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One Day I Will Write About This Place: A Memoir Hardcover – July 19, 2011
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“Harried reader, I'll save you precious time: skip this review and head directly to the bookstore for Binyavanga Wainaina's stand-up-and-cheer coming-of-age memoir, One Day I Will Write About This Place. Although written by an East African and set in East and Southern Africa, Wainaina's book is not just for Afrophiles or lovers of postcolonial literature. This is a book for anyone who still finds the nourishment of a well-written tale preferable to the empty-calorie jolt of a celebrity confessional or Swedish mystery.” ―Alexandra Fuller, The New York Times Book Review
“[An] astonishing, dreamy memoir. . . . Words quickly become [Wainaina's] life, especially as he grows up to become one of Africa's intellectual leaders, but never does he lose that magical, deeply felt sense of language. And as his readers, neither do we.” ―Oprah.com, Summer Reading List
“One of Kenya's young literary stars.” ―Vanity Fair
“Glimmering, strobe-lit language . . . [One Day I Will Write About This Place] reveal[s] a complex, cosmopolitan African experience too rarely depicted in books.” ―Teju Cole, GQ, "Book of the Year Club"
“Language is clearly the author's preferred mode of structuring the world, but it is also the plaything he uses with idiosyncratic grace and brilliant immediacy to capture 'the scattered, shifting sensations' of memories and emotions long past.” ―Kirkus Reviews, from their "BEA Big Books" issue
“Wainaina paints pictures with words; his writing is reflective and playful and worth lingering over. . . . The Africa evoked is captivating and will be exotic and new to many readers. Wainaina's memoir is by turns funny, sad, hopeful and occasionally cynical, but always engaging. Fanciful abstractions of his environment and instructive tales of African politics combine to give us a fascinating vision of his world.” ―Shelf Awareness
“From an early age, Wainaina's outlook on the world around him was characterized by his vivid imagination, from his vision of the suns rays poking through the grass as 'a thousand tiny suns' to the 'hot snails of thick feeling' that suffuse his body during a hot bath. Throughout it all, he is keenly in tune with those who are outsiders, particularly his mother, a Ugandan who is the subject of xenophobic attacks from her neighbors.” ―The New Republic
“This self-portrait of the artist as a young African man is the story of an outsider coming into his own, but it's Wainaina's capacity for language that sets it apart. Growing up in a place where people use many tongues--Kiswahili, English, Kikuyu and dozens of others--interchangeably serves him well in weaving together lyrical, impressionistic scenes from his past. More than just pretty prose, however, ODIWWATP does justice to the complex place that's much more than the sum of tidy facts unenlightened Westerners may know about it.” ―Time Out New York
“A narrative with its own galloping rhythm. . . . 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.” ―New Pages
“[A] very good, if not remarkable, book. If you are a Western reader it will remind you of two things: 1) Nothing you have ever heard of before; and 2) Dylan Thomas when writing about his own childhood. The language is similarly startling and luminous. . . . This book is important because it brings us news from a part of Kenya seldom heard from. And it brings us a new voice, one that is anthropomorphic, poetic and pointed.” ―Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
About the Author
Binyavanga Wainaina is the founding editor of Kwani?, a leading African literary magazine based in Kenya. He won the 2002 Caine Prize for African Writing, and has written for Vanity Fair, Virginia Quarterly, Granta, and The New York Times. Wainaina directs the Chinua Achebe Center for African Writers and Artists at Bard College.
Top customer reviews
Binyavanga writes a heartfelt account of a middle class, book-loving Kenyan boy's growing up, from the 70s through to the 90s, a riotous period. In beautiful poignant language that evoked for me memories of my own childhood in West Africa,he explores issues of class, religion, politics, family and community, subtly and in an engaging manner.
His travels take him to South Africa and Uganda, broadening our view; his chronicles enriched by his perceptive eye;
I had worried that I would find this book too highbrow, but it is written in a deceptively simple language whose beauty had me catching my breath more than once, such as when he writes of "Congo music with wayward voices, thick as hot honey..."
6 years ago, Wainaina published the sharp satirical Granta piece, "How to Write About Africa" In his book, he presents a picture of an African boy growing up in its rich and varied complexity.
Any criticisms? Sometimes he goes off on an almost other-worldly riff but even then, his writing is so evocative that I couldn't hold it against him
Wainaina has kept his promise
In his book currently flying off the shelves and e-readers we meet, a Kenyan writer understanding Kenyanness. Selling swiftly as one of Oprah's 2011 Summer Reads and ranked 9th most popular memoir on Amazon at this posting, this book is billed as a telling of the stories of `tribal unrest and Western influences on his homeland'. More than that, however, the story he tells, sometimes in rapid-fire fits and starts, becomes a loud voice portraying what many do know about him - writer, traveler and thinker; and what we do not really know very much about - son, student and comrade in culinary exploits and more.
Opening this book, I found out many of the things that I know to be Kenyan were tattooed on its pages. The searing hatred by tribal lines that erupts every other year, the delicate fabric of polite society in Kenya that he translates as the society that says "Who runs things. Who can. Who Can't, and Why not". Many times I could feel the tension running through, indicated in the consistent question Wainaina receives about what is his tribe, really, and why he has such a seemingly strange first name. And before that is answered, it also names the things that we value the most, land, and success - sadly two of the most elusive things for any Kenyan especially today.
In a tale that meanders through Binyavanga's early years, and his coming of writing age, we start to understand why his unending thirst for books led him forward. It is scary that his book writing could have become another tome on Africa edited by development experts for appropriateness. How apt that while we heave a sigh as his life-story starts to take form, we cringe as we understand how writing about Africa, while wearing your African dress and your multilingual manner is so fraught with interference. Such is the path that Wainaina beats through his life, a life he continues to examine and put to paper.
One of the most striking things about this book is that it does not follow the `formulaic' way to write a memoir. There are no full-stops in the development of his thoughts. The characters are as vast and come dangerously close to being illegible. As I read it, I remembered only too well that when you start to write about those who have made a mark in your life in Africa, you have a rich cast of characters to represent.
The author paints detailed portraits of his life, succeeding in extracting our stories and our own Kenyan roots in his wake. A riveting read from cover to cover.
The Kenya described therein is an olio of languages.
“There are many understood ways to address someone: sometime you shift quickly into English; often you speak in a mock Kiswahili, in an ironical tone, simply to indicate that you are not dogmatic about language, that you are quite happy to shift around and find the bandwidth of the person to whom you are speaking.”
The book is like this too. It weaves in little snippets of African languages that give you a feel of time and place. Many words seem to be a mash-up of English and a tribal language.
This is a memoir. It is a coming-of-age story. It is a story of a troubled young man finding his way as writer, initially against his family’s wishes. It is a story of Kenya after the British left and turmoil that ensued. It is a story of a land trying to overcome its tribal traditions, and failing in many ways. It is a tale of a nation attempting to come into the 20th century Western world and not really succeeding with that either. Perhaps my picture of Africa comes for old movies, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and news clips from South Africa. Wainaina paints a much more nuanced picture that comes across as a kaleidoscope of images.
I found myself underling passages as I read. Either because the language was so rich, the imagery so beautiful, or it encapsulated a thought I found meaningful.
“After school, I spend a term at Kenyatta University, doing an education degree and majoring in French and literature in English. I am terrified I will end up becoming a schoolteacher. A fate worse than country music.”
“Everyone is doing the dombolo, a Congolese dance in which your hips (and only your hips) are supposed to move like a ball bearing made of mercury. To do it right, you wiggle your pelvis from side to side while your upper body remains as casual as if your were lunching with Nelson Mandela.”
Some introspective moments:
“I am afraid. If I write, and fail at it, I cannot see what else I will do. Maybe I will write and people will roll their eyes, because I will talk about thirst, and thirst is something people know already, and what I see is only bad shapes that mean nothing.”
“Cloud travel is well and good when you have mastered the landings. I never have. I must live, not dream of living.”
“He sounds tired. I wonder if I will ever manage to survive having children.”
Like a book of poetry this is a book to put down for a while and then pick up and reread.