Elizabeth Lowry

  • One Day I Will Write about This Place by Binyavanga Wainaina
    Granta, 256 pp, £15.99, November 2011, ISBN 978 1 84708 021 9

In 2005 the Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina, then living in Norwich, wrote a blisteringly satirical essay on ‘How to Write about Africa’. He was responding to Granta’s Africa issue, which he hated, as he later explained, for being ‘populated by every literary bogeyman that any African has ever known’. The issue offered ‘nothing new, no insight, but lots of “reportage” … as if Africa and Africans were not part of the conversation, were not indeed living in England across the road from the Granta office. No, we were “over there”, where brave people in khaki could come and bear witness.’

As the child of enterprising middle-class parents (his mother owned a hair salon in Nakuru, his golf-playing father was the managing director of Pyrethrum Board of Kenya, a farmers’ marketing co-operative), Wainaina was dismayed not to find his own day-to-day experience reflected in most literature about the continent. ‘Among your characters,’ he suggested in ‘How to Write about Africa’,

you must always include The Starving African, who wanders the refugee camp nearly naked, and waits for the benevolence of the West. Her children have flies on their eyelids and pot bellies, and her breasts are flat and empty. She must look utterly helpless. She can have no past, no history; such diversions ruin the dramatic moment. Moans are good. She must never say anything about herself in the dialogue except to speak of her (unspeakable) suffering. Also be sure to include a warm and motherly woman who has a rolling laugh and who is concerned for your wellbeing. Just call her Mama. Her children are all delinquent. These characters should buzz around your main hero, making him look good. Your hero can teach them, bathe them, feed them; he carries lots of babies and has seen Death. Your hero is you (if reportage), or a beautiful, tragic international celebrity/aristocrat who now cares for animals (if fiction).

Taboo subjects when writing about Africa, Wainaina wrote, included ‘ordinary domestic scenes, love between Africans (unless a death is involved), references to African writers or intellectuals’, and ‘mention of school-going children who are not suffering from yaws or Ebola fever or female genital mutilation’.

When his article appeared in Granta, Wainaina had already won the 2002 Caine Prize for African Writing for an autobiographical piece called ‘Discovering Home’, but had yet to publish a book. Sounding off about how not to do it was one thing. When the time came, would he deliver? In One Day I Will Write about This Place, a memoir, Wainaina concentrates on the ordinary subjects he identified so scathingly by their omission from most writing about the continent: the tensions of family life, the ups and downs of school, the difficulty, for an ambitious would-be writer, of finding a voice – all the usual themes of coming-of-age literature, contentious, if at all, only because they sit awkwardly with our stock notions of what African writing should be like. With African notions too, perhaps. If the Western take on Africa often focuses reductively on the continent’s humanitarian problems, the view from the inside all too frequently seems to be that writing about Africa that is not politically motivated is not worth reading.

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