. Why is this so? A snarling parochialism overcomes him towards the end of the book. Kenya is on his mind a lot. Kenya never leaves him even though it is clear he has left Kenya. Desiccated opinions are let out to dry in the halls of mean opinions in the hopeless hope that they will become fresh again. The new exile does that to you. It is not a perfect book. For one thing, the editing was not the greatest and I found the research sloppy.  In truth, the poor editing makes it an uneven book in quality. Because Wainaina does not provide sources for his analyses, some of the stories have the feel of opinionated anecdotes. He should have provided the sources for his research. Opinions and observations, virtually all cynical become substitutes for substantive informative analysis. To be fair, Wainaina’s attitude as overbearing as it is sometimes, provides ample room for debate, unfortunately mostly the bar room type that ends in brawls, broken bottles, broken heads and broken egos. Wainaina’s cynical eye is on overdrive and towards the end of the book it gets old. Wainaina is not the same person that started the book. In adulthood he becomes jaded and angry. He looks at Africa no longer with childlike wonder and joy but with despair. He immerses himself in a culture of despair from which he never returns. But then for many of us Africans caught in the new dispensation, Wainaina is us. We recoil only because the ugliness we see in the mirror is us. I salute Wainaina for jamming his mirror to my narcissistic face. I did not like everything I saw, but I needed to see it. The Economist is right on one point: We need to be also proactive and prospective, not merely wallow in the despair of our condition. In the end however, we must ask ourselves the questions: So what? What does this all mean? What next? It is not enough to describe what is, we must vision a desired state and work actively towards actualizing it. We seem to be long on prose and poetry and assigning blame to the other. We are woefully short on accepting any responsibility for our own glaring shortcomings. That is the real tragedy of our condition as Africans. For too long it has been chic to neglect our issues and engage the West from a position of profound weakness. Fine prose never won battles, especially when the war is unnecessary. We should stop writing about this place called Africa and do something about her mess. For once.

Related referenced links

Binyavanga Wainaina: How to Write about Africa

Chinua Achebe: An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.”

Chimamanda Adichie 2009 TED speech: The danger of the single story.

Ikhide R. Ikheloa: The Balance of our Stories.

Ikhide R. Ikheloa: In Search of the African Writer

Ikhide R. Ikheloa: The 2011 Caine Prize: How Not to Write about Africa

Ikhide R. Ikheloa: The Caine Prize and Unintended Consequences.

The Economist: Memoir of Kenya: Look ahead, not back. Binyavanga Wainaina remembers

Ikhide R. Ikheloa: The Empire Talks Back.