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One Day I Will Write About This Place

In One Day I Will Write About This Place, Binyavanga Wainaina fulfills the promise of the title by returning to explore the paths he traveled while coming of age in Kenya and South Africa. Along the way, he traces the birth of his own desire to write down what he was experiencing, developing a complex narrative in which the personal and the public, the psychological and the political, are intertwined, sometimes joined harmoniously and at other times pulling in opposite directions.

In One Day I Will Write About This Place, Binyavanga Wainaina fulfills the promise of the title by returning to explore the paths he traveled while coming of age in Kenya and South Africa. Along the way, he traces the birth of his own desire to write down what he was experiencing, developing a complex narrative in which the personal and the public, the psychological and the political, are intertwined, sometimes joined harmoniously and at other times pulling in opposite directions.

Wainaina’s writing is highly impressionistic at first, gradually coalescing into sharper detail as he approaches the present day. It is a canny technique for evoking childhood memories, which at times, are a confused jumble of senses and perception:

Ciru laughs loud, her mouth wide and red. The sound jumps toward me, flapping sheets of sound, but I am lost. Arms and legs and ball are forgotten. The thousand suns are breathing. They inhale, dim and cool into the leaves, and I let myself breathe with them; then they puff light forward and exhale, warming my body.

These sensory images are intercut with stark statement of fact presented with the simple assurance of childhood knowledge:

Kenya is a peace-loving nation.

We are all pulling together, and in school we sing, harambee, which means we are pulling together, like a choir, or tug-of-war. Standing on the podium of the choir, waving a fly whisk, is a conductor, President Kenya-tta, who has red scary eyes and a beard. One day, we are told, Kenyatta’s Mercedes was stuck in the mud, and he shouted harambee, so that people would come and push and push his long Mercedes-Benz out of the mud, so we all push and pull together; we will get the Mercedes out of the mud.

The result is a narrative with its own galloping rhythm: lingering to savor a single night, then leaping suddenly across years, summing up what would usually be called historic events in a single sentence. The author’s use of the present tense throughout emphasizes the effect, drawing us in to his subjective experience of events while also creating a sense of urgent immediacy, as if we were there by his side, seeing what he saw and going where he went.

As a Western reader, one is tempted to apply Fredric Jameson’s simplistic assertion that all personal narrative in “third world texts” is in fact a “national allegory”—that the individual journey is always to be read as an allegory of the post-colonial nation. One could apply this to Wainaina’s text, but in doing so would relinquish most of the author’s intent and be left with an intellectual corpse. The beauty of Wainaina’s writing is its depiction of the individual and his interaction with his surroundings. His discussions of politics and tribalism are all based on his experiences and relations with those he meets, expressed best, perhaps, through his sensitivity for language and the way in which the multiplicity of tongues within Kenya shape personal encounters.

Later in the narrative, particularly after the author has left Kenya for a teaching position in the United States, the subject becomes explicitly political, reflecting the concerns of an engaged adult but also, I think, separation from the bonds which kept him engaged. When violence breaks out following the 2007 elections, he tries to make a break of it: “As soon as the peace agreement was signed, I left. I told myself I was done. Done with too much Kenya. I was going to apply for a green card. Visit for holidays. Save up to help get my family out if necessary. Love from a committed distance.” His resolution did not last long:

At a reading and a talk at Williams College, I embarrassed my self and burst into bad snotty tears when I started to talk about Kenya. There is no tissue. Please, please, all podiums, have tissue!

I am in the habit of Kenya. I can’t, just, leave.

Wainaina is driven by a need to absorb the experiences of those around him and then express them in his unique style, and he is at his best when he is face-to-face with his subject. The result is a rich and vivid depiction of the author’s life and a joy to read.

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