Conquering the Horse
One Day I Will Write About This Place is a memoir of upheaval and discovery—both personal and political. It’s a coming of age narrative about a young middle-class Kenyan man finding his way as a writer as well as the story of a post-colonial Kenya struggling toward independent nationhood. This memoir is a meditation on liminality, and the resulting change, which, for Binyavanga Wainaina, is often volatile, violent and messy. At times, it’s not even desirable, as one rigged Kenyan election leads to yet another and finally the infamous 2007 ethnic riots that ravaged Nairobi. Written in the present tense with a keen attention to detail, the narrative unfolds in a series of charged, impressionistic moments—both urgent and immediate. This is a book for people who love words; for those who love to linger in swirling, effervescent reveries.
The story begins with the death of Kenyatta, the first independent African president and the birth of Wainaina’s sexuality, which is often graphic, even coarse, but almost always hilarious. Wainaina is a deft architect of his own story, connecting disparate moments and ideas seamlessly. The author slides from erotic moments, to the major historical events of the time and back to the innocence of childhood. In adjacent passages, Wainaina tells us about “Kenyatta lying flat and dead on television…His body is gray and covered with death-snot;” then goes on to elaborate on his central boyhood preoccupation, wanting “to explode like frying Uplands pork sausages. The pouting tip of my cock hurts, swells and trickles against my trousers;” then takes us back to the child, who is fearful that his mother will discover the mess left on the green velvet couch. His solution, as we will come to expect, is precocious but charming: “My eyes are shut when I streak past the dining room.”
These early pages of childhood—his burgeoning sexuality, days spent lingering at his mother’s beauty shop, where “the wedding women are in rollers,” and his relationship to his two siblings—are a celebration of innocence. He writes about his siblings with crisp devotion, describing his sister Ciru as “small and thin and golden. She has sharp elbows, and a smile as clean as a pencil drawing.”
Wainaina’s entry into adulthood is not so carefree. As the nations around Wainaina are plagued by their own shaky statehood and violent turmoil—the Rwandan genocide, Edi Amin’s Uganda and the infamously corrupt regime of Daniel Moi, who “rigged the election, and the economy is sinking”— Wainaina struggles with his own cultural identity.
After Moi abolishes the government-funded university system, which had meant that, “the children of dirt poor peasants could be doctors,” Wainaina must go to university in South Africa. On the eve of his departure he reads Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Decolonizing the Mind, and “vowed to go back to [his] own language. English is the language of the colonizer.” But first he will go to university and “make very good decolonized advertisements for Coca Cola. I will be cool and decolonized.” This ironic insight comes as he gets drunk with his best friend and a Gikuyu woman posing as a German whom he discovers is a fraud: “The curtain of face powder has opened up, and there they are: three small dark tribal marks on each side of her nose, not from the weather, not from work or an accident, three deliberate, immovable lines on her face.”
She is emblematic of his frustrated struggle to find his own place in the world and as such, when he discovers her deception, he is “so angry at her fake attempt to be what she is not. That she fooled me.”
As it will turn out, Wainana will discover that he’s also fooling himself. Within a year of University he drops out of his finance and marketing program and falls into depression, living in a one room “outhouse” in a suburb near the university. Life altering shifts in consciousness for Wainaina are often punctuated by explosive emotion, and so a drunken run in with a gangster, where he pushes his knuckles into the thug’s teeth, becomes the vehicle that rouses him from his funk and he becomes, “hot with life,” a feeling that leaves him transformed. “There are delicious explosions in my head for days—small starbursts, spreading out around my skull, like mother’s kiss.” This moment marks his return to his home and country and the beginning of his career as a writer; a journey that culminates with a coveted literary accolade, the Caine Prize, and a dinner in the House of Lords. Upon receipt of the prize, he “[cries] bad snotty tears” and returns with enough money to start his own literary magazine, Kwani? and launch a successful writing career as a journalist, traveling and writing about Africa whenever possible.
Memoirs, unlike, novels, are not necessarily bound by plot. They can be fueled by bursts and pulses of episodic memory, arranged around some higher theme. True to the form, One Day I Will Write About this Place, is no page turning tattooed dragon, but a pastiche of impressions. Tension is not derived from anticipation but from the eruption of language. Wainaina’s story gallops and jumps through time, place, and memory. The effect, though mostly captivating, sometimes undermines a sense of forward motion, leaving readers disoriented; we wonder where Wainaina is taking us. Like all memoirs, this one walks carefully the line of self-indulgence, lest the author fall into moments of infatuation with his own words, ideas and observations, thus stifling the narrative flow. On occasion, we are left with a case of form trumping function, though it’s entirely possible the author might have intended that we should be as disoriented as he seems to be.
In the close of the book, Wainaina returns to playful adolescent memories: his love of Michael Jackson, Dallas, Dynasty, Falcon Crest. He recalls that “James Last is good music to masturbate to,” while news of President Moi fills the General Service Radio. In another deft maneuver he slips from his boyhood reveries to the radio’s recent news and launches into a potent condemnation of Moi’s torture chambers:
All those years, we thought he was just hapless…Later, we found out there was an underground chamber…designed for torture with Nikolae Ceausescu’s help… While we dream shoulder pad dream, inside those chambers, intellectuals, activists, writers are beaten, waterboarded, testicles are crushed, people are deprived of sleep.
At the memoir’s end, Wainaina brings us back to the beginning, to childhood, where we all started, some of us with the sense that we knew where we were going until we doubted ourselves and were lost. Wainaina uses the Black Stallion, a book he loved, as a closing metaphor in the final pages. Alex, the boy in the story, stuck on an island with
a wild beast that wants to kill him…decides to ride the Black Stallion. Alex has decided to want something impossible. And he wants this impossible thing so much he is prepared to lose everything…We want to conquer the horse. We want that horse more than anything.
Wainaina is the director of the Chinua Achebe Center for African Writers and Artists at Bard College. Given his position, this is a story where the political is inherently personal. He struggles with the politics of his country, often leaving in exasperation—“Fuck Kenya”—only to find himself drawn back to his family and country, time and again. Ever attempting to conquer the horse.
Some Day I Will Write About This Place’s intended audience is not exclusively intellectual or politically minded; however, those with an intimate knowledge or interest in African politics will have the most satisfying reads. Wainaina is not here to give you the back-story on tribal multiplicity; he expects you to have done—or get busy doing—your homework. For the uninitiated, the political dimension of the work might feel inaccessible at times. For the curious, for literary adventurers, it will be an excellent introduction to a vibrant and complex world, and a walk through a crackling panoply of words.