"One Day I Will Write About This Place" is a not very good title for what is 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.
It may also come as a surprise to you that Binyavanga Wainaina's Kenyan middle-class, starvation-free childhood came to him in a plethora of languages -- not just Kiswahili and English, but national tongues. In one stand-alone passage, a 12-year-old Wainaina is watching the televised Kenyan Independence Day ceremony at the National Stadium. In his vision, two sounds of the Gikuyu language spoken by his beautiful, proud nanny, Wambui, whose tribe has been "absorbed," start to run toward each other:
"N starts to agitate standing there in straight colonial stadium lines ... D shakes like an accordion and wriggles across to N; they start to do a [Gikuyu] waltz. Kanu Khartoon Khaki wants them to behave ... stay still and do what Kenya Khaki says ... Wambui dances across the carpet, mouth open, singing her M'Boney M. song, mangled in her Subukia accent ... I close my eyes and let her limbs climb into my mind's living room -- where the ... disco ball throws a thousand nipples of light on me and skirts twirl and glitter with silver."
This is more than the cartoon style morphing of a child's imagination. In one passage, Wainaina manages to convey the leaping energy behind both identity and eros.
Later, after Wainaina has studied his hardest, he's denied entrance to his chosen school because he comes from the wrong tribe. Fortunately, Arap Moi, the sitting president, rearranges things to suit his school teacher "friend" and Wainaina is reinstated.
The only cognate I can think of is getting straight A's all your life and getting slapped in the face for it, only to have that slap rescinded because the college president is dating your aunt.
It is often said that children are closer to the numinous. Rather, I think that children, especially alert ones like Wainaina was, perceive a certain aliveness to things. The sounds and smells of the streets of Nairobi, its good and bad neighborhoods, are characters to him.
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.
Wainaina, whose literary talent brings him to Britain and back several times, never loses his initial love and fascination for his country. He talks about how different tribal languages, including his own, serve different purposes. He has a conversation with an elder he respects who wants to divide all the labor in the country by tribe: This one is strong, so they should do manual labor; this one is clever with their hands, they should make clothes; this one should be musicians. What about our tribe, Wainaina asks. The elder is baffled. He doesn't think of himself as belonging to a "tribe."
"We," he says, "just are." If there's a more telling conversation about the human tendency toward xenophobia, I can't think of one.
Emily Carter is the author of "Glory Goes and Gets Some."