The launch of One Day I Will Write About This Place by the award-winning Kenyan writer, Binyavanga Wainaina, was held at the Old Slave Church in Long Street last week in conjunction with Chimurenga.
In the fading light on a cool summer evening, Wainaina began by reading an extended passage from his long-awaiting memoir, captivating the audience with the lyricism, wry observation and understated wit of his narrative.
UCT academic and poet, Harry Garuba, joined the author in conversation, examining some of the themes in the book and setting a context for the reading. He engaged Wainana in a vibrant discussion on memory, multi-culturalism and the unbeatable force that is white liberals.
The laughter emanating from the church escalated as Wainana conceded that, truly, he has no right to speak for all Africans, and that his own book fails to fully institute the advice he issues in his iconic Granta piece, How to Write about Africa. Additionally, Wainaina spoke to the perceived expectation that he write about post-election violence in Kenya, a matter that did not sit well with his writerly sensibilities.
Garuba opened the evening by describing the memoir as “a coming of age book, a portrait of the artist as a child and as a young man”. According to Garuba, most writers begin their writing careers by writing works of fiction, based on their lives. “This work is strictly a memoir, not a fictionalised biography, nor is it a novel,” said Garuba. “It’s the story of his life. It’s a fascinating story that visits a young boy who is utterly captivated by words. His love of words and language lead him to create alternative worlds, made of the sense of words. For the first few pages when he goes to meet the family much later his family is as ‘solid as fiction’. And yet, the most unreal thing in the world is as fiction.”
Investigating the intersection between the “world of words” and the real world, Wainana spoke about having “a sickness for books” as a child, an addiction that led him to “dubious activities and lying”. He also confessed to reading novels throughout the seven years of he studied, and repeatedly failed, applied statistics at the University of the Transkei. “Not Tolstoy and shit, I read anything…Mills & Boon…I knew, even as a kid, that I would measure people through the frame of the things I’d read.” At the point of being able to engage with his siblings, Wainaina said they proved tolerable, but only when he encountered them between a book and another activity.
Wainaina also spoke about his fascination with language – a concern at the centre of One Day I Will Write About This Place. “When you walk down the streets of Nairobi, you’re bumping into languages…it’s almost as if people are made of languages,” he said. When asked how he envisioned a city as a place of people and various languages, Wainaina described the intellectual challenge he put to himself while writing the book as the creation of “a language of sounds”.
Wainaina concluded with a reflection on the fact that the vast majority of fiction is written by people who speak only one language. He expressed his desire for his memoir to transcend the imaginations of people who inhabit only one language plane. For Wainaina, speaking Swahili, even if occassionally, offers a multiplicity and richness of linguistic experience.
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Liesl Jobson livetweeted the event using #livebooks: