Saturday, August 13, 2011

Memoir: One Day I Will Write About This Place by Binyavanga Wainaina

Publisher: Graywolf Press
Date: July 19, 2011
Format: hardback
Acquired: from GoodReads First Look
Read: for review (disclaimer: I received my copy of this book in return for a fair and honest review)
Pages: 253
Reading time: three days

From GoodReads:  Binyavanga Wainaina tumbled through his middle-class Kenyan childhood out of kilter with the world around him. This world came to him as a chaos of loud and colorful sounds: the hair dryers at his mother’s beauty parlor, black mamba bicycle bells, mechanics in Nairobi, the music of Michael Jackson—all punctuated by the infectious laughter of his brother and sister, Jimmy and Ciru. He could fall in with their patterns, but it would take him a while to carve out his own.  In this vivid and compelling debut memoir, Wainaina takes us through his school days, his mother’s religious period, his failed attempt to study in South Africa as a computer programmer, a moving family reunion in Uganda, and his travels around Kenya. The landscape in front of him always claims his main attention, but he also evokes the shifting political scene that unsettles his views on family, tribe, and nationhood. Throughout, reading is his refuge and his solace. And when, in 2002, a writing prize comes through, the door is opened for him to pursue the career that perhaps had been beckoning all along. A series of fascinating international reporting assignments follow. Finally he circles back to a Kenya in the throes of postelection violence and finds he is not the only one questioning the old certainties. 

My review: It took me a while to get into this book. For the first seventy-five pages, I just could not make myself care about Wainaina's life. Fortunately, my interest in the book improved the further I read. Wainaina's young adult years provide the forefront for most of his memoir, with the movements and events in Africa during the 1970s and '80s being a fascinating backdrop. The author provides readers with a younger voice's view of the post-colonial continent and all of its competing elements: pop culture vs. Pentecostal religion, socio-political problems, tribalism, Afrocentrism and pan-Africanism, the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, Western education, refugees, immigration, and more. Wainaina primarily focuses on his period of being out-of-touch with his goals, country, and, at times, family, then moves on to his eventual journey to being a writer. He ends, however, by writing just as much about recent political situations in Kenya as about himself.

Wainaina writes in what I would consider a literary style, so the writing can be lyrical and magnificent at times. I could tell that the words the author used were considered very carefully as he was writing; Wainaina's hard work shows. Every once in a while, though, I found his anecdotes to be somewhat confusing, their meanings ambiguous. I felt like more concrete memoir-writing might have been nice in these places, but all in all, this book turned out to be a wonderful read.

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