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

A Kenyan writer creates an informative portrait of his homeland.

Photograph: Krista Schlueter

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>3/5

Casual Western observers know three things about Kenya: It's the birthplace of Barack Obama's father, it's home to lots of rangy, impossibly fast distance runners, and it's hot. Most would be hard-pressed to identify what kind of government exists there, or to name the national language. In his new memoir, One Day I Will Write About This Place, author Binyavanga Wainaina—now the director of the Chinua Achebe Center for African Writers and Artists at Bard College—answers these questions and more.

When the reader first encounters Wainaina, he's a bookish, middle-class kid growing up in Kenya during the twilight years of Jomo Kenyatta's presidency. When Kenyatta, one of the Kikuyu people, dies and his vice president assumes power, the days of privilege and security are over for Kikuyu families such as the author's. This is where the story of the young Wainaina, who is something of an outcast (albeit a brilliant one), really begins. Tribal obstacles exile him from top Kenyan schools and set him on the road less traveled—to Uganda and his mother's family; to South Africa, in order to begrudgingly study finance (at which he fails spectacularly); and to London, where he realizes his dream of becoming a real writer when he wins the Caine Prize in African Writing.

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.

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By Binyavanga Wainaina. Graywolf Press, $24.